Monday, February 16, 2015


Perhaps there are advantages to being an outsider. One gets too accustomed to names. At any rate I found it extremely touching that a university, a community of scholars, a great football team, should call itself quite simply and by the two lovely words, Our Lady. 

It is natural, as a human, to think that our Thing is better than equivalent Things. Our country is better than the other people's country; or, as a taxi cab driver tried to argue with me at 1am coming back from LaGuardia, "Our God is better than Your God," which was his explanation of comparative religions. I nodded politely and hemmed and hawed noncommittally, while praying that he would stop comparing humans practicing different religions to mosquitos worshiping Super Mosquitos and drive me directly home.
When we were in a safe distance of my home (i.e., I could make a run for it if things took a turn for the worse), I suggested that maybe religions were not fundamentally about violence, but were easily appropriate for violent causes needing ideologies to back them. For good measure, I threw in that perhaps human beings were substantially (not just accidentally) different from mosquitos.

Lesson learned: from now on, I'm taking public transit.

Back to my original point: we all come equipped with a natural, healthy dose of patriotism. If not directed at our country, it usually attaches itself to our family, our hometown, our city, our state, our house, our sports team. We choose favorites, not because they are empirically better than the competition, but because they are ours.
Ironically, this favoritism can often blind us to the true merits of its object, not out of a lack of love, but because we often do not step back and objectively judge the object of our affection.
I love my mother, and believe her to be the best of all mothers. But, in fact, many of my friends or relations--or, perhaps, strangers--could have a truer image of how successful my mother is as a mother. They are able to judge on her objective merits. I am, in a sense, blinded, by my unwavering (and warranted) filial devotion.

This was mostly how I felt towards Notre Dame.
I do not boast to my friends that my mother is the best of all mothers, because I know they also have mothers of whom they believe the same truth. Thus, we sort of bear the truth that Ours is the Best silently in our breast, and respond to others accolades with an embarrassment which is necessary for those who believe something to be true, but wouldn't be caught dead admitting it.
I felt this sort of embarrassment for Notre Dame, and when people would comment on my school of origin, I would make a self-deprecating remark about football and white privilege, and change the subject as quickly as possible.
We all have alma maters, and none of them have fight songs proclaiming: we think we're only just as good as everybody else. In general, the rhetoric of schools (particularly in the field, court, or arena) is the rhetoric of: we are the greatest, we are the best, and any self-respecting person with a healthy dose of irony is going to be skeptical about such rhetoric, and wary of any inkling on their part to believe it. It is one thing to unabashedly assert yourself on the football field or what have you, but it's all a pretense, we know, this language of competition. We know that we, and what we rejoice to call our own, are not really empirically the best-- it is just ours, and endlessly beloved for being so.

The motto of the Laetare Medal is, I understand, "Magna est veritas et praevalebit". I like to think it applies even to the humble vocation of the novelist. In my last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, I tried to show how, while truth should prevail, it is a disaster when only one kind of truth prevails at the expense of others.
--Walker Percy, Laetare Medal acceptance speech, University of Notre Dame, 1989

So, it came as a surprise when I realized that Notre Dame, the University of Notre Dame, means something--something quite important--outside of my love of it. Even if I did not love it, if I, in fact, hated it, the University of Notre Dame had an objective meaning and importance outside of my own experience.
As I was reading Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos, I was struck by a casual mention of Notre Dame at the end of the book. In a fanciful thought experiment, he designates the University of Notre Dame as the cradle of a new civilization that is born out of the smoldering ashes of a nuclear catastrophe. Just like the first universities, Notre Dame becomes a center of learning and truth for this post-apocalyptic new world, which propels them past basic survival, into a true thriving.
It is just brief mention, and hardly central to the book at all. But the very casualness of the reference made it all the more poignant.
For the truth is, in this context, Notre Dame was shorthand for Catholic learning. It was chosen as a figure that continued the noble tradition of the liberal arts as a pursuit of Truth, as a road for humanity discovering their fundamental humanness.
It was an image Percy chose, because, theoretically, any read of his book would recognize the image, and understand what it signified. They would recognize the image of Notre Dame, and understood exactly what it stood for.

If only one kind of truth prevails, the technical and abstract truth of science, then nothing stands in the way of the demeaning of and destruction of human life for what appear to some to be reasonable short term goals. It is no accident, I think, that German science, great as it was, ended in the Holocaust. 
--Walker PercyLaetare Medal acceptance speech, University of Notre Dame, 1989

Analogously, the very name of an Ivy League school instantly summons up images of its own: Old Money. Tradition. Prestige. Money. Ivy on brick. Intelligence. Exclusion. Inner Rings. Money. Stone Buildings. Rory Gilmore.
They are impressive images, but none of them are the ideal image of the university that brought such enlightenment to the West: the university as a place where truth is valued and sought. Where the ideas cultivated are supposed to instill in a human being a drive to make the world a better place, not to secure one's own status as a Mover and Shaker, a Person of Importance, but for the sake of the world itself.

