Last weekend, my Dad joined me in St. Louis for his birthday gift – a trip to a St. Louis Blues game. We reveled in the buzz of energy and the crisp air. Though we are far from experts on the game, we joined others in raucous cheering and shouting – my dad delighting while I cowered uncomfortably at the occasional lingering fight. We enjoyed a highly anticipated evening together.
About halfway through the second period, my old friend anxiety showed up and demanded a space. It manifested itself as it often does during sporting events, where giant clocks peer obtrusively down from a jumbotron. Though I found joy in being present at the game, I became obsessed with that clock. I started my own internal countdown, calculating what time the game might end. My focus shifted away from the game itself and rushed toward the moment when the clock would hit zero and I’d be on to the Next Big Thing.
This temptation often follows me through life. I begin my day or any particular project with a focus on being present. Though my intentions are good, my focus slips and I begin planning ahead – ignoring the moment I’m in to think about what the next one will be like. While this is fueled by my struggle with anxiety, I doubt I’m alone. A look at my Facebook news feed confirms this. My friends and I post countdowns, making sure everyone knows the number of days or hours until this Big Event we can’t wait for – whether it’s the premiere of Star Wars, a party, or the end time of our last exam. But the next day, we’re looking at TimeHop and thinking nostalgically about how fast time has gone by, gushing about how much time has passed since we were freshmen or since the Last Big Thing. We become so consumed with looking forward that we forget to enjoy the moment as it occurs.
This tendency presents a particular danger during the season of Advent, even on the very last day of this season. Each year, I enter into Advent with a special prayer practice or a resolution of sorts. This year, it was reading each day’s Mass readings in the morning and writing down a phrase to take with me throughout the day. Others may mark the time by setting out an Advent wreath, or taking a devotional book from their parish. Regardless of the practice, we begin Advent resolved to wait in prayerful silence, remembering the patience and silence of those days before Christ’s birth.
But then, we lose focus. Christmas music comes on the radio, shopping begins on Thanksgiving Day, and we pull out the Christmas countdown calendars. Gone is the prayerful, focused waiting. We race toward Christmas, thinking about how many days and moments until we get our presents, or have that party. We throw away proper preparation, and when the moment we are awaiting arrives, we have no idea how we got there. We are not properly prepared to receive the victory. We haven’t postured ourselves to understand what this win means, to know where it came from.
If we wish to truly celebrate the birth of Christ and His entrance into our lives, we have to pay attention to the present moment. We must practice the posture of waiting and use Advent as a time to discover the longing for Christ in our hearts as it exists right now – not as it will in a month, or a year. In our prayer of presence, we re-order our desires as we wait patiently. We learn that preparation is not rushing past dates on the calendar, but an intentional focus on the present moment, where we simply listen and exist. Advent becomes a time of practice. Through prayerful silence and patient waiting, we are formed into Christmas people, who celebrate in the fullness and joy of the faith we have come to know and understand.
In the hockey arena, I used the practices I learned in therapy to push anxiety away and find the puck on the ice, not the time on the scoreboard. As a result, I paid attention, returned to the moment, and saw all three Blues goals. In this season of Advent, my constant prayer has been that I may listen for the voice that calls me to do the same, so that when Christmas comes, I’ll know how I got here.
Recently, my family and I attempted to go to the pumpkin patch together. Because, you know, it’s autumn, and picking out pumpkins is a nice family ritual. I’d like to be able to report that we all bundled up in perfectly unplanned matching plaid flannels, took family pictures where everyone looked photogenic and no one blinked, and then sipped apple cider and talked about how much we love each other. And I’m sure this is what would have happened, had it not been for the unfortunate minor detail that we actually never made it to the pumpkin patch in the first place. Because actually, despite my mother’s loving and adamant efforts to corral us all into a Perfect Family Memory, we never made it further than a couple of minutes away from campus.
Here’s what actually happened: after coming to terms with the difficulty of making my college schedule and that of my two high school brothers fit harmoniously, we settled for a Saturday morning excursion to the South Bend Farmer’s Market rather than a further-away bona fide pumpkin patch. But the funny thing is, we never actually made it to the Farmer’s Market, either. What we actually did was far more mundane: we ended up waiting for an hour for my brother to finish taking the SAT, listening to my younger brother rant about how icky he thinks girls are, and slowly watching the clock tick tirelessly into what would have been our pumpkin picking time. When my family dropped me off back at campus, I felt woefully pumpkin-less, and more than a little miffed at the “waste” of what could have been an otherwise productive morning.
Though I admit I was a tad miffed, I certainly wasn’t surprised. How often it is, in families, that things don’t go as planned. Being part of a family means that we find ourselves bound to others: we are messy, others are messy, and the result is, unsurprisingly, messy. We plan for a nice dinner out and then hungriness turns to grumpiness. We plan to be out the door by a certain time and then forgetfulness turns to tardiness. We plan to keep the house clean all week and cleanliness turns to dirtiness. I was miffed, but not surprised, that we seemed to miss the mark that Saturday morning.
When I was little, I used to watch wide-eyed as my dad scooped out the insides of our pumpkins in order to ready them for carving. I would watch as he lovingly spooned out the stringy, gooey, sloppy seed bits in order to help the glow of the candlelight shine clearly through. I always stared with wonder at the clumpy pile that would build up as the pumpkins were emptied out. It seems to me that families can be, at times, quite pumpkiny. There is gooeyness and stringiness to our family relationships, all sort of sloppy seed bits that we find in heaping spoonfuls. And yet, it is precisely in the sheer wondrous existence of the family that we find ourselves emptied out lovingly by the Father, and spooned out ourselves in the long process of becoming less clumpy and more able to glow.
