To its many other distinctions, Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart may now add its recognition as the most beautiful college church in the country, in celebration of which I offer this brief report of something glimpsed there after this morning’s 11:30 Mass.
Dismissed as usual, and, as usual, admonished to go in peace, glorifying God by our lives, most of our variegated congregation had departed for quickly for lunch and the resumption of the workday, but one of us lingered noticeably.
A bespectacled, grey-haired and broadly smiling man, he was dressed in worn but evidently well laundered work clothes. His appearance and demeanor suggested that he was both developmentally disabled and mentally unbalanced, but everything about him suggested that he was as happy as a man could be. He shifted his weight from right foot to left, rocking and crooning and beaming. Clutched in his left hand was a garishly colored toy contraption of wheels, strings and spinning beads, and hovering at his right elbow, a companion caretaker, a relative, perhaps, or an aide from a local nursing home, was gently urging him to withdraw from the church.
But the demented man was having none of it. He ignored the quiet pleas, leaned on the Basilica’s baptismal fount as familiarly as a regular might lean on the bar of a neighborhood tavern, and locked his eyes lovingly on the golden gothic tabernacle above the main altar. Softly, he began to sing a melody of gibberish—broken off now and then with delighted laughter—but a song as reverent as any a monastic choir has ever sung. Those of us who filed shyly past him were unable to suppress our own smiles, from which wonder had driven all derision. I wonder if he’s still signing there as I write.
John Baptiste Vianney, the 18th century saint better known by his parochial nickname, the Curé of Ars, liked to tell a story about an old French peasant who used to loiter in his rural parish church for hours at a time. He finally asked the old man why he sat there so idle all day. “I look at Him, He looks at me, and we are happy together,” the idler said.
The design, paintings, stained glass, gold leaf and shafts of numinous light in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart are beautiful, certainly, but by visiting the Love of his life there to sing a halfwit psalm this morning, a holy man has burnished that beauty to a whole new brightness.