Drinking and the Culture of Sexual Assault

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Vision and Student Engagement

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Editors’ note: This is the first of a series that we will be doing on examining the culture that makes possible sex assault not only at Notre Dame but throughout the United States. 

Editors’ note 2.0 (September 1, 2015): This piece offers one narrative-based perspective on the culture of sexual assault that permeates college campuses. It is directed fundamentally to men, inviting them to recognize their own culpability is fostering a culture in which assault is possible. Future posts, occurring throughout the fall of 2015, will attend more to the situations that foster this culture. These pieces, presently being assembled through dialogue among Notre Dame undergraduates and those involved in residence life both here and beyond will deal with power dynamics among men and women; the role of pornography in misshaping sexual desire; the problems of the hook-up and party culture in forming assumptions about sexual activity among undergraduates that leave women in particular vulnerable to assault; and, what it means to discuss “healing” in terms of these assaults.  

Some classes had yet to meet twice when those of us at the University of Notre Dame received the first email of the year reporting an alleged sexual assault in a campus residence hall.  Two days later, another email arrived, this time announcing two possible crimes at once: one was described as “non-consensual sexual contact” and the other was the second reported assault of the week.  To be honest, I sort of forgot about emails like this over the course of the summer.  Even still, when I opened the first one I wasn’t immediately shocked because, for better or worse, the email looked quite a lot like all the other ones I received last year regarding similar incidences.  It has almost become standard in a college environment like ours to exchange these emails every few weeks, sometimes with campus or local news stories to follow, and sometimes not.  If not for an unclear decision made under the influence of alcohol more than 15 years ago, I could have been the reason for a similar report.

I was a freshman living in an undergraduate residence hall at the very same institution at which I now teach.  On some weekend night in the middle of the unending winter months, some of my Zahm Hall dorm-mates were hosting a party in the 1A section.  These guys were very good friends with a group of girls that all the rest of us thought were incredibly attractive (we used different language then).  I don’t remember what we drank that night, but I do know that we consumed plenty.  I was drunk but still had some of my wits about me, while Mandy (not her real name) was probably less aware of herself than I was.

I don’t know how or why I ended up back in my own room—148 Zahm Hall—in the B-section of the first floor while the A-section party was still going strong, but I do know that Mandy ended up back in there with me.  I remember sitting next to each other on the floor next, in between our cheap couch and our cheap TV, and I remember the surprise that, despite what I would have expected, Mandy was coming on to me.

The reason I know that I still had some of my wits about me is because I remember that very moment in clear and vivid terms.  I remember what I felt and what she looked like—that is, I remember that she was as stunning as she ever even as I was dimly aware that she was not fully herself.  Noticing that about her made me feel some kind of inner pause or some stir of conscience or maybe just fleeting fear.  All the same, I also felt excitement.  This was the kind of moment with the sort of young woman that, in some unspoken manner, I wanted to find myself in.  And there I was, and there she was; we were in my room and she was willing, or at least it seemed so.  And then something happened.  I really don’t know if or how I made this decision, but instead of responding in kind to what I perceived as her advance, I took her to her friends and I went back to mine.

I want to be clear about this: though my memory of that encounter is clear, whatever decision I made or instinct I followed was not at all clear to me.  It was not a conscious act of virtue.  It was also not the first time I had been drunk with a girl who was also drunk, but it may have been the first time I noticed the difference in how we were functioning, cognizant of the situational power differential between us.

I want to be clear about something else, too: though I probably went in to that night vaguely or maybe even actively hoping that, by some turn of luck, I would find myself in a situation very much like the one I found myself in, I know for certain that I had no intention of taking advantage of anyone.  I don’t think that thought has ever crossed my mind, thanks be to God.  All the same, had I acted otherwise, I would have had a very hard time convincing myself that I had not taken advantage of her in that situation.  This is the realm of sexual assault, or at least “non-consensual sexual contact.”

I don’t know why I didn’t act otherwise: all the momentum was going in that direction. And yet some momentary flash of recognition passed before me, and for some reason I didn’t ignore it.  But for that, I might have been the reason for one of those emails I received this week.  (The story of my moral growth since then is another story.)

I have observed that when the “issue” of sexual assault on college campuses bubbles up because of some new incident or report or set of statistics, some will point to alcohol and the culture that builds up around it, while others will say that predators are predators and alcohol isn’t the reason they act the way they do.  While research does support the claim that the majority of assaults are perpetrated by a small group of (mostly) men, the environment that makes many of these assaults possible is just the sort of environment my friends and I created at that dorm party.  If only I had had a couple more shots or if only someone who wouldn’t respond to that flash of recognition the way I had was in that room with Mandy instead of me, the night could have ended very differently.

This isn’t only about alcohol impairing my judgment and it certainly doesn’t mean that Mandy was responsible for the situation we found ourselves in—what it means is that that entire night carried the implicit danger of what almost happened.  The line between implicit and explicit in that case was an unwilled thought in the mind of a drunken 19 year-old freshman guy.  It is still hard for me to believe I responded to that thought rather than to what I at least perceived to be Mandy’s invitation.

Here’s my point: those who persist in trying to separate the sexual assault “issue” on college campuses from the alcohol issue are dead wrong.  If this were an academic article, I would try to veil my opinion in some jargon that we academics are trained to assume so that I could back-peddle a bit if need be to give those who disagree with me some room to operate—that’s just part of the game.  Well, this isn’t an academic issue and nothing about this is a game.

So, with all due respect to those who think that sexual assaults and alcohol are separate issues, it has come to the point where all of us involved in higher education are responsible for this culture where section parties in campus residence halls become the occasions for potential or actual sexual assaults.  Even when there is not an outright party, this is still a matter of underage or heavy drinking, or both, on campus and off campus.  I do not lay this at the feet of the administration: we all bear responsibility.  Faculty and staff bear the responsibility for addressing this issue head on, along with the administration, rather than letting it fall back out of view in between emails or academic terms.  Students bear the responsibility of cultivating the kind of environment for themselves and their peers where the likelihood of such acts is dramatically reduced.  That means taking alcohol out of the equation.  This does not just pertain to the partiers; it also pertains to those of us who allow this culture to continue.

In the most direct terms, however, the greatest responsibility belongs to those who continue to create, actively contribute to, or engage in the parties and other events that are the occasions for these crimes against the law and against human dignity.  To those students who think they can manage this issue, I say that while it may very well be true that you can hold your liquor, that you would not assault anyone, and that you stand against sexual assault, it is also true that you have a responsibility to take away the most common conditions in which these assaults occur, as do I.  You have a responsibility to the community of which you are a part and to the students who may otherwise become victims or perpetrators or something in between because of the culture you endorse.  Cutting against that particular culture will certainly cost you some really fun nights.  So be it.

Now in my mid-thirties, I would absolutely choose four years of okay college nights for my younger self if it meant avoiding one really fun night where I contributed to an environment that made a sexual assault more likely.

Augustine and the “Sacrament” of Teaching

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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At the beginning of the semester, I often consider what it means to teach theology to students. I know that my primary responsibility is to facilitate inquiry into the theological tradition of the Church. And I do this. But, after five years of teaching, I can’t help but notice that something more happens in the activity of teaching. That, I grow fond of the students. That both of us seem to get more out of being in one another’s presence, of studying together, than we would if we were to read the material alone. As we study these texts together, we encounter the great questions of existence, and we are often reduced to silence before the mystery of divine love that we discover. That I find myself uttering prayers for their needs, for their safety while traveling, for the angst that comes upon them as they change majors (once again), as their parents are overcome with illness, as they experience the pain of homesickness.

