Okay so it’s not exactly a “C”, but the 2nd day of the C-Tour was spent driving to the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN, one of the most beautiful campuses in the country, located about an hour and a half southeast of Chicago just below Interstate 80. When I went to school there (in the dinosaur age), we would drive non-stop from New Jersey …a 12 hour plus odyssey of reckless adventure, usually in my friend John’s beat-up Volkswagen that got tossed out and sucked in by gargantuan truck wheels larger than the car itself. Every steep climb required a quiet prayer of encouragement, our held breath willing the Bug to make it to the top, never quite sure that it would.
We rejoiced and started breathing normally again when between the distant treetops, we could spy the Golden Dome, the university’s infamous administration building, a shining beacon beckoning us home. And home it was for four years. I’d like to say I grew up there, matured, became a fully-functioning adult, and I did in kicks and sputters – but I realized as I drove toward the school on this trip, that my heart became set on Notre Dame at the same time that my brain had begun to shred what I saw as the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church.
In my youthful naivety, it never occurred to me that ND should have been the last place I went to college. My high school counsellor was furious and advised against going to a school that had already accepted three boys from my class, but held on a final decision on me until my class rank proved too high to ignore. I justified this process with the 4-1 male-to-female ratio at a school that had just begun to admit women. My guidance counsellor remained unconvinced, looking at me with eyes that wondered if she might have been wrong about how smart I really was.
That paled as a reason though against the drama that was playing out in my family at the time. Earlier in the year, my brother had been thrown out of my Catholic high school for a senior-faculty basketball game prank. My brother was known to be a prankster. At 4’6’, he had a long history of keeping teachers and administrators on their toes. This group-planned prank turned out to be the last straw.
The parish monsignor and our high school principal were brutal in their execution of my brother’s fate. Johnny was told to leave the school or he would be expelled. Expulsion would kill his chances on attending college. He had enough credits at that point to be given his diploma and sent home for 3 months – missing all of the senior activities with his life-long friends – but no. Instead, he was forced to spend the last 3 months of his senior year at the nearest public school, a dwarf who knew few people there, thrust into a sea of ridicule when he should have been sailing into senioritis amongst friends and protectors.
There was no mercy shown by the Sisters of Mercy and I watched my brother descend that spring into a depression so deep that he never fully recovered. I HATED that Nun and Priest.
I spent my senior year doing everything I could to show them the disrespect I felt they deserved. I glowered at them in passing and would not stand for them when they entered assemblies. I remember a couple of sympathetic teachers blocking their line of vision at school gatherings, so that they would not notice I remained glued to my seat. I’d begun to hate the Catholic Church, forgetting as a wounded child that the people shielding me in those moments were also Catholic, the best examples of Catholicism in action, the real dispensers of mercy.
Despite all of this, I somehow ended up at Notre Dame anyway, avoiding Mass, quietly dismissing students’ faith and devotion as rote. The Catholic Experience and I stayed out of each other’s way for four years. I wore my religious militancy like an invisible breastplate, assigning all the good deeds I witnessed being done all around me to categories of personal self-interest, fear of God, fear of hell and damnation, investments meant to leapfrog their way into heaven.
It took me years to realize what I’d done, what I’d missed, what I’d gained and lost there. I muddled my way through my Notre Dame experience despite the Catholicism and to this day remain grateful for the dear friends I made there who are my family, who accepted me then and now for what I am at heart which is contrary, confounding and often outside of their own belief systems, and for the education I managed to scrape out of it despite my best intentions to derail it.
The truth is I have never felt closer to God, or whatever spiritual “other” one might assign to that feeling of being a part of something bigger than one’s self that serves to assure us that our lives have meaning and purpose, then when I walk du Lac and say a prayer to Our Lady at the Grotto. What I have always felt there in the midst of stones and candles and icons, is the calling out for comfort by humans seeking divine guidance, all that we don’t understand and cannot humanly influence set before an altar in nature, a ritual that feels as old as time and shared by all humanity across endless religions. We all share the need for momentary solace and the hope that there are deeper truths and forces at work that hear our prayers and from time to time miraculously answer them.
Love thee Notre Dame.