Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
This week, I’m visiting St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN for a series of workshops on hosting the St. John’s Bible at Notre Dame in an upcoming academic year. Like the rest of the Midwest, St. John’s is awash with autumnal color, sign of the beautiful death that the land is presently undergoing. And of course, like many universities, the passing of time is ubiquitous on campus as midterm week gives way to the second half of the semester, which will give way to Christmas celebrations (and in this case feet of snow).
Yet, the playful gravity of time at St. John’s feels different, because of the liturgical practice of the monks, who are the illuminati among us Catholics at marking time. Morning Prayer and Noon Prayer and Evening Prayer. The bells ring out from the Abbey Church, calling all those present to awareness of time’s passage. Indeed, at other schools, bells ring constantly. But, in this case, the bells that ring are markers of a community’s actual prayer (instead of a reminder that it is in fact 8:00 PM). At St. John’s that 7:00 AM bell is an audible sign that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ has sanctified all the hours of the day and week and year.
Since arriving on campus, I have attended three liturgies in this Abbey Church, all at different times of day. At Sunday evening Vespers, the wall of stained glass glowed forth with the power of the Resurrection, every hue of that massive panel fulfilling the fullness of its colorful vocation. Last night, at the Eucharistic celebration of undergraduate students, the stained glass reflected the darkness of night, the only light emerging from the Eucharistic liturgy playing out within the walls of the Church. This morning, at Lauds, the stained glass windows awakened with the sleepy choir of monks and guests, once again revealing its colorful hues as the Canticle of Zechariah came forth from our lips, the daybreak from on high.
This practice of marking time intrinsic to the Benedictine charism might offer something unique to Catholic higher education in a secular age. University discourse tends to refer to some distant future in which all knowledge will be discovered, in which progress will be made, in which endowments will grow. Yet, here at St. John’s, a radical alternative time interrupts again and again. The time not of capital campaigns, of curricular reviews, but the playful gravity of time embodied in the Christo-centric Liturgy of the Hours.
If I was a student at St. John’s, perhaps, I could not help but discover that this grounding in time, in the present celebration of the mystery of Christ, might actually be the most important part of my education on this campus. That to be a young person is not to wish away time, to hope for the day in which I will have the perfect employment opportunity, the right spouse, the ideal living situation. Instead, it is to let the present be infused with the reality of God’s activity, to perceive my vocation hic et nunc, here and now. My vocation as student. As one seeking a form of life, which will give shape to a life of discipleship. The time for salvation, the time for formation, the time to be fully human in Christ is not a distant hope. It is the time that is unfolding within the rural landscape of this Abbey Church and University.
In the midst of trends in Catholic higher education that strive for increasing graduate research, international immersion for undergraduates, and constant updating of curricula to remain up to date, it is helpful to keep before our eyes the playful gravity of the time that the monks celebrate day-to-day. And perhaps wonder, in the midst of a higher education landscape full the apostolic vigor of Jesuits and Holy Cross and Dominicans, if the marking of time that the Benedictines embody might actually be the key to renewing Catholic higher education in a secular age.
After all, it wouldn’t be the first time that the renewal of education and the Church comes from the sons and daughters of Monte Cassino.