AugustineTeachingIn such moments, I often think of the gift of my vocation as a teacher. And perhaps no one had a more robust sense of the “sacramental” gift of teaching than Augustine of Hippo whose feast day we celebrate. In his Teaching Christianity, the doctor of grace writes:

“…the human condition would be wretched indeed if God appeared unwilling to minister his word to human beings through human agency. It has been said, ‘For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are (1 Cor. 3:17): how could that be true if God did not make divine utterances from his human temple but broadcast direct from heaven or through angels the learning that he wished to be passed on to mankind? Moreover, there would be no way for love, which ties people together in the bonds of unity, to make souls overflow and as it were intermingle with each other, if human beings learned nothing from other humans” (Prologue 6-7).

God has given the vocation of teaching to humanity not simply so that we can share information with one another. Rather, teaching is integral to the incarnation itself in which the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The theological classroom is the great space for this incarnation to unfold whereby students encounter anew divine love mediated through text and practice alike.

This fact, for Augustine, fundamentally changes what it means for the teacher at whatever level to exercise his or her ministry. Especially for those of us teaching in higher education, there is often a sense among us that the bestowal of basic knowledge is beneath us. That it is only doctoral or master’s students who are worth receiving our instruction. Yet, in his Instructing Beginners in Faith, Augustine speaks to the discouraged teacher and deacon Deogratias on this very point:

One reason for discouragement then may be that our hearer does not grasp our insight, and so we are compelled to come down as it were from the pinnacles of thought and delay over each slow syllable in the plains far below. And it worries us how what is imbibed by the mind in one swift draught takes long and convoluted by-ways as it comes to expression on our lips of flesh, and, because our utterance differs greatly from our insight, we find that speaking palls and we would rather remain silent (I.10.15).

DiscouragedStudentsThose of us who have taught theology at any level know this moment. In our office, we have assembled a remarkable lesson plan; we have drunk deeply of the wisdom of Hildegard, of Theresa, of Irenaeus, of Hans urs von Balthasar, of the book of Job. We enter class and instead of discovering the same delight in our students that occurred in us as we contemplated the texts we are teaching, we see only boredom. We see misunderstanding. We see an incapacity to grasp, to understand, perhaps even to care.

Yet, Augustine continues:

If this is the reason for our discouragement, then we should consider what has earlier been proposed to us by him who has shown us an example that we might follow in his steps (1 Pt 2:21). For, however far removed our spoken words are from the liveliness of our understanding, much greater still is the distance between our mortal flesh and his equality with God. And yet, even when he was in that state of equality, he emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, and the words that follow, down to even death on a cross (Phil 2:6-8). What reason did he have for doing this other than to become weak for the weak in order to gain the weak (1 Cor 9:22)?

To teach Christianity is necessarily to take on a Christological shape to one’s pedagogy. The act of teaching the most basic material is itself an encounter with Christ’s self-emptying love. The teacher who does not know this, who fails to grasp his or her sacramental identity as imaging Christ’s self-giving love is not properly teaching the material. Christian love necessitates delighting in the difficult cases, in moments of misunderstanding. For, it is here that the teacher is invited to perform anew God’s love for the human person.

It is then particularly apt that we begin each semester together by celebrating the feast of Augustine. For this great doctor of the Church reminds us that the vocation of the theologian at whatever level is not merely sophisticated research. But, the activity of embodying in one’s very teaching the enfleshment of the Word. To teach the tradition of the Church in such a way that one sacramentally embodies the heart of God’s love for the human person.

To be a theological educator at whatever level is indeed a lofty vocation; one that requires us to descend and descend and descend into the way of love. Let us pray for the intercession of Augustine in this work as we commence our academic year.


On Tinder and the Project of Human Character

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Vision and Student Engagement

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The 2010 film The Social Network opens with Mark Zuckerberg—the now ubiquitous founder and CEO of Facebook—sitting in a bar across the table from his college girlfriend. From the get-go, he’s peculiar and awkward whereas she seems self-aware and grounded. Even so, he’s engaged and, in a strange way, engaging. What he’s involved in is something we all recognize: it’s a date. At least he is until his hyperactive mind leads him well beyond insensitivity and rudeness, so that, in true Aaron Sorkin fashion, the whole scene is flipped upside down within a few minutes of dialogue and he is abruptly dumped.

TinderI remembered this scene as I was reading a stunning new piece on Tinder and the hookup culture that has been making its way through social media over the past week.  Reading about the evolution of the dating scene in New York City and on selected college campuses—or, even better, the apocalypse of that dating scene—it is interesting to remember how Sorkin’s biopic of Zuckerberg begins and ends.  In the film’s closing scene, the man whom we first saw on a date in a crowded bar is sitting alone in a conference room waiting for his ex-girlfriend to accept his friend request on Facebook.  This is, of course, a finely crafted portrait of the man who created the most powerful tool for social connection the world has ever seen: in Sorkin’s eyes, Zuckerberg’s very act of creation was concomitant with his loss of intimacy.  This social network isolates, Sorkin seems to say. And as one of the college students in the Tinder article puts it, “[we have all] grown up on social media [so] we don’t know how to talk to each other face-to-face. You form your first impression based off Facebook rather than forming a connection with someone, so you’re, like, forming your connection with their profile.”

According to the Tinder article, the marketplace of digital personae that Facebook established has morphed into streamlined online shopping for sexual partners.  Tinder is predicated on the desire to keep options open and minimize self-investment. According to this logic, who would want to be stuck in a commitment to eating at a lesser restaurant if you are able to get a table at a better restaurant at the last minute? All reservations are provisional, as are all commitments.  “You can’t be stuck in one line… There’s always something better,” reasoned a twenty-something investment banker.

With Tinder, that better something—or that more of something—may come with the next swipe, or the one after that.  So rather than investing a whole night in dating one person or in hanging out at one bar, you can browse countless potential partners in your vicinity.  The payoff, for some, is that “I can go to my phone right now and no doubt I can find someone I can have sex with this evening.”  Why risk ruining the night with a failed date? Just swipe.

While Sorkin’s depiction of Zuckerberg is certainly open to critique, his underlying point is sound: over time, the manner in which you interact with others changes who you are.  This is nothing new, though the mechanisms for training one in such habits are more accessible and more addictive than ever.  Moreover, this isn’t just about dating.  The lost art of dating is representative of a more widespread diminishment of the importance of human character.

features-profile-createThe issue of human character is something to which I have become especially attuned over the course of the past few years as I have built and taught a course at Notre Dame with my colleague Colleen Moore, entitled “The Character Project”.  As David Brooks argues in his recent book The Road to Character (Random House, 2015), we have come to abide in a culture where we all seem to possess “vague moral aspirations” but are generally devoid of any real “strategy to build character.”  We become expert curators of projected personality traits that contribute to a composite persona, making us akin to something like “little brand mangers”, where the brand is who we appear to be.  The separation between who one appears to be and who one actually is is often blurred and quite subtle, especially without the right categories for judging truth from near-truth or apparent-truth or, as Harry Frankfurt calls it in his famous essay on the subject, “bullshit”.  Crafting profile appearances to interact with other profile appearances—both online and off—doesn’t result from a series of rational or intentional decisions; rather, it results from a whole regimen of formative practices that sharpen some attributes while dulling others.  Swiping between the images of potential partners on a screen is one such practice: it sharpens the consumer instinct and dulls the capacity for—and even the desire for—the challenges of face-to-face human interactions where things may or may not go well. You know, like on dates.

