Reflections on the Transcendentals

During the Fall Break pilgrimage, three students were invited to give reflections on the Transcendentals: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. Their reflections are gathered here:

by Katherine Smith

Katherine Smith

“He isn’t safe, but He is good,” says Mr. Beaver of Aslan to Susan Pevensie in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Susan doesn’t quite know what to make of this. Her understanding of what is good has always aligned with what she sees as safe. (Most of us, I think, can relate.) (Yet) Nervousness and apprehension meet intrigue and excitement in Susan’s great desire to know the mysterious Aslan—true king of Narnia—the one who isn’t safe, but who is good.

Like Susan in Narnia, my own life has been characterized by this deep desire for Goodness and knowing the One who is Good. Like Susan, the desire for Goodness has run concurrently with a call to surrender my ideas of safety and comfort to our adventurous and loving God who is good. Like Susan, I am learning anew each day what it means to trust in Christ’s radical invitation to meet Him in His Goodness.

As a child, I pursued goodness through the wholesomeness of an incredibly loving family, in the beauty of creation, and though relationship with others: neighbors, elderly friends, my Church community. Striving for goodness in my own life and person was my way of letting true Goodness, which my gentle, child-like heart could perceive and receive, pervade my life. Naturally, as I grew older what I saw around me and experienced myself began to adjust my inherent trust in God’s goodness. I no longer found everything around me as good. While the potential for this goodness remained, I reserved my trust in goodness, as I knew it, for my family, close friends and only that which I knew well. At the age of fifteen this method of holding close to myself that which I could trust as good and carefully presenting only what I viewed as good to the world was challenged, before being utterly shattered. To my hesitation, my family of then seven kids with two incredible parents, decided to adopt two new children—four-month-old Breanna and six-year-old Nolan. After six years of trauma and abuse, Nolan came to us with deep psychological and spiritual wounds that keep him from forming attachments with people. He is a child who refuses to be loved. Everything about this situation makes me cry out to God in frustration. “This is not good,” my heart says. “Where is the power of your love, Lord?” I ask. But out of my shattered vision of goodness, God has asked me to look through the broken pieces and discover the presence of His love. Under Nolan’s brokenness, pain, and anger, is the reality that he is good because God loves him totally. Though the glimpses of Nolan’s receptivity of his own goodness prove few, God continues to show me and my family that the beauty of the human person is in the love which He bears for them and the inherent capacity for goodness that this creates, even though this goodness may only become manifest through the desire for that love and goodness.

While I thought maybe God was teaching me enough about His deeper Goodness through Breanna and Nolan, He thought otherwise (I’m learning this is quite typical!) Once again I heard Him say, “I am not safe, but I am good,” this time with a call to a deeper joy in Him. With this desire now rooted inside of me I found myself in Kolkata, India serving with the Missionaries of Charity. Immense suffering and destitution confronted me. Again I cried out to Jesus, “Where is the goodness here? Where is Your joy?” The intense suffering around me seemed devoid of life and hope. Yet, Jesus kept asking me to enter into this poverty—and not only another’s poverty, but my own. The desire (call) to rest in Christ’s poverty became a continual ache inside of me—one of both longing and loathing. I wanted to see the goodness in his poverty, but it hurt. I knew it meant letting my own heart be broken up, just like the women and children whom I served. Could I let my heart be broken to see His Goodness?

That’s what Mother Teresa proposed, but I didn’t necessarily want to listen. Before Kolkata, I thought Mother Teresa and I were friends. In Kolkata, I just felt like she was picking on me the whole time. Her words and example are beautiful but living them out proved far more difficult than I expected. Still, through her invitation to sit at the foot of the Cross and hear Jesus’s call of “I thirst,” I learned to turn into the depths of poverty of both the women and children I served, and myself—and really of Christ.  At first I thought that I was throwing all caution and safety to the winds. I felt alone. But, when I released my need for comfort, Jesus showed me that His goodness isn’t my own control of safety. His goodness is not safe as I know it, but it is the surety of Christ’s protective arms stretched out on the Cross for me: it is His sacrificial love. Slowly, through my work and prayer in Kolkata, the pure goodness of His sacrificial love began to overwhelm me. In the smiles of the women, in the giggles of the children, in the commitment of the sisters and volunteers, and in the presence of the Eucharist I realized that His Goodness was revealing to me a deeper joy. This joy is hidden deep in the wound of Christ’s side, but being taken up into the poverty of that wound means being close—so incredibly close—to Jesus in all that we do. Jesus doesn’t call us to His Goodness so that we can be alone and unsafe. He calls us to His Goodness so that we can be with Him (and let our hearts join in the adventure of His love). It is a trustfall—a surrender—so we think it isn’t safe, but Jesus always catches us. He catches us with the goodness of His love and the deep joy that grows from this most fertile soil.