I was thinking about the particularly pumpkiny clumpiness of family when a friend shared with me a delightful excerpt from G.K. Chesterton’s Blatchford Controversies. In this excerpt, Chesterton talks of the miracle that pumpkins remain in existence as pumpkins. While we may wish for our pumpkins to be magically transformed into fairytale coaches, Chesterton reminds us that it is no less magical that they should remain their pumpkin selves: after all, they are held into existence wondrously by the Father who loves all things into existence:
“Christianity holds that the world and its repetition came by will or Love as children are begotten by a father, and therefore that other and different things might come by it. Briefly, it believes that a God who could do anything so extraordinary as making pumpkins go on being pumpkins. (…) If you do not think it extraordinary that a pumpkin is always a pumpkin, think again. You have not yet even begun philosophy. You have not even seen a pumpkin.”
Perhaps, in Chesterton’s words, we may not only learn to see pumpkins clearly, but also the great wonder that is the family, for in these words we are reminded of a God who does extraordinary things, and who holds all things into existence lovingly. This is a God who dwells with us as we learn to dwell with each other: and it doesn’t matter if we are a little bit messy, a tad bit pumpkiny. Seeing the family with this sort of vision means that it doesn’t matter that we didn’t make it to the pumpkin patch that Saturday morning. What matters is the way it is simply magical to be called to love humans that we haven’t handpicked ourselves: the way that God has designed our existence to be fundamentally in relation to others, the exact particularly pumpkiny others that He has chosen to play a role in both our glowing and clumpy moments. In the end, to measure the wonder of the family by a fairytale picture of perfection would be to miss the miracle: simply that we exist together, held together and related to each other by the love of the Father.
For the Lord has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling, saying, “This is my resting place for ever and ever.”
You better come on in this house, cause it’s gonna rain. Rain down, Zion, it’s gonna rain.
-“Sunday Candy”, Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment
I don’t listen to rap often, but when I do, I prefer for it to be imbued with tones of Eucharistic self-gift. This may seem like a tall order, but it’s exactly what the listener encounters in the song “Sunday Candy,” featuring a joy-filled gospel choir, the rhymes of Chance the Rapper, the vocals of Jamila Woods, and some tremendously triumphant trumpeting. When Woods begins her hook, the trumpets pause and a church organ reverberates under her words: “You gotta move it slowly/ Take and eat my body like it’s holy”. Chance joins Woods as she repeats this gentle hook a second time, and as their voices meld together in a duet, a theme begins to emerge: one of right-ordered sexuality, the kind that calls us home to what it means to be human. The very title of the song speaks of a call to express our human sexuality in a way that encompasses not only the sweetness and playfulness of candy but also the reverently respected sacredness of a Sunday.
Chance and Jamila are singing for joy: and it’s the sweetness of a relationship in which there is holiness of waiting (“I’ve been waiting for you”) and praying (I’ve been praying for you”), and honestly, it’s a whole lot of fun. In Chance’s words we might even uncover something of the beauty of a relationship in which two draw each other closer to God: “You’re my dreamcatcher, dream team, team captain/ Matter fact, I ain’t seen you in a minute let me take my butt to church”. The desire to see and spend time with his beloved spurs him to church- and rightly so, for as we might add, it is in loving one another well that we enter into the dwelling place of the Lord, who is Love Itself. This notion of the way we love and the way we dwell with God being intertwined comes up again when Chance describes the one he loves in the second verse: ” You sound like why the gospel choir got so tired/ Singin’ his praise on daily basis so I gotta try it”. In other words, the way that she loves sounds like the praise of a gospel choir, a choir that gives fully and to the end, each day. In Chance’s words, a very Christian truth shines through: in the way that we love, we give praise to the Lord, and we come to dwell with Him daily.
Thus, in this song we catch a glimmer of what it means to be truly human: to give of ourselves lovingly and dwell joyfully in the place of the Lord. It means, as the song puts it, to “come on in this house,” into shelter from the rain and into the holy house of Zion. Our call to dwell in this holy place is a call to respond to God’s abundant gift of Himself in the Eucharist by becoming abundant gifts ourselves. Perhaps “Sunday Candy” can be for us a small example of the way that we sing to God with joy through the ways we express our sexuality, a most sweet and sacred thing. It can be reminder of the beauty of relationships in which dwelling with each other leads us to dwell with God. Where Chance speaks of dinner rolls on his plate at Christmas dinner, we can speak of the Eucharist, and of the shelter we find as we allow the Bread we take and eat to form the pattern in which we share ourselves in relationship. We can trust that in the patience and the prayerfulness of this sort of sharing, there is also such great sweetness.
It is an odd fact about my life: I love small things. Small babies, small children, small dogs, tiny cabins, cozy rooms. And since my generation lives in a world driven by images, some better than others, (via Snapchat, Instagram, Tinder, etc) in times when I fall into the stereotype of that image-driven generation, I have spent more time than I care to admit sitting around with girlfriends looking at pictures, or Buzzfeed posts, or YouTube videos, or stories. (Usually, they’re titled something along the lines of, “BABIES TRY LEMONS FOR THE FIRST TIME! THIS IS A HILARIOUS MUST-WATCH.”)