This issue demands much more attention than what I am able to provide here. Nevertheless, I do want to point to three areas that I think serve as small antidotes to the dulling of human character and the sterilizing effects that modern practices like Tinder browsing have upon the capacity for intimacy.  I propose that the art of dating—and the art of developing human character, for that matter—requires and will benefit from the recovery of the art of conversation, the art of responsible speech, and the art of commitment.

In our Character Project course, we place a high premium on conversation.  Along with and in fact as part of the theological education in which we are involved, the students share a meal together every week, they talk about moral issues in pairs, and they gather together in small discussion groups based upon the Notre Dame residence halls in which they live (there are four halls represented in each class, by design).  We take time to talk to each other.  I don’t allow any cell phones in the classroom, which means that from the moment they walk in the room to the moment they leave, they are supposed to be as attentive as possible to the other 25 people in the room with them.  If you were to walk into one of the campus dining halls on any given night, you will find tables full of friends and acquaintances, many of whom, at one point or another, will disengage from the table conversation to gaze into their phones.  I’ve seen entire table’s worth of students looking into their devices at once, all alone together.  Then again, I’ve seen the same thing with families out to dinner at restaurants, as well as in my own living room.  Recovering the art of conversation begins with creating the conditions for conversation to emerge, for the challenges to conversation to set in (lulls, misaligned interests, fatigue), and for the skills of a conversationalist to be practiced and become habitual.

Related to but distinct from the art of conversation is the art of responsible speech.  As I have written elsewhere, irresponsible speech is “speech for which no one is personally responsible,” and which thus allows a person to say whatever they want seemingly without consequence, at least to themselves.  Speaking responsibly requires a lot more work and involves a lot more risk.  Practicing responsible speech is one of the learning objectives of the Character Project.  For example, when we study Thomas Aquinas on the question of grace and human agency, we not only attend to the content of what he says but also the way in which he constructs his argument.  When he, in the Summa, presents objections to his proposition in clear and concise terms, a model is offered for how to listen well and seek to understand others.  When he appeals to the tradition, he provides a model for allowing one’s own understanding to be enriched.  And when he offers his own response, he does at least two things at once: first, he elevates the richness of the question, refusing to give in to flat responses that are as simple as a bland ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  Second, and at the same time, he takes responsibility for a view.  He takes up the hard task of saying “I reply that…”  He stakes himself on what he says.  If what he says is wrong, then he is wrong and he will have to adjust accordingly.  When he turns in the end to respond to the objections he previously recited, he is taking responsibility for the consequences of his view and for explaining it to his interlocutors, whether they be real or imagined.  By contrast, Aaron Sorkin seems to have constructed the first 30 minutes or so of The Social Network as a narrative of increasingly irresponsible speech with a broader and broader reach.

SDHFinally, the recovery of the art of commitment is probably the most difficult and the most important dimension in recovering the art both of dating and of developing human character.  To return to Tinder, the entire edifice is constructed upon not just ease of access to potential partners but, as the article emphasizes, the virtually unfettered ability to keep options open.  There is no way around the certain fact that investing time and attention in one event or one place or one person will, inevitably, come at the expense of not being elsewhere with others.  Dinner tables filled with iPhone gazers and weekend nights narrated through Snapchat Stories are, among other things, symptomatic of the now standard Fear of Missing Out. The art of commitment develops with small strokes, beginning with sticking to commitments for projects or groups or plans you’ve made, or at least being honest about why you cannot or will not follow through when such occasions arise.  With a little prodding my students will admit to what is also true about me: when I have to get out of a commitment, I typically at least shape the explanation in such a way as to absolve myself of responsibility.  If I were honest, there are times when I just choose not to honor my commitments.  Even more, we become practiced in making commitments in advance without really considering how exactly we will follow through.  An activities fair on a college campus is as good a place as any to observe this behavior.  Practicing commitment in small matters creates the habits that contribute to becoming the kind of person who makes commitments intentionally and honors them, accepting the costs along the way.

The Tinder article is a rather dark piece, both as alluded to here and in itself. At the same time, though, the interviewees’ notes of regret and dissatisfaction registered throughout are strangely reassuring. If the “dating apocalypse” (and all it symbolizes) is troubling to readers, then what would be even more troubling would be if no one seemed to care, if everyone was satisfied with it. Yet, it seems like even those most caught up in the habitual browsing and swiping and even casual sex are, in some way, unsettled.  It really is reminiscent of that picture of Sorkin’s Zuckerberg sitting alone, longing for intimacy, but seemingly stripped of the capacity for it.  Sometimes, the good news exists as simple and confused desires, which endure even when everything seems bent against them.  Whether in classrooms, on college campuses, or at city bars, building up small cultures with particular practices that respond to those deep-seated desires—for intimacy, for companionship, for being someone—is the personal and communal work of reclaiming the importance of human character and bringing dating back from the brink.

The Musical Milieu of Mystery of Justin Roberts

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Those who are parents of young children have spent many hours watching, listening, and reading mediocre music, television, and books. Religious media for children in particular is often the worst offender. Such media reduces Christian practice to a series of moral maxims and vague awareness of divinity in the world, playing into what Christian Smith has called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Phil Vischer, a creator of Veggie Tales, in fact has apologized for his part in creating such media:

I looked back at the previous 10 years and realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, “Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so,” or “Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!” But that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality. . . .

And that was such a huge shift for me from the American Christian ideal. We’re drinking a cocktail that’s a mix of the Protestant work ethic, the American dream, and the gospel. And we’ve intertwined them so completely that we can’t tell them apart anymore. Our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make all your dreams come true. It’s the Oprah god. So I had to peel that apart. I realized I’m not supposed to be pursuing impact, I’m supposed to be pursuing God. And when I pursue God I will have exactly as much impact as He wants me to have.

Veggie Tales and other forms of religious media for children (including far too many children bibles) reduces the mystery of what is revealed in Jesus Christ to maxims that one graduates from as you mature toward adulthood. Perhaps, a nostalgia may bring you back toward watching such media when you’re older. But, fundamentally, religion becomes a  school of elementary morals, not a milieu of mystery.

JustinRobertsThus, on a recent road trip with a toddler, it was a gift to discover the music of Justin Roberts. Justin Roberts is a children’s singer and songwriter, who also happens to have studied theology at the University of Chicago. His two-disc collection of songs from the Old Testament and New Testament (Why Not Sea Monsters) is an invitation to enter into the mystery of salvation not simply for children but for adults as well. This collection begins with a whimsical treatment of the narrative of creation in which God calls into existence all of the created order (and I do mean all of it). Yet, the climax of the tune is the creation of men and women in the image and likeness of God:

On the sixth day
Why not a vision of us
someone to reflect all this stuff
All the sparks and the seas and the birds and the trees…

Here, creation becomes a stunning moment in which God does not simply make us but shares the entirety of divine life with human beings. When we say that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, it is precisely this that is meant. Roberts introduces the narrative of creation as a divine self-gift in such a way that the adult and child listener alike is moved toward contemplative worship.

Although not written by Roberts (but Craig Wright), the collection on the Old Testament also includes a selection from the Book of Job (a children’s record that deals with Job…I know).

Where were you when I set the earth’s foundations?/Where were you when I set the stars in place?/and they all sang together/and they all sang together.

JobThis piece in particular represents the pedagogy of mystery that pervades every song, inviting the listener not toward reading the Scriptures as moralism first and foremost but immersion into the mystery of God. That human life is oriented first and foremost toward gratitude for God’s gracious divine love poured out over the created order. This song once again reaches its pinnacle in the creation of humanity:

Where were you when I crafted you a language?/And where were you when I filled your mind with words?/so you could cry, so you could sing/sprinkle names on everything/so you could laugh, tell a joke/imagine towers wreathed with smoke/so you could live and die with dignity/and shake your fist with poetry/imagining creation from the first?