At this point in my life I am a college student. I am no longer at home with my family or in Kolkata—both places which stripped away comfort and pushed me to see a deeper Goodness. But, while I may be living what most people would consider a normal life, I encounter hundreds of people on a daily basis and I see them looking for goodness too. We’re all looking for it always—for the Goodness of the sacrificial love of Christ. (We know it when we see it.) But what will we sacrifice for it? What keeps us from jumping into the arms of Goodness? What do we distrust?

Whether we like to admit it or not, we all have a little, or a lot, of Nolan inside of us. It is the part of us that resists being loved—that resists the sacrificial love of Christ. We don’t trust in God’s Goodness and are afraid of what might happen if we did. Because, when we truly receive this love, our only response is one of sacrificial love as well—of giving all of ourselves back to God. It’s radical, not comfortable, but it is Good.

I know that Jesus wants me to continue finding His Goodness in my life by allowing His Love into my own heart and by recognizing His love for every human heart. I know that He wants me to give other people the opportunity to encounter His Goodness, not because of my own attempts at goodness, but in the way that I let His Goodness transform me. It is not what we do ourselves, but in who we are, in His love, that Goodness speaks.

Our world needs Goodness; our Church needs Goodness; we need Goodness. What we truly need is Christ. He is the answer to our own need and the response to the world’s needs. I pray that we might have the courage to respond to Christ by first letting His Goodness meet us in our littleness. He does the same for us on the Cross and in the Eucharist. When we gaze upon the Eucharist and receive Jesus as a tiny piece of bread, let us remember that it is in the simple, subtle, unassuming ways that Jesus calls us to something greater. Though for our safety driven eyes, this Goodness sometimes seems hidden, it is real and alive, and it waits for us. Take courage, though He is not safe, He is good.

by Keenan White

Keenan Reflection

Good evening, everyone.  It is wonderful to be here with all of you tonight.

I was asked to speak to you tonight about beauty.  As a person very much inclined towards rationality and practicality, this is not the sort of topic I am used to reflecting on.  But, I am grateful for this opportunity to consider a part of my experience – and I believe everyone’s experience – that can often go overlooked – the truly beautiful.

In some way, being asked to ‘speak’ on beauty is itself a difficult task – how can mere words properly describe the truly beautiful? But, I know a place that is beautiful, and telling you about it – and my experience with it – might serve as a helpful start.  This is a place that I have not only experienced as having a physical beauty, but also a transcendent beauty.  I have found it to be beautiful in itself and at the same time beautiful in the way it speaks to the deeper truths of our person, our world, and our faith.  

I imagine, when many think of ‘Notre Dame’, they think of our American football team, or perhaps of the golden dome. But, I think it may be a minority who think of the Grotto.

Tucked behind the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and overlooking our two lakes is a life-sized replica of the Grotto at Lourdes, where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette.  Among members of the Notre Dame family and visitors to campus, the relatively ‘small’ Grotto looms larger than its size – that is, the gravity of its beauty pulls stronger – it seems to pull the person more forcefully than the passion of the football team or the grandeur of the golden dome.  Why?

As a senior, let me tell you: On a warm spring afternoon (of which I can attest, there are some in South Bend), there’s nowhere a Notre Dame student would rather be than enjoying the first glimpses of new life with their classmates on the quad. On a football Saturday, there’s certainly nowhere an Irish fan wants to be but inside the stadium.

But, when a Notre Dame student is at their very lowest—sleep deprived and overwhelmed or in the midst of tragedy—or at their very highest—upon the successful completion of an exam or after a successful interview—a Notre Dame student unfailingly finds him or herself at the Grotto, in an almost unthought and yet completely understood human reaction. This Grotto is a place for all seasons, both literally and spiritually.