My own affinity for the small, my genuine and deep-seeded love of children, and my desire to protect the innocent is probably rooted in my own psyche and my own life story—but the affinity also stems from an amazement at the reality of the Incarnation. I never cease to marvel at the fact that the Savior of our world came to the world as a tiny, vulnerable, crying, needy infant. The Word who always was allowed Himself to be nurtured and loved into maturity. (That could be another piece, another day.)
And so all of that being said, The Lord of the Rings has always been a place where loves of different sorts collided for me. I find Tolkien’s writing beautifully crafted, his imagination fantastic, and his ability to reflect on deep truths in the lens of myth-making and story-telling absolutely brilliant. I also find hobbits entirely lovable. In fact, for a long time, I loved hobbits simply because of their smallness.
When it came time to write a senior thesis, I eventually settled on writing it about the way the chief four hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin grow in virtue throughout The Lord of the Rings. My chief encourager in this line of thinking stemmed from a place where JRR Tolkien commented that, “…the structure of The Lord of the Rings was, “planned to be ‘hobbito-centric,’ that is, primarily a study of the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble” (Letters 237). As I thought to myself about writing, the process went something like this:
A kind of spirituality of smallness, a’la Therese of Lisieux, check.
Lord of the Rings (a somewhat pathological obsession, my friends will testify), check.
Tolkien’s brilliance from his letters and interviews, check.
And I even managed to throw in something on patristic theories of the atonement. Relationship to historical Christianity, check.
Thoughts about vocation and call (one of my other obsessions)- check.
(An insight to me internally at this point: ALL OF THE THINGS I NERD OUT ABOUT WERE ABOUT TO BE IN ONE PLACE.)
“THIS IS SO GREAT!” I thought. “I’ll write all about hobbits, and why we love them, and why it’s beautiful that they’re small, and how important their smallness is to who they are, and yadda-yadda-yadda- yadda” (I can rant to myself for quite a long while). But sometimes, something happens when you write. Sometimes, you find that you were quite wrong in your instincts. Delving into a topic means that you have to permit your long-held ideas and conceptions to grow and mature. And at times, to be crushed. (Gulp.)
It turned out that my own instincts about the place of humility, smallness, and the little in Tolkien’s fictional world were (quite simply) wrong. Not all wrong, but mostly wrong. I had an idealistic and romantic vision in my head of Tolkien’s hobbits as a preferred race, a race we ought to love and value for nothing more than their small, quiet ways of life and their quaint customs. The work I did delving into Tolkien’s own thoughts quickly and totally crushed that tendency towards over-romanticization of the small and childlike in Middle Earth out of me. The Ring cycle is still definitely about the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble. BUT, I came to find, this means we ought to appreciate the hobbits who willingly and freely undergo the process of what it takes to be sanctified and ennobled; we should not overtly romanticize the entire race.
Even though the trilogy thematically focuses on the “sanctification of the humble,” the situation is not so simple as loving hobbits because they are small, comical, innocent people who enjoy gardening and over-eating and time with family. Tolkien’s hobbits are often endearing and comic characters, to be sure, but it is not endearing-ness alone that makes one a saint, or Tolkien’s fictional equivalent of one. Simply put, the hobbits of Middle Earth who become heroes are revered because they demonstrate the Church’s definition of sanctity; they exhibit levels of heroic virtue.
The Catechism, in a compilation of the Tradition, says that:
A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions (CCC 1803).
So the fictional saint-making in the context of The Lord of the Rings stems from how our hero hobbits reacted to adversity and what exactly they did with the roads set before them– not from an innate sanctification via innocence and ignorance. On those paths, the hobbits themselves were “enlarged” and “sanctified” for the sake of all of Middle Earth, because they continually tended toward and chose the good. (Though not always; saints in our real histories aren’t perfect either, but we can’t treat that here).
The hobbits Sam, Merry, and Pippin demonstrate a heroic faithfulness for the sake of friendship, coupled with a steadfast courage that persons of their size and background should never have had. Frodo demonstrates a willingness to die for the sake of the entirety of the people of Middle Earth. Effectively, they all are given grace (by an unnamed providence, in this fictional context) in order to continue persevering in the realities presented to them. Take, for example, the hobbit Sam’s reflection on heroes that he shares with Frodo:
“…We shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to just have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten….” (Tolkien 711).
It is true, unfortunately, that a post of this nature can’t possibly capture the entirety of the thesis– nor treat all of the nuances involved fairly. But suffice to say, the more I studied and expanded my understanding, the more I came to love Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. I saw just how much they all grew in courage, how much they sacrificed their own wants, totally abandoned any understanding of personal safety for the sake of friendship, loyalty, duty, or even a more complex understanding about the good of all. By the end of things, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin all actually had been “enlarged, or sanctified,” as Tolkien had desired to show, because they had acquired and continually acted with levels of courage, fortitude, and loyalty that absolutely none of the “Big People” ever expected hobbits to exemplify.
Although (alas) hobbits are fictional, many of us- myself very much included- feel ourselves to be hobbit-like in the scheme of the wider world. We feel small, or sometimes insignificant, or at the least unprepared for the path that has been set before our feet— for the illness of a family member, for the loss of a job, for loneliness in our own path, for difficulties with children, for the impossibility of a class load, for difficulty with responsibilities that “by rights” as Sam would say, we shouldn’t have. But understanding Tolkien’s thought means that if we understand ourselves as a “hobbit in faith,” we do not have the ability to flee to our respective Shires. We cannot content ourselves with pipe-smoking, gardening, entertaining family, and the like. There’s a huge key here to understanding vocation: understanding how we are called to respond to God and the realities of our lives does not mean constantly longing for peace and quiet and a return to (or discovery of) a place of safety.