This passage demonstrates that listening to Roberts’ religious music is not simply a pleasant diversion for children on car trips. Rather, it’s to find yourself contemplating the narrative of salvation anew as an adult, restoring wonder to a de-sanctified cosmos. Jesus’ miracles are described without providing a scientific explanation or attempting to find the “moral” of the story. His parables are presented without offering a definitive meaning but presented in all their contemplative wonder. Christianity is restored to its place as an encounter.

Unfortunately, it is extraordinarily difficult to find these Roberts albums (Amazon lists them both as well over $65.00). Nonetheless, they should be re-issued and be required listening for all those involved in the biblical and liturgical formation of not simply children but homilists and composers alike. The poetry of these songs should in some sense shame our homilists and composers, who too often fail to evoke the same contemplative wonder in their own crafting of words and music. If children can delight in such poetry, as offered by Roberts, why not our entire assemblies?

At the very least, making these albums more accessible will make for more pleasant car trips with toddlers for adults. And they may even offer to families an occasion to have a conversation about the very meaning of existence itself, at the same time that they clap and sing. That would be a very good thing.



Class of 2019: Go to Mass

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Today, the University of Notre Dame holds its opening of the school year Mass. Participating in this Mass since the year 2000, I have noticed a subtle trend among our student body; namely, that they are increasingly absent from this opening school year liturgy. Yet, their absence from this Mass is by no means unique. Declining Mass attendance among millennials is a persistent concern of campus ministry at Notre Dame (and the Church in general). Christian Smith, in his Young Catholic America notes that 83% of 18-23 year olds attend Mass less than once a week. And one does not need sociological data alone to notice the declining attendance of students at the Eucharist. Last year, my wife overhead two first year students, who both noted that they were looking forward to no longer attending Sunday Mass (though, they were open to weekday Masses where food was served).

Thus, if I were given an opportunity to offer a moment of exhortation to the class of 2019 at Notre Dame, it would relatively simple. Go to Mass. Indeed, I recognize there are many reasons students cease going to Mass. They may be exerting independence from their family, an opportunity to make their own way now that they no longer dwell under the roofs of their parents. They may be bristling against some of the teachings of the Church; and college is an occasion to experiment whether one actually wants to remain Catholic. Attending Mass may simply disappear as a practice within one’s life as the workload of a college education becomes too much. Time for prayer gives way to studying for exams or grabbing a quick bite to eat. Soon habits are formed, which leads one away from the Eucharistic assembly.

Yet, it is precisely in the midst of beginning one’s college career that we most need the Eucharist. We need to be present at the altar on a regular basis so that we can offer to the risen Lord the sorrows and joys that accompany the earliest days of college. We need the familiar ritual of the Eucharistic Prayer in the midst of a life in turmoil. We need to practice gratitude for all that we receive each day as a student, all that we are learning.

In the end, the heart of a Catholic education is nothing less than wisdom. The wisdom that we seek is not merely success in life; it is not becoming famous for our business acumen or our research abilities. It is the wisdom of beatitude, of a life oriented toward seeking the God who is love.

Exert your new found independence, then, by eating new foods and switching majors every couple of weeks; not skipping the Eucharist. Bring your questions about the Church to your courses in theology, to your rector or local priest. But let your questions echo inside the Church, in the context of a life of worship. And don’t let study and pursuit of perfection serve as an obstacle to your primary vocation. To become a sacrifice of praise to the living God.

In other words, go to Mass.

The Coronation of Mary: Noblesse oblige

Danielle Peters-cropDanielle M. Peters, S.T.D.

Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt, Sisters of Mary

Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame

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On August 22, the octave of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, the liturgical calendar calls to mind the Queenship of Mary. Invoking Mary as Queen is one of the many devotional practices attributed to Our Lady “from the earliest ages of the Catholic Church…, whether in time of triumph or more especially in time of crisis” (Pius XII, Encyclical Ad Caeli Reginam, 1954, 1). Iconographers have depicted Mary’s royal dignity starting in the twelfth century on when monarchies and therefore kings and queens were rampant. Artists have captured the scene of Mary’s arrival in heaven where Christ, sometimes accompanied by God the Father and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, places a crown on her head. Another imaginative rendering shows Christ and Mary enthroned next to each other, wearing matching crowns, an indication of the Queen Mother’s influence in the kingdom of God. Incredible, yet true: a human being, a woman, reigns with Christ, the King! Noblesse oblige!

The French idiom—03a_altarliterally meaning nobility obliges—is a reminder that genuine nobility extends beyond privileges requiring of members of this status to adopt a way of living and acting in conformity with their dignity. Accordingly, Our Lady’s crown points to her solicitude and intercession for her people to the King. The New Testament does not explicitly refer to Mary of Nazareth as queen, although there are some indirect and subtle allusions to her regal rank. In the Gospel of St. Luke Elizabeth calls Mary “blessed among women” (Lk 1:42) and Mary herself prophesied in her Magnificat that “all generations will call me blessed” (Lk 1:45).

While some may dismiss such self-appraisal as arrogant and deceitful, we may be able to detect in Mary’s Song a fundamental law in God’s kingdom: “He exalts the lowly” (Lk 1:52)! As handmaid of the Lord, God promotes her to royalty. But as queen she remains God’s humble handmaid! We are reminded of Jesus’ instruction: “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Mt 20:26). There we have the heavenly scale of values to determine authentic nobility! Noblesse oblige!

Champaigne_visitationThe concluding invocations of the Litany of Loreto praise Mary as Queen, a title attributed to her as early as the second century by Origen († 253/254) and Ephrem the Syrian († 373). Marian antiphons such as the Salve Regina, Regina coeli and Ave Regina coelorum, as well as the fifth glorious mystery of the rosary underscore Mary’s royal dignity which originates in her creation: Queen, conceived without original sin! Mary’s royal dignity reaches its crowning achievement when at the end of her days God took her to heaven with body and soul: Queen assumed into Heaven! Noblesse oblige!

Usually we consider the crowning achievement of a life to be a onetime event exceeding all expectations! It may be a public award, a successful business transaction, a dream wedding, or the arrival of a longed for baby. What was Mary’s crowning achievement? Answers to this question may vary; however, one valid response certainly would be Mary’s vocation to become the Mother of Christ, the King of heaven and earth! It had to be a royal experience! Just imagine: for nine months “He whom the world cannot contain, shut Himself up within her womb” (Gradual of the Solemnity of the Mother of God, January 1)! During this sublime time of expectation, as the intimacy with the fruit of her womb increased, Mary’s fiat and Magnificat undoubtedly became the solid rock foundation of her life. birth-of-jesusYet, it wasn’t all that regal! At the latest in Bethlehem, Mary learned that the kingdom of this infant King is not from this world. There was no palace or splendid robe; no royal household or carriage; no golden crown or throne! In fact, the crowning achievement of His life consisted in the throne of the cross and a crown of thorns! From crib to cross Mary faithfully followed Him on this royal way. Her receptivity for the Almighty and His wish enabled her to freely renounce whatever contradicted the divine plan, even if her heart was pierced by a sword. Mary’s crowning achievement consisted therefore in her complete self-emptying in solidarity with and conformity to her Son’s surrender to the Father. By offering her dearest possession she was given in return a new motherhood in the salvific economy of grace (cf. John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater, 23). “In this way Mary became the first of those who, serving Christ also in others, with humility and patience lead their brothers and sisters to that King whom to serve is to reign, and she fully obtained that state of royal freedom proper to Christ’s disciples: to serve means to reign (ibid., 41; cf. LG 33)! Noblesse oblige!