About a month ago I read a letter written to Father Hesburgh by Dr. Dooley, a 1970s era Notre Dame student, as he lay dying in a Hong Kong hospital during the Vietnam War. Dr. Dooley writes:

“I realize the external symbols that surround one when he prays are not important…But just now . . . and just so many times, how I long for the Grotto. Away from the Grotto Dooley just prays. But at the Grotto, especially now when there must be snow everywhere and the lake is ice glass and that triangular fountain on the left is frozen solid . . . if I could go to the Grotto now then I think I could sing inside...This is soggy sentimentalism I know. Cold prayers from a hospital bed are just as pleasing to God as more youthful prayers from a Grotto on the lid of night… That Grotto is the rock to which my life is anchored.”

This letter resonated in a particular way with me in light of an experience I had last year.

Last year was the hardest year of my life to date. In October my father walked out on my family—my mom, myself and my 6 younger siblings. I had to deal with this earth-shattering tragedy in the midst of maintaining a rigorous academic schedule and juggling various extracurricular responsibilities. All the while, my relationship with my boyfriend of two years was crumbling. Throughout the year I described to family and friends that it felt like I was buried alive, and just as I was beginning to see the light of day, having dug myself out of my hole, a dump truck would come and drop another load, leaving me even further from the light.

I can remember a specific evening during the Spring Semester when I was at my lowest. I felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness, having lost two of the most important people in my life, as well as apprehension for the future, and longing for the way things used to be.

It was Super Bowl Sunday. That February evening snow had been falling and a fresh coat blanketed the campus. I recall being moved by a distinct beauty in the untouched snow, unadulterated by the trampling of passers-by. And uniquely, that night, when there ordinarily would have been dozens of students on the quad at any given time, there was no one in sight.

Wanting to be alone, I walked down to the Grotto.  The Grotto was at its very best that night—everything Dr. Dooley described and more. Snow fell silently and glistening from hundreds of candles— a literal beacon of light on a dark, cold winter night.  In the snow the reflection of glimmering candles literally lights up the entire area.

The Grotto, almost never empty, regardless of the time or temperature, was deserted. I had Our Lady all to myself.

Despite the cold, I found myself unable to leave. I lit a candle and knelt to pray. But then I sat on a bench, and beholding the most beautiful sight I think I have ever seen, I simply wept.  The beauty of the space and my experience with it was one of the most profound moments of faith I had ever experienced.

I wept from sadness, but also because I felt the most overwhelming peace.  What was before me – indeed, what I believe I had been invited to experience, was so beautiful, so good, and so true, that I could not leave.

All of this is not simply to brag about how beautiful Notre Dame is—though that is certainly a happy side effect—rather this is all to say that in the midst of crisis, when we as individuals, communities, or a Church, walk through the valley of the shadow of death, it is often beauty that serves as a beacon of light in the darkness.

As Dr. Dooley expressed, though physical beauty may merely be an ornament or accessory to prayer, it brings hope in the midst of crisis and suffering.

Physical beauty is a reminder that sin and suffering are temporary things of this world. The glimpses of divine beauty that grace us in the spectacle of the Grotto on a snowy night, a beautiful basilica, or a great force of nature, are hope-filled reminders that our God is perfect beauty, perfect, truth, perfect goodness—unadulterated by sin and suffering. They are reminders to keep our eyes lifted towards the heavens.

As young persons, there is something that rests heavily on our minds this week as we pilgrimage—the current situation (some may say ‘crisis’) within our Church.

Like the Grotto at Notre Dame has been for me, I pray that the Church, in all her splendor, serves as a beacon of light and warmth to the world, especially in these difficult moments. Let us all look to and strive to be living signs of beauty as we work together to overcome sin and suffering.

Thank you.

by John Paul Ferguson

Jack Reflection

I’ve been asked to reflect on truth tonight.  In the American legal system, we swear in court under oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  It’s that middle tenet of the oath that I think needs to apply to the Church today.  When truth is proclaimed partially or incompletely, it can be as misleading as a lie. In divided times, unity can only be built on truth.  This kind of truth is what my friends, my peers, my classmates, and my fellow young men and women throughout the world need to hear proclaimed wholeheartedly, courageously, and lovingly from the Church.  First, the Church—you all— need to teach us the truth, for our youth is the most formative time of our lives, and second, the Church—you all—must inspire us with truth, to transform our just-beginning lives into ones of evangelization and sainthood in imitation of our Lord.