For evil to be defeated in this world, we have to cooperate with the hand of Providence, even when that means the Way before us is frighteningly unknown or dangerous or not what we expected. To be a hobbit in faith means that we courageously continue, whatever the road before us, knowing that if we keep trying to follow the will of God, good may come of our current Road—even if this means a great deal of suffering and scarring on our part. Sam’s thought on this in the darkest of times communicates this more eloquently:
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach” (Tolkien 922).
Evil, and evil’s affinity for self-deception, will mean that child-like humility and a recognition of one’s smallness may allow for the grace of God to work in ways that will surprise all of us. The Road does not ever quite end, as Tolkien says; “it goes on and on.” It is our part to follow, and to keep following that Road that is at our feet, knowing that Christ is Himself our Road and our Way. We are all homo-viator: man on the journey, pilgrims seeking heaven. Thus, to be a hobbit in faith means to accept the Road that one’s feet have been set on, even if we in no way sought out our particular path, or even if we fear where the Road might be leading in the short term. And so we accept our Road, knowing that Christ our light, Christ our Way, Christ the beautiful, and Christ the victorious seeks us as we continue journeying Home.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance. In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.
We know that all things work for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:18-30)
Does that happen here? Does that happen here?
When I walked into one of my freshmen quads the other night, that was the first question they asked me. “Hey Rose — those sexual assault emails were pretty scary — does that happen here?” As a new RA in Lyons hall, a few things went through my mind – first, I was horribly embarrassed that during their first week of class here at Notre Dame, they had already received three notifications that this new home we’re trying to bring them into and create still has a serious problem keeping students safe. And as much as I wished I could sincerely answer that no, Notre Dame students are above this crime, I knew that the emails were a critical reminder to us all that we are not past our own history of sexual violence. More importantly, these emails came as a sign of incredible bravery and progress toward a community where any sexual assault is reported and taken seriously.
I thought of the girls’ parents whom I’d met last week, ensuring them I’d help them loft, find classes, and make sure they got home safe at night. They had come from all over the country and the globe to bring their children, their most sacred gifts, here to South Bend, Indiana, at a school where nothing goes wrong, and there are single sex dorms and parietals and rules and police and RA’s and so many nice brochures; yet without fail, every couple of weeks we still get that email with the subject line, Crime Alert: Sexual Assault and that same body text that starts “Sexual assault can happen to anyone.” And my last thought, looking at the girls in the room I asked myself, are they afraid to be here? Are they afraid of the men’s dorms and the environment and the upperclassmen because this kind of crime regularly happens on campus? Have we tolerated or even created an environment that causes our newest students, our youngest brothers and sisters to be afraid of Saturday nights? And it broke my heart to think that these new students, my newest residents could be afraid of a place that I love so much — I love the dorms and the people and faculty and beautiful spirit that is Notre Dame. I know that we are all blessed to be here and Notre Dame has blessed me with the most beautiful friendships and relationships that I’ve ever had, — but why is it that we, as students in this beautiful place continue to fail each other in this grievous, repulsive way?
I am proud to be gathered here with you today because it demonstrates our will as a student body to end this history of sexual assault on campus and beyond, however, while prayer and reflection and awareness are so important, absolutely nothing will guarantee the future safety of the students of Our Lady’s university besides a sincere and relentless effort by each and every student and classmate and roommate to step in, speak up and respect one another. As we reflect upon the words from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we grow in faith and hope with the knowledge that “in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us” and that through the united strength of our student body, these crimes against our friends will become a thing of the past. And I am confident that one day we will all be ready to answer that question — does that happen here? Does sexual assault happen at Notre Dame? One day we will answer confidently It absolutely does not. Because if God is for us, who, then, can be against us?
I have been the “odd one out” since my graduation from the University of Notre Dame, in widely varying situations. For the first year after my graduation, I worked in the Office of the Illinois Governor. There, I was the baby – the youngest person by far, minus maybe one person, and one of very few people in the office who came in straight from graduation. And interestingly enough, though I worked for six months under a Democratic administration and six months under a Republican one, I was one of a handful of practicing Catholics. While at the Governor’s Office, I learned to see my experience through the realm of being the different one – the token Catholic girl, the baby of the office.
Though I left the Governor’s Office in July, I have once again found myself in that position – the one who answers the questions; the one whose experience is not the same. Working as a Campus Ministry Intern at Washington University and Webster University means I am surrounded by young people, Catholics, people like me. And yet once again, I am different. After all, my students have yet to go into the “real world” and hold a full-time job. Even among my work colleagues, I’m the only one who has worked in politics. And so, again, I find myself on the outside.
I could take this begrudgingly and complain that I just want to be with people who understand me, but I am far too lucky and surrounded by far too many wonderful people for that complaint. Rather, this “outside” living has provided me with a unique theological opportunity, allowing me to see, seek, and explore the needs and wants of college students and young adults, particularly in regards to what the Church can and should offer them. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that I was one of them – I felt their fears, apprehensions, and desires, and then I left and experienced that which they now look forward. Having left the safety net of a Catholic college, I am removed enough to see what they cannot yet see, to understand life after college in a way that they simply cannot yet – but I have returned, just a year later, and I see myself in them, see what I wanted and thought I needed and truly did need. I am one of them and yet not, and I see the urgency of their questions and their desires perhaps even more clearly because of it.