Vatican II underscores that in her perfection, Mary as the eschatological icon shines forth “as a sign of sure hope and solace for the pilgrim People of God” (LG 68)! Hence, Mary was the first of those who “will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12; cf. 1 Pet 5:4; Rev 2:10). The crown in this case reaches beyond a person’s mere achievements: it is an undeserved reward! It is a gift of Love we cannot merit to the extent that it is given to us! Mary’s royal way as “Queen of All Saints” is challenge and call for all of us! Noblesse oblige!

“Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God” (St. Leo the Great, Sermo 22 in nat. Dom., 3: PL 54,192C. Cf. CCC 1691).

The Christmas homily ofmary_crowned St. Leo the Great of course alludes to the unmerited gift of baptism through which we have become “a royal priesthood” (cf. Rev 5:10; 1 Pt. 2:9). By participation in Christ’s royal mission we are summoned, like Mary, to manifest in daily life the dignity imparted on us. This sublime nobility calls for a suitable self-conquest which lends us wings and inspires a royal conduct, even if at times we feel lowly and miserable! Do we wear our spiritual crown mindful of what it represents? Is our thinking, willing and loving influenced by a royal feeling for life? Noblesse oblige!

As we celebrate Mary’s crowning achievement let us remember:

  • God crowned Mary because she mastered all of life’s situations in a regal way!
  • Christians throughout the centuries have crowned her in recognition of her powerful intercession before the throne of God!
  • Even the angels ungrudgingly bow before their Queen!
  • I, too, am called to crown her with a life worthy of such a Mother. Noblesse oblige!

Political Speech, Bull*$!%, and Human Dignity

Jessica Keating

Jessica Keating, M.Div.
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

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A couple of weeks ago I suggested that decadence is a disease of the eye that trains us to see and un-see reality in a particular way. Decadence forms and distorts our vision, not unlike the way cataracts distort and blur one’s physical capacity to see. At this point, I would like to suggest that the widespread use of ‘bullshit’ in public discourse functions as decadence’s corollary with regard to speech. Indeed, decadence and ‘bullshit’ are one another’s helpmates, each mutually reinforcing and cultivating a profound lack of concern for truth.

What precisely is ‘bullshit?’ In his masterful book, On Bullshit, Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt interrogates the term and finds our current definitions wanting. He concludes that ‘bullshit’ is a programmatic form of speech which is unconcerned with truth. On BullshitFrankfurt explains that the proliferation of ‘bullshit’ is a profoundly problematic aspect in much of modern public discourse, which has largely dismissed the very possibility that one can accurately identify the truth. Such a position could lead to total silence, the refusal to make any assertion about the way things are. Yet, modern public discourse has not fallen silent; in fact, there seems to be more to say than ever. Though we have largely eschewed the possibility of accessing truth beyond the subjective and personal, we continue to make “assertions that purport to describe the way things are” (62).

Herein lies the essence of ‘bullshit.’ It is not simply that the ‘bullshitter’ plays fast and loose with the truth; it is rather that the ‘bullshitter’ refuses to submit “to the constraints which the endeavor to provide an accurate representation of reality imposes” (32). Unlike a liar who must believe he knows the truth in order lie, the ‘bullshitter’ engages in a program that is less deliberative, one that is wholly unconcerned with truth. Indeed, ‘bullshit’ is not the limited insertion of a falsehood the way a lie is; it is a program of discourse in which one “is prepared, so far as required, to fake the context as well” (52). It is a form of speaking that sells a vision of reality which, though it may sometimes be true or sometimes be false, is wholly unconcerned with truth.

As Frankfurt notes, ‘bullshit’ exists in the tension of discipline with regard technique and laxity with regard to correctness (23). In few places do we find more paradigmatic instances of bullshit than in advertising and in politics, insofar as the latter increasingly takes on the form of the former.

Thank you for smokingAdvertising campaigns for tobacco provide one such classic example, so paradigmatic, in fact, they made a movie about it called Thank you for Smoking. In the film we see that tobacco lobbyists never quite lie to the public, but neither do they submit the discipline of accurately representing reality. It isn’t as though the men and women crafting cigarette campaigns fail to get the facts right, it is that they filter them in order to create an attractive aura around smoking. They are prepared to “fake the context.” In short, whether what they say is true or false is irrelevant. What matters is selling cigarettes. According to Frankfurt, it is the ‘bullshitter’s’ disregard for the truth that makes him a greater enemy to truth than the liar.

Political speech often functions in the modality of ‘bullshit’ for two reasons. First, politicians are frequently required to speak about issues that exceed their knowledge. This will, Frankfurt observes, will nearly always produce ‘bullshit’ (63). Secondly, because American politics are irreducibly ideological, politicians can never be too concerned with truth or they won’t be re-elected. They must be more nearly concerned with pandering to voter opinion, power, and money.

Those concerned with issues of human dignity ought to be particularly concerned with the expansion of ‘bullshit’ in political 17trump-web-master675discourse. Like so much political speech on both sides of the aisle, particularly political speech that has to do so intimately with human dignity, both parties demonstrate an utter lack of concern for the truth. Republicans often provide classic instances of ‘bullshit’ when speaking about immigration reform and policies that make it easier to welcome life (see Carly Fiorna’s opposition to government mandated paid parental leave or anytime Donald Trump speaks about immigration reform), while Democrats provide us with equally paradigmatic examples when speaking of abortion.

A particularly timely example of ‘bullshit’ came two weeks ago, when Massachusetts’s Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a rhetorically impassioned defense of Planned Parenthood on the Senate floor. Though the Senate vote was motivated by the recent release of videos showing possible illegal activity on the part of Planned Parenthood executives and doctors, Senator Warren’s speech was more nearly a defense of abortion as such.

The following morning, clips of her speech popped up all over social media with tags branding her a feminist hero. She was touted in Salon as a “badass” for “slamming” the GOP, her two pro-life Democrat colleagues, and by extension anyone who has the temerity to disagree with her.

Recall that unlike lying, ‘bullshit’ is not so much a discrete intervention as it is an overarching program. Yet, concrete examples of ‘bullshit’ are discernable, and Senator Warren’s Planned Parenthood apologia provides us with at least two arcs of ‘bullshit.’

Insofar she is unconcerned with submitting to the kind of
constraints that would provide an accurate representation of reality,
Warren acts in a way similar to the advertiser, the pundit, the lobbyist, and the pollster. She engages in misdirection and deflection, employs information in order to try to sell us a vision of the way things are, a vision that is unconstrained by the demands of truth.

From her use of statistics to her underlying, though unstated (and, indeed, unimportant for the ‘bullshitter’) duel claim that it is better Elizabeth Warrenfor some human beings not to exist or that to be a feminist requires embracing the systematic program of killing the unborn, Ms. Warren’s speech provides us with an excellent example of bullshit. Her argument turns entirely on the rhetorical sincerity, sincerity which itself is rendered bullshit by its very presumption to give an account of reality unconstrained by correctness. In fact, Ms. Warren, like many of her colleagues, trades on a kind of antirealism that pervades modernity, insisting that we cannot reliably access objective reality or know how things really are (Frankfurt, 64).