We need to be taught.  Many young people I know have left the Catholic Church, but it’s because they reject a false idea of what the Church is.  They have not heard the whole truth of what Jesus Christ proclaimed, and what he asks of us, how he asks us to respond to his love.  Any of my friends could tell you that Jesus taught love.  But too many have no idea what this love consists of.  Even many of those who attended Catholic grade schools and high schools, never had their parents, their teachers, or their priests give them the formation they need to be a saint. They have heard partially, but not completely.  Looking to our Lord for example, he was unafraid to make known the entire truth of His person, even when he was mocked for it. I hope and ask that the whole truth of the human person, our persons, be made known to my generation.  My namesake, Saint John Paul II, used this as the basis for his Theology of the Body that inspired my parents and many in their generation.  He was such a joyful, fearless warrior for the truth of the human person, that our bodies and our sexuality have a language that we must communicate with truthfully; anything else is a lie.  Two of my best friends back on campus were never told any of this in his confirmation preparation or his high school religious education.  All they ever heard was “Jesus loves you,” and they were kind of sick of it. Their understanding of Catholicism had no depth, and therefore no strength. When they came to Notre Dame, they began to finally receive instruction in his faith; they read the Bible for the first time, they encountered Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas, and when my friends finally understood, they were free to believe. I’ve been able to watch their conversion, and it’s liberating. They’ve finally given the whole picture, instead of a watered-down version, regarding personal holiness, the sacraments, the Mass, personal relationships, sexuality as self-gift, etc.  It was something they were desiring so badly, but they didn’t know it because they weren’t receiving it. Now this transformation doesn’t mean they’re perfect, but now they’ve entered the struggle, they’re trying.  Their fight is something is something I admire so much, because of how great Catholics they aim to be.  The release I witnessed in my friend’s face when I talk to them about their encounter with the fullness of the truth was beautiful.

We need to be inspired.  I think one of the most inspirational aspects of our faith is the lives of the saints, especially the young ones.  This is something the Church can renew its promotion of, using their stories to enkindle in us the desire to receive and respond to God’s personal call to each one of us.  We need to perceive our narratives in the light of supernatural grace, and recognize our subsequent vocation to radical holiness.  As we grow up, we must know that we are not called to mediocrity, to complacency, to toleration.  We are called, through the Holy Spirit, to Heavenly greatness. Every saint was a sinner, but every sinner is called to be a saint.  Let us engage with the witness of these great men and women of our tradition, so that we become what we behold.  Becoming a saint is a continual transformation, and the witness starts with you, the clergy.  We look up to you, we are your children, we literally call you “Father.”  In order for us to act upon what we profess, you must profess what we all believe.  And this profession must be based upon the one Truth that we’ve been handed down, one that we do not invent or change over time.  We young people are not going to change Jesus Christ’s Church; we need Jesus Christ’s Church to be changing us, transforming us, and converting us, as the mediator of sacramental grace.  At the Mass, we recite the “Credo,” the “I believe something,” not the “Cupio,” “I want something.”

Lastly, though there should always be an urgency with salvation, as Peter perhaps overzealously jumped out of the boat naked to swim towards our Lord on the shore just to be near him, let us keep in mind that our Lord can play the long game.  I implore you on behalf of my generation to never let your urgency become a compromised urgency.  The Gospel tells us Jesus looked at the rich young man with love, but let Him walk away sad when he refused to respond to the call.  The Gospel also tells us that droves of his former disciples walked away grumbling after the Bread of Life sermon.  Never did he run after them, asking them to change their minds, offering to negotiate or make things easier.  Jesus doesn’t make settlements, he prosecutes for the win every time.  Please imitate this purity of intention when you leave this synod and begin again to evangelize my fellow young people.  Give us the full truth—the difficulties and the rewards—of the call to be a saint.  Please give us the beauty, the goodness, and the liberation of the truth, as you seek to guide us to give our thoughts, our wills, our prayers, and our lives to Him, always through Her.