It strikes me that what these students crave – indeed, what I myself craved – is, for the most part, exactly what they are going to need. They may not understand why they want what they want in the church, but the Spirit moves them to demand that which they will need most when they leave this place. My students demand more than lukewarm religion teachers and emotionally-centered praise sessions of their high school years. They see right through the façade of uncaring adults who blow them off with half-hearted attempts to appease them or make church “cool” so they will want to leave. My students crave truth – they are smarter, more perceptive, more driven than we give them credit for. In universities filled with study and argument, they demand truth – they know the faith is intellectual in nature, and they want to understand and articulate that intellect just as they would any other course they take – though here, the stakes are much higher. What they don’t yet understand is how important that knowledge and truth will be when they leave – how the ability to constantly remind themselves of the truth, to articulate their faith to those who challenge it, and to apply that knowledge when weekly bible studies and student-centered homilies now abound. They crave – and need – us to take their thirst for knowledge seriously, to value it, and to encourage it to continue for the rest of their lives.
A perhaps less articulated need for students, and much less explored, is the parish identity and the simple process of finding – and staying with – a parish. This was one of the needs I hardly recognized in myself as a student, and one I only see in my students in passing. They mention their concern about leaving the Catholic Student Center, or they casually say that they know no other church will be like this place. What they don’t yet know is how valuable it will be to process these needs, to understand parish life before they leave. This need didn’t strike me until I was well established in a parish in Chicago. I had a wonderful home with a vibrant, young parish in my neighborhood, but I was struck one evening while attending a young adult event by a very striking, unsettling knowledge – “This isn’t my parish.” Although I had been attending Mass and events regularly for over six months, I still understood myself as a visitor. I was a registered parishioner, but I hadn’t made connections, outside the young adult group, to become a real part of this place. This process of relationship building, of connection is one that is taken for granted in college, and one we hardly mention to our students. We don’t talk to them enough about what happens when they leave – and chances are they don’t even think about it until it’s too late. We owe them our knowledge and our experience.
I’m still not too far out, and I’ve only been at my new job for a month – but so far, I’d say being an outsider has its advantages.
Each morning at 5:00 AM, I rise and plop down upon the couch in my living room to greet the new day. My deepest desire at the time is to consume a cup of coffee and to gaze mindlessly at the television as I recover from slumber. Yet, more often than not, I pass by this temptation to spend the morning “doing” the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer (with a cup of coffee in hand, of course). Before 5:30 AM comes around, I have acknowledged to God the sin that I am responsible for; I have asked God to let me hear the voice of the Lord thundering over the mountains; I have lamented the sorrows that inflict not only me but the entire People of God; and, I have praised God for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit’s recreation of the world.
The gift of the Liturgy of the Hours as a daily practice is that the Christian is schooled in the fullness of the spiritual life as we meditate morning after morning, night after night upon the Psalms. And these Psalms are given to us. We do not get to choose which ones we pray. We do not simply praise God with timbrel and harp but must also acknowledge our deep woundedness, the injustice of the world, and the sorrow that comes with hearing only silence in the midst of our prayer to God. If I could create my own personal ordo of Psalms that I would pray each morning, I would avoid anything that could be construed as “negative.” I would sip my coffee in peace and sing to God a new song but never acknowledge the depths of mercy that I need in order to love God and neighbor alike. Yet, the Church’s construction of the Liturgy of the Hours is wiser than my personal ordo. It is a school of prayer.
And when we pray the Liturgy of the Hours, it should be noted that this action is never simply about the individual Christian offering his or her prayers to God. The General Instruction for the Liturgy of the Hours notes that praying each morning with the Church is never a private act:
There is a special and very close bond between Christ and those whom he makes members of his Body, the Church, through the sacrament of rebirth. Thus, from the Head all the riches belonging to the Son flow throughout the whole Body: the communication of the Spirit, the truth, the life, and the participation in the divine sonship that Christ manifested in all his prayer when he dwelt among us.
Christ’s priesthood is also shared by the whole Body of the Church, so that the baptized are consecrated as a spiritual temple and holy priesthood through the rebirth of baptism and the anointing by the Holy Spirit and are empowered to offer the worship of the New Covenant, a worship that derives not from our own powers but from Christ’s merit and gift.
“God could give us no greater gift than to establish as our Head the Word through whom he created all things and to unite us to that Head as members. The results are many The Head is Son of God and Son of Man, one as God with the Father and one as man with us. When we speak in prayer to the Father, we do not separate the Son from him and when the Son’s Body prays it does not separate itself from its Head. It is the one Savior of his Body, the Lord Christ Jesus, who prays for us and in us and who is prayed to by us. He prays for us as our priest, in us as our Head; he is prayed to by us as our God. Recognize therefore our own voice in him and his voice in us.”
The excellence of Christian prayer lies in its sharing in the reverent love of the only-begotten Son for the Father and in the prayer that the Son put into words in his earthly life and that still continues without ceasing in the name of the whole human race and for its salvation, throughout the universal Church and in all its members (7).
