I just graduated yesterday from the University of Notre Dame Alliance for Catholic Education program. These past two years have been, by far, the most challenging experience of my life. But I’ve been having trouble thinking about it all, or making sense of what has happened to me. Yet graduations are times for memory and telling people all the wonderful things you have learned and all the amazing ways you have changed.
During our commencement retreat this past week, Father Lou DelFra, our ACE chaplain, gave us a beautiful homily to help us process our experience. For our retreat, he chose one of my favorite Gospel readings, the story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus.
As you know, the two bewildered disciples are leaving Jerusalem, overcome by the horrific events they have just experienced. The Lord was crucified. All of their hopes have been dashed. They are struggling to interpret their experience of the past three years with Jesus. When the Lord, whom they do not recognize, begins walking with them, they are shocked to discover that He hasn’t heard the latest news. He begins to interpret these events for them in terms of the Scriptures, and, fascinated, they beg him to stay with them for the night. Yet they only finally recognize him “in the breaking of the bread.”
Father Lou reminded all of us that our experience on retreat, which involved the famous ACE “paired walks,” was very much like that of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. We were likewise trying to make sense of all that we have experienced, and perhaps we were having some trouble doing that.
Because for every triumphant teaching story I can tell you, there are a dozen more that do not involve visible triumph. For every miracle I saw, there were a dozen more crucifixions that had no apparent resurrection. Let’s be real here. One of my students was involved in some kind of attempted murder, and is on the run, and I still don’t know what happened to him. There was another I struggled with my entire first year, who suffered terribly from psychological challenges, whom I was never really able to reach and who is gone now. I don’t know what will happen to her either. There are kids who failed my class and who, despite my efforts, did not really seem to improve over the two years. And then there are the kids I know I did not try hard enough with, who slipped through the cracks.
As much as graduation is about our accomplishments in ACE, and the stories we love to tell each other, and the students we love to remember, it’s also about all the failures and the situations we would rather not recall.
But Father Lou’s message to us was simple—don’t be afraid to remember them. Don’t be afraid, over these next weeks, months, and years, to try to make sense of it all. Father Lou seemed strangely confident that we would find Christ there if we looked for Him—that we would see He had been walking with us the whole time, even when our “eyes were prevented from recognizing him.”
I love that in Pope Francis (and Pope Benedict’s) encyclical, they express how closely tied together faith and memory are:
Yet this remembrance is not fixed on past events but, as the memory of a promise, it becomes capable of opening up the future, shedding light on the path to be taken. We see how faith, as remembrance of the future, memoria futuri, is thus closely bound up with hope. (9, Ch 1)
Faith as memory is therefore linked to hope that sheds “light on the path to be taken.” Father Lou, as well, seemed to suggest that if we had the courage to remember our experiences—all of them, the good and the bad—that we would find Him there and He would tell us where to go next.
The two disciples on the road to Emmaus tried to remember and understand. In the Eucharist, their eyes were opened and Christ showed them the real meaning of what had happened—and thus they were able to run back to Jerusalem to share their memories with the others. And the Church has been doing this ever since. She shares her memory of Jesus with us, and because Jesus gave her the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist (“do this in memory of me”), we can trust her memory of Him.
Obviously my thoughts are still forming on all of this, so I’ll just end with the beautiful words of the encyclical that I recognize not only as applying to the universal faith, but to my own personal faith that He has been there with me in ACE—even if I still cannot recognize Him.
Language itself, the words by which we make sense of our lives and the world around us, comes to us from others, preserved in the living memory of others. Self-knowledge is only possible when we share in a greater memory. The same thing holds true for faith, which brings human understanding to its fullness. Faith’s past, that act of Jesus’ love which brought new life to the world, comes down to us through the memory of others — witnesses — and is kept alive in that one remembering subject which is the Church. The Church is a Mother who teaches us to speak the language of faith. Saint John brings this out in his Gospel by closely uniting faith and memory and associating both with the working of the Holy Spirit, who, as Jesus says, “will remind you of all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26). The love which is the Holy Spirit and which dwells in the Church unites every age and makes us contemporaries of Jesus, thus guiding us along our pilgrimage of faith. (38)
Sometimes life is like a poem. (Read: mysterious and really difficult to interpret). Two experiences can work like two images juxtaposed by the poet, working off of each other, challenging each other, challenging you. Like this oft-quoted line by Emily: “I heard a Fly Buzz–when I Died.” Strangely, she pushes two images together, a commonplace one and the ultimate one: a fly buzzing and death. You have to deal with that weird juxtaposition throughout the rest of the poem.
Anyway, being an English teacher/English major, I’ve been thinking about an interesting juxtaposition that happened to me, and juxtapositions within that larger juxtaposition.
The other day I went to a Chicago White Sox game. Sitting behind me and my friends were two couples, probably in their late 20’s or early 30’s, and inevitably I heard most of their conversations during the game. Eventually they began discussing their future children and whether or not they wanted to send them to Catholic school, comparing notes on their own various Catholic school and public school experiences, and joking about whether the expense was worth it. (Little did they know that four Catholic school teachers were sitting in front of them, but, tempted as we were, we didn’t turn around). They talked about how their years of education had funded all the rich mosaics of “St. Pete’s” in the Vatican. They recalled the crazy, strict morality of Catholic school, but the liberal immorality of their Catholic school friends. “They did worse stuff than my public school buddies!”
