A note to my Among Friends readers: We feed our souls as well as our bodies. This blog is more serious than some but I hope you will receive it in the spirit of joy it is given. Bear with me as I figure out how to write a blog, and how to write more often. -Lizann
Reasons of the Heart
I awoke a few Fridays back, with winter in the air. Not a full fragrance but whiffs of that crisp cool smell of shorter days and longer nights. I had the sense that this day would be different from my routine Friday but not yet conscious of how it would unfold.
A quick breakfast, a quick bike ride, a quick shower. When I started to pull on my black dress up tights and skirt, I knew that my mind had made up itself while I had slept. I would make the 3-hour trip to the Notre Dame campus to go to the funeral of my once beloved theology teacher John Dunne. I drove the car but something else drove me…an overriding desire to dip my toes into the sea of eternity, the sea that swells despite my deafness to its daily song.
I arrived at the Basilica with no time to spare, having abandoned my car at the bookstore parking lot and sprinted as fast as my sensible heels would allow. I slid into a pew in the back.
I looked around and knew no one, except for a few of the robed priests on the altar. However, I felt decidedly unalone remembering my teacher’s twinkle.
I couldn’t begin to draw a portrait of this man John, who almost looked elfin, but whose ideas were expansive, generous, and without boundary, except for goodness and kindness.
I can tell you that he was celebrated by Time Magazine and in the hallowed halls of Oxford. I can tell you he appeared on the cover of Psychology Today. I can tell you his second book, A Search for God in Time and Memory, was heralded by Newsweek in 1970 as the most important nonfiction book of the Year. But what I cannot tell you is far more than what I can. I cannot play the music that was this man. I can only share my notes.
John Dunne taught more students than anyone in the history of the University of Notre Dame. I was one of those undergraduates, a junior, the spring of 1981. I confided my frustration to my friend, another John, at being closed out of John Dunne’s course. And he said, “Come with me to his graduate seminar. There are only 12 of us, mostly men. He’ll look at you with bemusement and then sign your form because he won’t be able to say no to you. He‘s not big on forms. Must drive the registrar crazy.”
My friend was right. Fr. Dunne began his course with the words: “If I must some day die, what can I do to satisfy my desire to live?” I remember recording the words in my notebook and in my bones. He spent the semester introducing us to his concept of “passing over,” from one’s original traditions and views into an embracing of other cultures and ways of thinking. We would then return, he promised, with a deeper, wiser, and more vigorous commitment to our original traditions. Father paced the room with excitement. His delivery was simple and luminous, belying the complexity of his intellect. (Oh how I labored over his books at night.)
I sat in the front row to bask in that light, and tried like the devil to keep up with his lectures-never from notes and always beginning each class exactly where he had left off two or three days before.
One evening a few students from our class gathered in downtown South Bend at a vegetarian restaurant. I can’t call to mind the restaurant’s name and I certainly couldn’t tell you what I had for dinner. But I’ll never forget Fr. Dunne’s dessert, cheesecake with a scoop of ice cream on top. (If I had known any “outsized” Texas jokes at that time in my life, I might have made one.)
I was flabbergasted that this light spiritual being could eat with such gusto.
But I shouldn’t have been.
Despite Fr. Dunne’s rigorous work habits, (or perhaps because of them) he seemed to take delight in small rituals. The semester after I finished his course, I ran into him in the Huddle and he shyly asked me if I would join him for coffee or tea. So we sat. And after inquiring about my studies, he told me he was feeling celebratory because he had in the previous hour finished the book he was writing. How will you spend the afternoon, I asked. He looked at me with a smile and said: “I’ll write. I’ll work on the first paragraph of my next book.”
It was during this same conversation between two shy friends that Fr. Dunne told me that he had grown up in Texas, that he had a younger brother and sister, and that if he hadn’t been a theologian he would have been a musician. He was wistful when he talked about his music, and I could see that this road was his road not taken.
These memories came unbidden but welcome as I sat taking in John’s funeral, my heart even fuller knowing that in Sorin Hall, just across from the Basilica, my oldest son was toiling away on a school assignment. I would get to hold my Notre Dame sophomore close before I drove home.
The funeral was simple and spare despite the Gothic church, heavy incense and the sea of priests in white robes and brocaded vestments on the altar. John’s friend, the homilist, used no extraneous words. He said that although John could not speak at his end, he believes John would want to say to his siblings and friends. “Thank you. Forgive me. And I love you.”
The homilist answered John Dunne’s question: “If I must die, then what must I do to satisfy the desire to live?”
The procession to the cemetery was quiet, prayerful, and sober, but not somber. The cemetery is a community cemetery for the Holy Cross order, the founders and guardians of the University. Simple white crosses mark all the graves. Nothing to mark the earthly fame and erudition of those buried here.
“Thank you. Forgive me. And I love you.” Words to live by and to die by.
Postscript: My funeral experience ended with laughter. Our family friend Fr. Bill Lies, a Holy Cross priest, spotted me across the cemetery and brought me over with an expansive wave of his big hands and heart. Pointing to the rows and rows of crosses, he said: “SO, What do you think of my real estate investment?”