In other words, to pray the Liturgy of the Hours is never private prayer. To pray these Psalms and intercessions day after day is to join our voice to Jesus Christ’s continual prayer of praise and lament to the Father. For Christ’s voice still calls out to the Father through the Church. Jesus knows our sorrows, our joys. He knows the suffering of a world where many are forced into migration because of the injustice enacted by political regimes. He knows the sorrows of those who experience radical loneliness, who cry out for God’s help but hear nothing; a nothingness that becomes a taunt. Jesus Christ knows the fullness of the human condition. And through our praying the Psalms within the context of the Church’s prayer, we let his voice resound in our own, offering to the Father a sacrifice of sorrow and praise for the world.
Praying the Liturgy of the Hours each morning is, thus, not ultimately about the development of my individual religious life. Rather, it is an occasion to exercise my baptismal vocation to let Christ’s voice echo throughout the world.
It is to become aware, in praying a Psalm of Lament, that there are fathers and mothers in the world, who have to look upon the body of their child, who drowned while trying to escape from the horrors of a war that no one deserves but those in power feel necessary; it is to take up the voice of my student, who is experiencing deep homesickness and loneliness, afraid that he or she will never find a trustworthy friend; it is to make my own the fear of a colleague, diagnosed with cancer; it is to consider those fathers and mothers, who have made a decision to have an abortion and now deal with the painful consequences on a daily basis; it is to cry out to God in the voice of all those who are denied even the most basic forms of human dignity; it is to recognize my own callousness in the midst of these sorrows, the sin of indifference that becomes my bread. Lord, rouse up your might and come to our help.
To pray these Hours each day, therefore, is to enter not simply into a school of prayer but a school of divine solidarity. For God has taken up in Jesus Christ, the Son, the fullness of the human condition. And even now, the mercy of the Incarnation continues as our voice becomes the voice of the Son.
Of course, the consequence of praying the Liturgy of the Hours is that we must learn to love the world aright. Hans urs von Balthasar notes again and again in his theological aesthetics that the purpose of the Christian life is not “delight” in beauty. It is discipleship. If we are to give our voice over to the sorrows of our brothers and sisters, then we must also give our bodies to their plight. We must care for the sick. We must cry out to those in power to come to the aid of those on the margins. We must go to the margins ourselves, letting the words that we pray echo now in our commitment to love aright. The Liturgy of the Hours invites us not simply to “imagine” solidarity but to practice it on a daily basis.
For each day, we are invited again and again to hear the voice of the Lord, to refuse to let our hearts be hardened. And to enter into radical relationship, through Jesus Christ, to all those who share with us the humanity of the Son.
Studying abroad this past semester has taken me many places I’ll not soon forget, but perhaps none more striking or richly beautiful than La Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, Spain. Begun in 1882 in the eccentric modern style of Antoni Gaudi, La Sagrada Familia is an unparalleled place of worship. When my friends and I visited Barcelona for a weekend trip, our first order of business was visiting the famous Park Güell, also designed by Gaudi, from which a sweeping panorama of the city could be enjoyed. Instantly setting itself apart from its surroundings, La Sagrada Familia stood out in the cityscape like a beautiful sore thumb, piercing the fog in the distance. When we later arrived at the Basilica, the line to get inside was nearly an hour long, but the time passed quickly, spent marveling at the amazingly intricate detailing – gargoyles, crosses, saints – covering the façade of the church.
When we stepped inside, it took me a moment to find my jaw. The enormity of the basilica draws your eyes up and up, irresistibly, to a perfectly white light that pours in through the ceiling. Among giant, awe-inspiring pillars reminiscent of tree trunks, brilliant stained glass windows invite the most vibrant colors to dwell with the visitors. In short, it was a picture of heaven, every piece within the Basilica working uniquely, and yet all coming together in perfect harmony to create a singular space of praise. However, among all this transcendent beauty, there was another aspect of this church that caught my attention. Although construction of La Sagrada Familia began over a century ago, it is still being built today and isn’t expected to be completed until 2026. As I wandered through this stunning liturgical space, the hum of construction, inside and out, was inescapable. Giant cranes surrounded the outside of the Basilica, and mesh netting covered much of the inside.
I couldn’t believe that this church begun over one hundred years ago was still being, not refurbished, but finished. Walking around La Sagrada Familia, hearing the clanking of metal and the rhythmic drilling of jackhammers was just as much a part of the experience of taking in the beauty of the basilica as gazing at the stained glass windows and the enormous altar. I couldn’t help but think that all of us inside that basilica could learn something from this holy space about how we ourselves might grow in holiness. I think we share the vocation this church lives out. Like La Sagrada Familia, we are called to become more perfect versions of ourselves and orient ourselves ever more perfectly toward eucharistic praise. Christ tells us, Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)
The beauty of La Sagrada Familia is that it is truly a living place. Each day, as it comes closer and closer to becoming what it was created to be, a perfect space of praise and eucharistic offering, this church answers a more and more emphatic ‘yes’ to this call of Christ’s.
And so with us.
We share this call to become, over time, more perfect members of the body of Christ. The tune up of sorts that we require – the ascetic preparation that we undertake to cleanse and prepare our souls to conform our wills ever more perfectly to the Divine Will – is not unlike the continual construction and choirs of power tools sounding through La Sagrada Familia. I was struck, visiting this basilica, by the fact that it was becoming a better church as it was being a church. We too are called, as we already are members of the community of the faithful, to become ever better, more holy people, and to answer a fuller, richer ‘yes’ to God’s call for our lives.