Then one of them said,
“But I mean, the Catholic Church is a big joke, right?”
“Yeah. I mean, I’m Catholic, but I’m not Catholic.”
I almost turned around. Not because I was angry, though. And not because I wanted to. I didn’t want to.
But I should have said something.
That was image number one. It already includes lots of strange juxtapositions within itself.
Then, yesterday, I was sitting outside reading and enjoying the beauty of the Notre Dame campus. A man came up to me and asked me if I worked for the music department, or if I knew anything about it. And then he noticed my book: The Return of the King. And that started a long conversation. Apparently he had applied to the ACE program years ago, but was not accepted ended up doing a different teaching program in Baltimore. Teaching was not for him, however, and he asked me very kindly about my own experience. There he was, and there I was.
As always, I was surprised to find myself engaging in a rather intense conversation with a complete stranger.
Somehow our conversation turned to faith, and it turns out that he had discerned the priesthood and visited various monasteries, but about ten years ago had had a conversion experience in which he had joined one of the pre-Vatican II groups of Catholics who believe that the Catholic Church, during Vatican II, had apostatized.
He talked a lot about the Third Secret of Fatima, and how the Vatican had been covering it up. How it’s easy to tell that the Lucia presented by the Church is clearly not the “real” Lucia. How the events of the book of Revelation are occurring as we speak. How it makes sense that the Anti-Christ would come, not seeking political power as some predict, but rather spiritual power, leading souls away from Christ by the very institution that was originally supposed to lead them to Him. How the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon because she has been unfaithful to Christ.
I told him politely that that’s what some Protestants call us, too.
He gestured at the basilica, and said how he never goes in there. But he comes to Notre Dame frequently, and enjoys the library, where he has looked at many old (Pre-Vatican II) documents of the Church. He told me how strange it was.
“That must be very painful,” I said.
He agreed. “It is very beautiful here,” he said. “I do go to the Grotto sometimes. Do you have a devotion to Our Lady?” I told him that I did. He prays the rosary daily, all fifteen decades, but of course not the Luminous Mysteries, the ones introduced by Pope John Paul II. He walks around campus and talks to people, and it is so strange for him because “ten years ago I was like you.”
The church he goes to an hour away belongs to the Society of St. Pius X. But he, and others, actually don’t belong to that society, but a group that split off from that society.
I said that it was strange, because that’s what seems to happen so often with the Protestant Churches, too.
He asked me a lot of questions. He suggested a website for me to look at if I wanted to learn more. He was very kind, and very polite. Twice he apologized for interrupting my reading, and gave me many opportunities to close the conversation if I wanted to. But I liked talking to him.
At the end, I asked him to pray for me and I told him I would pray for him, too.
“What intention do you want me to pray for?” he asked.
I was a little surprised, but then I said, “For the unity of Christ’s Church. I know you and I disagree about what that means, and maybe we’ll end up praying for opposite things, but that’s okay.”
He said that he would.
He said goodbye and went to get a drink of water, because the air was very humid. “Nothing like in Louisiana, I expect!” he said, referring to my time there.
I thought about him kneeling at the Grotto to pray even though it’s part of a university belonging to the Church he believes abandoned the true faith. Lighting a candle with us. Juxtaposition, no?
I admire him because even though I don’t think he’s right, I think he really is trying to do what is right.
And I thought about the people behind me at the baseball game, and this man, and how hard it is to be Catholic, and how so many people struggle with what that means. How I struggle with what that means. And how easy it would be to roll one’s eyes at the people who think that the Church is a just a big “joke,” and others who think she is the “whore of Babylon.” And the people who think of the Church as some sort of corporation, making all sorts of human decisions. The Church of the old white men oppressing women, people who are gay, minorities. The big rich Vatican Church ignoring the cry of the poor. The out of touch Church. The “spirit of Vatican II” Church who moves with the times and who has abandoned tradition. The traditional Church who refuses to move with the times and clings to tradition.
Chesterton also noticed such juxtapositions of images that did not quite fit, that challenged each other. And he does a good job reminding us that the result of juxtaposition, whether it is in a poem or in your life, isn’t about striking a “happy medium,” or even Aristotle’s “golden mean,” exactly. Life and poems are too complicated for that.
As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind—the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons. No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than another demonstrated with equal clearness that it was much too far to the west. No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness.
[…] It must be understood that I did not conclude hastily that the accusations were false or the accusers fools. I simply deduced that Christianity must be something even weirder and wickeder than they made out. A thing might have these two opposite vices; but it must be a rather queer thing if it did. A man might be too fat in one place and too thin in another; but he would be an odd shape. At this point my thoughts were only of the odd shape of the Christian religion; I did not allege any odd shape in the rationalistic mind.
[…] And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still thunderbolt. There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation. Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape.
[…] The Church swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom—that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.