Ms. Warren rehearses the standard Planned Parenthood tropes, citing the 2.7 million Americans served annually at Planned Parenthood facilities, as well as the 3% statistic, which asserts that abortion only comprises a minuscule fraction of the organization’s overall health care services. Senator Warren isn’t lying by citing these statistics, but she also isn’t concerned with the overall context or correctness of these figures. In fact, these pieces of information are carefully chosen, while others left are out in order to sell Planned Parenthood. Ms. Warren fails to account for statistical data which demonstrates that federally recognized Community Health Centers dwarf Planned Parenthood in terms of numbers served. CHCs provide care to over 21 million Americans a year, offer more robust health care services, and yet receive a fraction of the federal funding that Planned Parenthood receives.

She also goes onto assert that Americans, and American women Beyond the Abortion Warsmore specifically, are sick of the attack on women’s health care
(read: abortion rights). Though it is easy enough to imagine that Americans are, indeed, sick of the vitriolic ways abortion is discussed in the public sphere, Ms. Warren’s assertion seems more nearly to imply that Americans favor liberal access to abortion. This is not, however, correct. As Charles Camosy demonstrates in Beyond the Abortion Wars. Americans are trending pro-life, and women are more likely than men to regard abortion as morally wrong (3, 110-129).

Warren further implies that access to cancer screenings and birth control are somehow irrevocably tied to unfettered access to abortion, and claims that any attempt to unlink abortion from other health services constitutes an attack on women. Abortion is simply the collateral damage we must put up with in order to preserve access to pap smears, cancer screenings, and condoms.

She even wonders aloud if her Republican colleagues had fallen on their heads and woken up thinking it was 1950 or 1890. This sound bite has positioned Ms. Warren as a feminist voice, leading the way against the misogynistic backwardness of anyone who dares to question the practices of Planned Parenthood. But hers is a ‘bullshit’ kind of feminism because it operates only according to ideology (albeit, sincerely held) of freedom of choice. Such an adherence to an ideological context actually attenuates one’s ability to see evidence to the contrary. It makes it impossible to change one’s mind.

Like many elite feminists, Warren does not deeply engage questions such as whether abortion actually solves any of the economic, social, or educational problems that are used to legitimate the practice or how free the choice actually is.

Speaker of the House John Boehner addresses the 113th Congress in the Capitol in WashingtonIn fact, as Camosy astutely observes, 64% of women seeking abortions in the United States feel pressured to do so (126). For this, as well as other reasons, there are feminist scholars who propose that because abortion actually functions within a social matrix of consumerism and power, the rhetoric of choice that surrounds abortion is not merely disingenuous, but functions to benefit and sustain the elite and powerful (121-6).

Why, then, did Senator Warren fail to account for this? Precisely because her intervention on the Senate floor was not intended to represent reality accurately or to engage in a careful or nuanced conversation about abortion. Her purpose is to sell an account of reality and a vision of feminism that creates and sustains a perceived need for Planned Parenthood and legitimates its practices.

The practice of ‘bullshitting’ also has long-term effects. It increasingly weakening one’s capacity to attend to things as they actually are (Frankfurt, 60). The habit of ‘bullshitting,’ which is often the mode in which politics functions, actually renders reality more difficult to know because its sustained in political discourse surrounding any number of human dignity issues, from abortion, to paid parental leave, to immigration reform, to euthanasia, actually corrodes our ability to know the truth and therefore the value of the human person.

Another Benedictine Option

Daniella Zsupan-Jerome

Assistant Professor of Liturgy, Catechesis and Evangelization, Loyola Institute for Ministry, Loyola University New Orleans
Oblate of St. Joseph Abbey, Covington, Louisiana

Fra Angelio, St. Benedict (1442)

Have you heard of the Benedict Option? I admit using this as a conversation starter at many recent gatherings where the Church thinks. More often, the answer is no, whereupon I take the pleasure of providing a quick summary and then launching into an animated exposition of my thoughts on the matter. Sometimes, the answer is yes, especially among those who keep an eye on the conversation on First Things, The American Conservative, or Crisis Magazine. In either case, I delight in a chance for a conversation, and God bless those who have been my gracious captive audience.

Benedictine spirituality is close to my heart. I learned my love for the liturgy from the monks at Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and came away with an M.A. and a deep impression that I continue to unpack a decade later. I am now an oblate of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Covington, Louisiana, a place that has become a spiritual home since I moved to this part of the country. I read Michael Casey, Esther De Waal, Kathleen Norris. I reflect on the Rule, and let my imagination fly with the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great. In this tradition I have found treasure—deep wisdom for a simple, ordinary way of life that is focused on Christ and is intentional about community. Because of all this, when I became aware of the Benedict Option, I experienced a complex reaction of intrigue, delight, some suspicion, and an urge to be protective of anything that bears the name of Benedict to be authentically Benedictine. My exuberance about the topic at conferences is a sign that I continue to process this reaction with whomever will listen to me (thank you, dear reader).

The Benedict Option is a term coined by Rod Dreher, who, reflecting on the great and worthy question of the relationship between faith and culture, turned to Alasdair MacIntyre’s famous call for another St. Benedict in the conclusion of his classic After Virtue (1981).   In Dreher’s original take on the Benedict Option, he envisions a “communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life.” His two examples to illustrate what this can look like are the lay communities gathering and growing around Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma and the Eagle River Orthodox community near Anchorage. Insisting that they are not separatists and that they are lacking formal structure, Dreher asserts that these families simply live drawn to community inspired by the old monastic way of life.

Since late 2013 when Dreher published his vision, the Benedict Option (BenOp) has generated much discussion, debate and elaboration. Dreher is working on a book, and there is a conference on the topic scheduled for the fall of 2015 at Georgetown University. Inspired by the BenOp, creative thinkers have pointed to the Jeremiah Option, the Escriva Option, the Elder Zosima Option, and the Francis Option, just to name a few. To withdraw or not to withdraw from culture can be the appropriate subtitle to a large part of the debate and discussion (maybe even to Dreher’s forthcoming book?), and this too is certainly a worthwhile question. But I wonder if so much focus on this aspect of Benedict’s narrative conceals some of the other, profound and life-giving wisdom we can gather from this spiritual tradition for living in the world today.   Withdrawal from the world does not make the BenOp Benedictine. It simply makes it a form of homage to the fourth century stirrings of Christian monasticism in the Egyptian desert, and to abbas and ammas who withdrew to the wilderness to live their faith. When it comes to the question of faith and culture, far more salient for me is exploring the dynamics of the alternative community, the coenobium, created by Benedict and numerous others before him (here we have room for the Pachomian Option, the Basilian Option, the Augustinian Option, and the Option of the Master for anyone interested in developing these!). By looking to why and how monastic communities manage to live together as an evangelical witness bears wisdom far beyond the walls of the monastery. At the most elementary level, in their witness we encounter a group of people who have committed to being a Christ centered community, come what may. In our age we experience divisions like gashes on the flesh of society, whether about race, sexual orientation, immigration, religious freedom, or a variety of political allegiances. Discussion around these cut and slice the other, whoever that is. It seems that in this cultural context, commitment to community is something we ought to listen to, especially when thinking about the question of faith and culture.

In his response to Dreher’s initial presentation of the BenOp, John Goerke rightly pointed to the difference between the lay and monastic vocations, and warned against confusing the two at the expense of the lay person’s authentic call to be active in the world. As a Benedictine oblate, clarity around this distinction is especially important. The role of the oblate, elaborated here, is “to live in the world, to become holy in the world, to do what they can to bring the world to God by being witnesses of Christ by word and example to those around them.” The oblate is one who takes the joy and inspiration found in Benedictine spirituality and shares it in and through the myriad of ways lay people are active in the world. When it comes to finding the line between lay and monastic, the experience of the oblate can be a helpful practical example. In the experience of the oblate finding the balance is not only possible but also intended.