La Sagrada Familia is a fantastic sign of how we ourselves are rejuvenated and given new life in conforming ourselves to our call, just as the basilica has. As Christ tells us, I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10)
Just as the Sagrada Familia receives its fullness of life as it is painted and constructed, becoming a better church more able to give back in praise what it has received in gift, we too have life to the full inasmuch as we respond faithfully and lovingly to our vocational calls.
This juxtaposition between the newness and oldness of La Sagrada Familia – the fact that this space was still being made new and brought to completion even after it had stood for over one hundred years – led me to notice another striking juxtaposition in the church, that between its physicality and spirituality. The ever-changing appearance of the church as it underwent construction drew a sharp contrast with the never-changing, abiding love of the spirit who dwells in such a special way in that space. This too lent a rich insight into our own experience as members of the faithful. Each time we enter the liturgy, we say more or less the same prayers. This is the eternal. But we are also refreshed and made new in our faith through our spiritual practices as we make more perfect sacrifices of praise.
On Sunday, the last day of my trip to Barcelona, my friends and I returned to La Sagrada Familia for Mass, and as we celebrated the Eucharist, a statue was being ever so carefully painted just behind us. The painting of the statue was a beautiful sign. Just as the statue of the saint was becoming more beautiful in its painting, we too in the midst of the same eucharistic offering, were inching closer to sainthood.
Witnessing this particular piece of the church’s construction couldn’t have been more perfect, because it happened during mass – a reminder that ultimately, what makes La Sagrada Familia such a wondrous place is not how pretty it is, but rather its purpose. The holy celebration of the Eucharist. So too does our fullness of life, our perfection on the road to holiness, come from the gift God’s grace and the sacrifice of His Son poured out for us.
Three years ago I took my first writing-intensive class. Never before did I have to write regularly or at length. This made me worry. Writing at 3:30am in the library usually does.
Why is there such a gap between loving and writing about love?Where’s the line between meaning things and making them up? Do I believe what I’m writing or am I just writing because this is due when I wake up? How many times can you write about love before you know what it is?
On long library nights fueled by iced tea and Snickers (what was I thinking?), I first felt how precarious it is to write about faith. Conversing about my deepest-down thoughts wasn’t bad—spoken words fade fast. But these went on paper, stared me back in the face and got submitted. I teetered between loving and thinking about loving, between aching and faking, between lively urgency and deadline panic.
Most of all I wanted the precarious balance of being authentic, whatever that may be: I imagined writing in some simple and beautiful unified procession of my thought onto paper. That never really happened.
I’ve learned a bit since then. First of all, most of these problems can be solved by outlining. Start essays before they’re due. The joy of reading amazing, life-changing books; school did in fact matter. When you’re working and need sleep you should go to sleep. Apparently there’s a reason college is four years—I can actually learn something in that time! And the most comforting and important thing I’ve ever read: love means turning and saying, “‘It’s good that you exist; it’s good that you are in this world!’” (Josef Pieper’s Faith Hope Love)
Time resolved a lot of my freshman questions but the precarious lingered.
My year at Oblation reminded me how precarious it is to believe and write about belief. Will I mean what I’m saying when I’m getting paid for it? How to write my ideas for someone else? Writing for an audience meant I couldn’t write for me; I had to consider people’s positions and preferences when I wrote. When an okay post got some less-than-lovely comments, I certainly felt the precariousness of writing for an audience.
I was precarious when learning how far I could push my deadline before exasperating the editors. (Last time: Sorry this is late, guys…) I had to balance between reviewing my writing later to improve it and the pride of gazing on my own words published…online!
I have loved working at Oblation because it embraces precariousness. Life’s precariousness means accommodating other people and publishing necessitates this. Weekly editorial meetings made me consider the difference between what I wanted to cover and needed to cover, how we wanted to publish and how the audience did.
When I was hired Oblation attracted me because it insisted on balancing. It resists the quick tendency to categorize and condemn, so easy when it comes to liturgy. It’s easy to kick your playmate off the see-saw for the security of knowing where the see-saw will land. But Oblation doesn’t do this. The answers aren’t always self-evident and the path forward isn’t always well lit. Church life is harder than platforms, parties, and ballots.
The Church is precarious. Chesterton describes the Church’s position as “the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic” (Orthodoxy, ch. 3). The Church stretches and wavers between the human and divine, seeking out sheep and looking for the Face of God. The Gospel is precarious or rather it makes us precarious. The Word surprised and scared kings when it first came. The Gospel still unseats us. When our age’s highest good is autonomy the Gospel asks us to listen, trust and even to rest like a child in the arms of its mother.
The Church, precariously placed on this wild ride through the world’s story, finds a virtuous middle in her ministry of reconciliation. This reconciliation is Oblation’s greatest trait and the biggest reason I’ve loved working here. The Church brings people and God back toward each other.
At Oblation I’ve seen how real this really is in the way the blog constantly examines culture, places it near the Gospel, relates them and shows them how they bear on one another. The easiest thing in religious life today is to think Christ doesn’t bear on your existence. Oblation disrupts this myth without ever naming it. Proclaiming the Eternal Word, I saw this year, is important for every single moment of human life. Reconciling the Eternal Word and the right-now is what preaching is.
And preaching’s been on my mind during this pre-graduation precipice, wavering between college and the hereafter. Barring any thunderbolts, the other end of my precipice is St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, NY, where I’ll be studying in the fall as a seminarian for the Diocese of Albany, NY. Oblation has made me think harder about preaching. The year has shown me how hard it is squash my own preferences in favor of offering what people most need. But it’s also reminded me how much people want that one needful thing (Lk 10:42) and respond when they find it. Please keep me in your prayers; I’ll pray for you. And I will try not to lose the wild instability that is trusting and preaching Christ.