Notre Dame seems to be in a sort of crossroads right now, an identity crisis I can sympathize with, because I was once a teenager and I get how that works. But, instead of looking to the road less traveled, Notre Dame seems to be very enamored with the Ivy League images of prestige. And doing what everyone else is doing, because everyone else is doing it. 
This university, right now, is like a thirteen-year-old girl, who, doubting her self-worth as she compares herself to her peers who have better figures, better make-up, and better houses, but still retaining an inkling of her fundamental worthiness tells herself "I am great, because I can be whatever I want to be!"
When, really, the truth is she is great, because there is only one thing that she can be: herself. And the world hungers for her as an individual, unique and glorious in the gifts only she can offer the world. 
The world will never want for institutions built on prestige, exclusion, and the tantalizing image of the inner ring, but the world certainly hungers for institutions who are selfless, humble, and dedicated to the pursuit of Truth. Institutions who are not built on injustice and privilege, but challenge their students to fight injustice, that encourage their students to turn their privileges into blessings for the world.

I was walking through campus with a friend who highlighted this same point of Walker Percy's: the University of Notre Dame stands for something, and there are millions of people who look to it as a representation of that something. The beauty that Notre Dame offers is one that springs from its own religious denomination and tradition. It does not however, only apply to those students and thinkers who are Catholic in denomination, nor does it demand a religious affiliation from the student, it simply demands a concern for truth, for the human experience, and for justice and mercy to prevail in the world.
It is not, like many worthy Catholic colleges, interested in cultivating specifically Catholic thinking for Catholics, but in passing on the vision of beauty and truth that is cultivated within the Catholic religious tradition to others, to apply it however they can, wherever they can. This university believes that the ideals of Catholicism ought to be shared, to be given away, so that the world will become a more beautiful place as a result of this human beings who have become more selfless, more compassionate, and more articulate.

One does not gain anything by pretending to be something that one is not. It would pointless of me to say that because I am Catholic, I cannot understand anyone who is not Catholic and does not share the same beliefs as me. Rather, as I am aware how deeply my own beliefs effect my behavior and color my worldview, I am eager to learn of other's beliefs as well; to hear through what lens they view the world. I am eager to exchange ideas and opinions, to share the truth as I receive it, and humbly listen to the truths I can learn from them. Through these exchanges, my knowledge can only grow. Thus, dialogue is born. 
But, if I tried to suppress my own beliefs, if I do not articulate them clearly even to myself, I could never achieve this rich, edifying dialogue: only confusion. A polite confusion may, indeed, be more politically correct, but it generally fails to inspire compassion, it does not usually help us understand our neighbor, and it is certainly not a powerful impetus for change or reason to work for justice.

I do not think it is hubristic to think that Notre Dame stands for all these things: rich dialogue, the pursuit of truth, the formation of human beings into generous agents of change. 
For, in fact, if that is truly what Notre Dame is, then its call is one of humility. It is called to acknowledge that its greatness does not lie in impressive architecture, football, or any of the things that may, on the surface, appear to constitute its greatness. Its greatness lies in the fact that, for several decades, a small school in Western Indiana has called itself by the simple name Our Lady. And, like Our Lady, its mission is nothing more than to bear Truth in the world. To foster Truth, like Our Lady, within herself, and bring others to find it within themselves.
If Notre Dame could live up to her namesake who watches over campus, she would find herself perhaps less caught up in competition to move several seats higher in the college rankings, and perhaps more occupied with humbly seeking to fulfill its own mission. To be, for the world, an image of something different--of something greater--a University whose primary concern is truth, not because of the glory it will give them, but because of the glory it can reveal in each student whose encounter with the truth brings them to life.

The novelist likes to irritate people by pointing this out. It is his pleasure and vocation to reveal, in his own allusive and indirect way, man's need of and his openings to truths other than scientific propositions. He is one of the lowliest handmaidens to the truth of the Good News, but if he, or any of us, succeeds even a bit in this task, then I say laetare indeed, let us rejoice
--Walker PercyLaetare Medal acceptance speech, University of Notre Dame, 1989


  1. Elegantly thoughtful and beautifully written. Embodied in the depth of your thoughts and the passion with which they are put to the page is the very proof you strive to convey. Love Thee (as though art) Notre Dame!

  2. Elegantly thoughtful and beautifully written. Embodied in the depth of your thoughts and the passion with which they are put to the page is the very proof you strive to convey. Love Thee (as though art) Notre Dame!