Il Sodoma, The Life of St Benedict Scene 12: Benedict Receives Pladicus and Maurus, detail (1505)

Oblation simply means offering. In the Benedictine tradition, oblates originated from families offering their children to the monastery for their education; the oblate was the child offered by the parents to the community for this purpose. In more recent history, adult oblates interpret offering in terms of self-gift. These are the words recited as part of the oblation ritual at St. Joseph Abbey:

I offer myself to Almighty God, I commit myself to Stability of Heart, Fidelity to the Spirit of the Monastic Life and Obedience to the Will of God according to the Rule of Our Holy Father Benedict.

To become an oblate is an act of self-gift: it is a fundamentally outward movement of oneself and a relational act that makes room (offers hospitality, if you will) to the will of God. In this outward movement the oblate practices stability of heart, fidelity to the spirit of the monastic life, and obedience as ongoing spiritual dispositions to maintain this hospitality. Specific disciplines to achieve these dispositions include regular prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours, lectio divina, going on retreat, and remaining otherwise connected with one’s monastic community, and throughout it all being intimately familiar with the Rule. The oblate life is lived in the world and with order and structure built around these disciplines.

In looking at the dynamics of the Benedictine community as a source of wisdom for our time, I bring the perspective of the oblate, which is lay spirituality speaking specifically to the question at the heart of the BenOp’s puzzle: monastic tradition experienced in the midst of culture. I am not sure if any of my family or friends has considered my oblation a withdrawal from culture or shying away from my vocation as a lay married person; more so they see and celebrate it as a way I have come to deepen my spirituality. As part of this deepening there are definite, countercultural elements: avoiding self-indulgence and an excess of anything, embracing humility and obedience instead of self-promotion and pride, and practicing stability of heart expressed as perseverance and commitment in a culture where it is so much easier to walk away from or vilify those who are other. Just signs of being a Christian, really, whether in our time or 1500 years ago, and whether one is living at the heart of the secular empire or in the vicinity of a monastery.

I am grateful to the BenOp for all the conversation it has generated around what it means to live faithfully and virtuously in our world today. I recognize that as an oblate, my approach to the theme is coming from lay spirituality as opposed to socio-political or moral-philosophical critique. To add my own “option” to the BenOp conversation, I first propose calling it the Benedictine Option, an approach based more broadly on the wealth of the whole spiritual tradition instead of the decisive move of the young Benedict away from Rome to Affile and then to Subiaco (and let us also allow him the room to later arrive at Monte Cassino, become abbot, and to finish composing his Rule!) The broader spiritual tradition brings with it not only decisive moments but wisdom literature, liturgical practices, a commitment to service, and a radical, prophetic, and utterly realistic communal way of life. When looking at any aspect of the Benedictine tradition as a response to culture today, let’s not miss this, because if we do, we miss the point.

Much more can be said here about what are the non-negotiables for an authentically Benedictine option. For example, liturgy and the regular, prayerful observance of time has much to offer any conversation around faith and culture and is worth exploring further. In fact, any proposal that bears Benedict’s name that is not rooted in the regular and communal experience of liturgical prayer is concerning to me. In addition to this, the practice of hospitality can and should balance the overall conversation’s heavy focus on withdrawal. Authority and obedience in the Benedictine context is also an evocative topic in a culture that shrinks away from these concepts in general. There is a lot more to say, and as the BenOp buzz continues, perhaps more will be said.

Fifteen hundred years ago a young boy became disillusioned with his life at school, walked away from it and into a cave to sort it all out. When he emerged he found himself in the role of a holy man, a miracle maker, a teacher and leader of a mountain top community. He was pricked by thorns, was twice the intended victim of attempted poisoning, and was schooled by his sister about the meaning of real love. Still, he became the father of a movement that continues today to guide men and women to Christ through its little Rule for beginners. So much to learn here, but not without the wealth of the tradition we call Benedictine, which is rooted in prayer, and expressed in communal living, in humility, service, and mutual obedience.

Liturgical Formation: Three Thoughts from Societas Liturgica

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Last week, I participated in a week long ecumenical gathering of international liturgical scholars. The theme of this year’s Societas Liturgica biennial meeting was liturgical formation. In the midst of plenary lectures and research papers, three thoughts surfaced for me about the nature of liturgical formation in the late modern or postmodern world.


The Separation of Liturgical Studies From The Study of the Scriptures, Theology, and Spirituality

It was a common motif among the keynote addresses, along with many of the short research papers, to bemoan the separation of liturgical scholarship from its roots in Scripture, theology, and spirituality. Liturgical studies, insofar as it has become a separate discipline, has at times become myopic in its treatment of formation. That is, as liturgical studies elevates participation in the liturgical rites of the Church to the privileged location of formation, the rest of Christian life is marginalized. As Patrick Pretot wrote in his major essay:

…the dream of a type of liturgical formation that would be able to find its principal support within the celebration itself is today confronted with many difficulties…liturgical formation needs to find new routes for our post- or ultra-modern era….these new ways must seek to draw together Scripture, theology and spirituality in such a way that formation must not be subordinated to the sole end of ritual performance…

The goal of the liturgical life is glorification of God and the sanctification of humankind. There is a danger that following the Second Vatican Council, the telos of liturgical prayer was nothing short of liturgical prayer itself. The next frontier of liturgical studies within the academic discipline of theology will be discerning an approach to liturgical formation that opens up the imagination to a “liturgical approach to life” that was itself pivotal to Romano Guardini, to name but one example. Liturgical studies, if it remains an insular discipline concerned about performance of rites alone, will lose its place in theology as that discipline, which unites academic rigor with pastoral practice.

Within Catholicism, perhaps, I would gather that we are entering the era of “lay liturgical scholarship,” which will facilitate this movement. In previous generations, it was the priest who studied liturgy. Yet, among the younger Roman Catholics present in Quebec, I encountered lay student after lay student after lay student, intrigued by connecting liturgical prayer with a form of life. The project of renewing liturgical studies will be a lay project in particular.

Not Liberal, Not Conservative But Identity Forming

CassocksIn her opening address to the conference, President Lizette Larson-Miller described a change in liturgical practice, especially among the young. She noted a group of Anglican seminarians, who would celebrate Vespers every Friday, concluding with the Latin Marian antiphon of the day. They did all this dressed in cassocks. Larson-Miller described this approach to liturgical prayer (not as conservative) but as related to the manner in which identity is formed in late modern life. To put on a cassock, to pray in this way, is to “write” one’s identity in Christ upon the body. Implicit in Larson-Miller’s analysis is the claim that one should not treat such young adults under the rubrics of conservative or liberal. Rather, they are seeking to perform Christian identity in a bodily way, one that perhaps was lost to a previous generation.

In conversations with many others throughout the conference, I came to see that this concern with “forming one’s identity” through “traditional” practice is in fact the way forward for many of our Christian traditions. I spoke to Anglicans, who noted the growth of their assemblies when they let the angels fly (as Walter Knowles described it). I spoke to Catholics and Anglicans also, who acknowledge the benefit of praying ad orientem not as a way of returning to some golden age but as the proper eschatological and liturgical posture before God. The desire to try on these “traditional” postures is not being performed as some conservative reaction to secularity. Rather, it is a way of marking oneself as Catholic, as Christian, as a liturgical pray-er.  I listened to an essay describing the music of Hillsong as moving toward a “traditional” articulation of what constitutes Christian salvation in their taking up the music of the Creed (for example).