Allison D’Ambrosia St. Mary’s College, Class of 2016
During my time at Oxford I’ve been given numerous titles: “Blackfriars Girl,” “Rower,” “The American,” “One of the Americans,” as well as being attached to certain people as “____’s Friend.” However, the most interesting title I think I’ve been given thus far has been the “Little Catholic Girl.”
A week ago I attended a dinner put on by the Christian Union of a neighboring college. There were 3 different witness talks given, which provided an interesting sense of Christianity here in England and, especially, at Oxford. At one point during the dinner a peer of mine leaned over and asked, “Has it been difficult coming from America, where the majority of the middle class is religious, to coming to England where people that would identity as practicing religious people would be around or even under 5%?” This question really struck me, and I had to think about the answer for a while. Growing up in a mostly Jewish town in New Jersey and then moving to the strongly rooted Catholic city of South Bend, Indiana, I’ve never experienced a culture that was mostly secular. My naïveté is visible in this particular upbringing of mine as whenever I meet a new person, I do not assume them to be of no religion but rather my assumption, or projection maybe, is that they are of some Christian denomination. Being part of the Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame communities has turned this assumption into a near presumption that everyone else is Catholic. However, that is not the case here at Oxford.
Being at Oxford has forced me into a lot of first experiences: the first time I worked a laundry machine on my own, the first time I set up my bedroom by myself, the first time I didn’t have about 6 hours of required class time a day. Additionally, being at Oxford has marked the first time I’ve surrounded myself with non-religious people (seeing as how I’ve gone to Catholic school my whole life), the first time I’ve been laughed at for believing in God, the first time I’ve had to go to Mass by myself, the first time I’ve chosen to go to Mass by myself, the first time I genuinely felt that my beliefs were truly being challenged in my everyday life. The experience that has been the hardest for me, though, is that this is the first time my religious beliefs have torn down relationships, rather than fostering them and making them stronger.
After listening to the witness talks at the aforementioned dinner, I was reminded that everyone sees God in a different capacity—some through helping the poor and homeless, some through the written word of the Gospels, some through the beauty of nature. I have always seen God in my personal relationships. In hindsight I’ve realized that everyone I’ve met, whether that be for one second or 14 years, was the right person at the right time. Sometimes it’s easy to justify dissolving relationships because it was “bad timing.” But was it really bad timing, or were we just not willing to put in the effort to see the goodness of that difficult relationship? Were the difficulties bad timing or were they there to make us realize all of our other blessings? Were the troubles meant to help us confide in others, build up other relationships, and come to a deeper understanding of the people that love us?
The Collect for the First Sunday of Lent states,
“Grant, almighty God, through the yearly observances of holy Lent, that we may grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ and by worthy conduct pursue their effects. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.”
It is in the Trinity that God is forever rooted in relationship as Father, Son, and Spirit. The mystery of the Trinity allows us insight into the mystery of our own relationships as well. During Lent we must acknowledge our discomfort in order to gain insight into understanding the richness that is to come through the Easter sacrifice. It is in my discomfort at being called the “Little Catholic Girl” that I then have to refortify myself in affirming my beliefs; it is in accepting the discomfort of not being evaluated on my own merit but on the merits of those with whom I am associated; and it is in the discomfort of relationships not working out that I have to evaluate my perspective and realize the goodness of others around me who are willing and able to provide love and support.
I think I’m so bad at letting friendships go—either suddenly or gradually—because it feels injurious to me to stop loving someone once I have started, like I’m cutting off a limb, and yet blood will just keep flowing in that direction. I’ve never stopped loving any of the friends I’ve lost. At times, I’ve felt misunderstood and projected upon, and as a result, angry. But the anger can co-exist next to the love. I wonder what they’re eating for breakfast. I wonder what they’re reading. I wonder if there was anything redemptive about our parting: Have I become a better person? A better friend? Do I see myself accurately? Do I expect too much? Have I learned to say sorry in a way that someone can hear? Do I understand how to nurture a friendship through transition with more grace?
I am not an out of sight, out of mind type of person, but rather an in sight, out of mind or an out of sight, in mind person. When I’m with someone I no longer wonder what they are up to, how they are doing, or if they are having a nice day, because I’m able to live in the moment in the company of that person. However, at the same time, I’m also wondering those questions about the people I’m not with. I often find myself answering the phone “Hello, I was just thinking about you!” Which actually frightens people most of the time, but it is true. My brain is constantly focused on my relationships. Why? It seems like I could/should be focusing on other things like the 11,000 words I have to write this week or the stroke I’m taking while rowing, but no. I’m thinking about my relationships. But my perpetual focus on others is not a distraction; rather, it is acknowledging the beauty and love of communion with others that is a reflection of the Trinity. And the difficulties I face in learning to live with the discomfort of letting go of or working through relationships is part of making that trinitarian communion a reality in my daily life.
The essence of the Trinity lies in God’s relationship with himself as a community, a communion of Persons. Because we are made in the imago dei,because of the love in which we are created, we are also meant to live in loving relationships with others. Lent teaches us to recognize this love and beauty in the darkness and to find the light, and, with God’s help, we are here to guide each other in that recognition of that gift and that grace—even if it is uncomfortable.
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life