In an era in which Christianity is increasingly marginalized (especially among those in Europe, Australia, and the United States), the taking up of traditional practice is a way of shaping an identity apart from alternative constructions of identity available to the postmodern person. It should be cultivated, not bemoaned.

The Spectre of the Secular: A Liturgical Evangelization

Although it was not always mentioned, the spectre of the secular was omni-present at our gathering in Quebec. At the literal level, we walked around a city in which church after church, convent after convent, has been converted into condo, library, or is in the midst of being sold. Further, in paper after paper, one encountered exasperation that the liturgy was not quite as formative of identity as we would hope. That the numbers of those attending our weekly liturgical rites were not as high as we would hope. That baptism or confirmation or Eucharist functioned as a kind of rite of passage, not transforming the life of the believer.

Here, what is required is not further academic research per se but a renewed approach to evangelization as a whole. What we study and preach is not a liturgical rite, a sacrament per se but Jesus Christ crucified and raised from the dead. Liturgical studies would benefit from greater contact with a Christo-centric missiology. As Josef Jungmann wrote in his Pastoral Liturgy:

…through worship the Christian shape of our picture of the universe can and should be made effective–our Christian consciousness. We might say too: awareness of Christ must be formed through worship. We must not underestimate the danger in which we stand in the free West. People do not want to be Godless, they even want to be Christians; but Christ–the personal Christ, the God-man scarcely counts. That God has come down to us in Him, has spoken to us through Him, that His coming was the turning point in the world’s history and that since then He has continued to be a decisive factor in the course of the world and its order, is more or less overlooked. We have only to think of how Christmas is celebrated publicly; to look at the average Christmas card (Easter cards are no better) to detect how unreal Christ has become, how little He is taken in earnest…That He is the keystone and remains in the structure of our very existence, that He alone is the bridge linking us with God, is no longer a living thought. Only this makes sense of faith, sacraments, grace, and the Church (338).

Liturgical prayer is not simply an object of study, an interesting footnote to historical theology. But is itself an encounter with the living Christ mediated through rites, making sense of history. The spectre of secularization is such that we forget this, seeing in the liturgy only book, only ritual action. Forgetting that what we do is itself an encounter with reality.

Leaving this conference, what I found was not a need for additional study of rites. But a renewed commitment to liturgical evangelization. Perhaps, the way that we will move forward ecumenically is through retrieving this approach to liturgical evangelization within each of our traditions. In this context, dialogue will take on a shared perspective that we seek to encounter the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, who has transformed the very meaning of history.



The Perfume of Possibility: The Feast of the Assumption as the Olympiad of Christian Hope

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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Glorious things are spoken of you, O Mary, who today were exalted above the choirs of Angels into eternal triumph with Christ (Entrance Antiphon, The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

Elite athletes exist at the edge of the possible and the physically absurd.  Consider for a moment the 30th Olympiad, recently concluded in London.

  • The marathon runner, who pushes his or her body beyond human limitations to complete the 26.2 miles in the same time that it takes to drive a car from South Bend to Chicago.
  • The swimmer, whose powerful legs and lungs, enables her to move through the water in record time, all the while performing with grace.
  • The sprinter, who runs so swiftly, with such ease, that we re-imagine what the human being can do when formed according to such perfection.
  • The gymnast, who defies all laws of gravity, in the vault, the parallel bars, the floor routine.

And as the Olympics end, do not all of us (no matter the lack of our own athletic prowess) in some way expand our imaginations to what we ourselves can do.   While I may not run a two hour marathon, I could train to run a single marathon in under six hours.   I’ll never be Michael Phelps, but I could push myself to my own physical and mental limit.  I’m not Gabby Douglas, but I can at least do a somersault that entertains small children.

The feast of the Assumption is to Christian hope what the Olympics are to the routine of exercise.  Mary, falling asleep in the Lord, is received body and soul into heaven.  She becomes for us the perfume of possibility, an icon of the destiny of the Church herself.  The Preface of the Feast of the Assumption declares:

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.  For today the Virgin Mother of God was assumed into heaven as the beginning and image of your Church’s coming to perfection and a sign of sure hope and comfort to your pilgrim people; rightly you would not allow her to see the corruption of the tomb since from her own body she marvelously brought forth your incarnate Son, the Author of all life.

Mary receives the grace of transfigured life because she bore the Incarnate Son into the world.  From her own body.  For Mary, the Incarnation was not an idea or a theological principle.  It was an event that took place through the particularities of her body, her own narrative, her own history.

  • The Incarnation, for Mary, was the angel’s greeting piercing through the silence of her contemplation of the Word of God.
  • It was the moment in which her cousin Elizabeth proclaimed, “And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy” (Lk. 1:43-44).
  • It was the stretch marks, imprinted upon her pregnant body–a permanent, bodily sign of her fiat.  A sign that still remains, even in her bodily assumption.  
  • The Incarnation was the birth of her child in poverty, yet greeted by angels–all the while the Word of God made flesh soaked in the words of love addressed from his mother.  Love itself knew the possibilities of human love through his mother.
  • The Incarnation was the promise of the sword that would pierce her heart, the sorrows of a life lived with God.
  • It was learning that her son was not “hers” alone but the Son of the Father, come to make all of humanity brothers and sisters in Christ.  Do whatever he tells you (Jn. 2:5).
  • For Mary, the Incarnation was standing beneath the cross, as the faithless world rejected the light that had come into the world through her yes, through her faithfulness.  Woman, behold your son…Behold your mother (Jn. 19:27).
  • It was the realization on Easter day that the promises uttered so long ago in Nazareth had come now to fulfillment, that death itself had been conquered, the kingdom of God made manifest.
  • The Incarnation was the ascension of her Son into heaven, and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples gathered in the upper room, leading to the preaching of the Good News through all the world.  He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree (Lk. 1:52)

So it is only right that the Church sees Mary’s own falling asleep, her dormition, as taken up into the mystery of the Word made flesh.  All her life, Mary had allowed the Word of God to dwell deeply inside of her:  in her contemplation of the Old Testament prophecies, in the angel’s greeting, in the cooing of her infant Son, in his preaching throughout Nazareth, in her stance beneath the cross, in the infant Church, and now at her death.

And this, dear friends, is the hope of all Christians, of all humans (isn’t as Henri de Lubac notes, Catholicism a promise addressed to all human beings?).  Not simply that we will one day be taken body and soul into heaven.  No, that our whole lives will be lived as a mystery infused by the Word of God, echoing it in our words and deeds through all ages.

The feast of the Assumption is thus the Olympiad of Christian hope itself.  It expands our imaginations to what is possible, if we allow ourselves to be taken up into the mystery of Christ.  We come to sniff the perfume of possibility, of what our humanity can become in Christ Jesus (himself the privileged icon of human transformation).  That we are indeed elevated above the angels, not because of any remarkable effort on our own behalf.  Instead, through our humanity, the Word continues to take flesh if only we would let it be done.  If we give ourselves over to the mystery of God’s love, unfolding in time and space, through the life of the Church.  And Mary, as the queen of the saints, prays that her destiny might be ours.  That all the joys and sorrows that are imprinted upon our bodies, our cities, our nations, may not be erased or forgotten but transfigured through the gift of the Holy Spirit in her Son, Jesus.  For in contemplating the grace of life bestowed to the Virgin, we learn to long for that very same fire of love that she received.  May the scent of resurrected light inflame our hearts on this arch-feast of Christian hope.