Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Catholic Life in the Ivy League: Memories of Yale University and St. Mary's, New Haven

[Stephen Schmalhofer will be recognized by some of our readers as the former blogger from For God, For Country and For Yale -- which we only recently mentioned again in the context of the question, "where have all the liturgically oriented university blogs gone?" As the title of his former blog intimates, Stephen is a graduate of Yale University where he studied history and pursued athletics. He is also interested in the sacred liturgy. This will be the first of a few submissions by Stephen.]

NLM Guest Article by Stephen Schmalhofer

In 2004, Yale University admitted only 9.9% of the 20,000 applicants to Yale College. I enrolled in August and found myself on an Ivy covered playground. Yalies are often named among the happiest undergraduates. Administrators blanket the campus with self-congratulatory nods to Yale's U.S. Presidents, CEOs, and academic stars. The promise is that a Yale degree is a sorcerer’s stone, turning leaden undergraduates into gold, joining the brilliant, wealthy and powerful.

Why would anyone numbered among the chosen 9.9% decide to go to Mass?

In Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, Binx Bollings admits, "[b]efore, I wandered as a diversion. Now I wander seriously and sit and read as a diversion." Course work at Yale was the diversion. As the first student from my small Catholic school to matriculate, I naively assumed that Yale would educate me. Opening the course catalogue was like surveying the ruins of a great civilization. The outlines and rough forms were there under headings for History, Economics, Philosophy, and Literature. But they were the lone arches of crumbled buildings, encroached by weeds like "the Philosophy of Harry Potter." I was blessed to study under a few great scholars: Paul Freedman, Mary Habeck, Ivan Marcus. Others were the usual collection of academic stereotypes: the distracted researcher, the aging Socialist, the dramatized lecturer, the cheerleader for an obscure subject.

In Yale's gothic courtyards, libraries, residential colleges, and Payne Whitney Gymnasium aka "the cathedral of sweat", I wandered. On Hillhouse Avenue, "the most beautiful street in America", I stepped into St. Mary's. It was an experience of beauty, an aesthetic wrapped in virtue and truth. On an Ivy League campus, it was a rare thing: unashamed, confident Truth! Not a self-conscious peer-reviewed hypothesis or a timidly footnoted factoid. Not a smug wink at old traditions and certitudes or a dissolving intellectual fad. It was the Truth, stripped naked, hung on a Cross, offered on an altar, Flesh to eat, Blood to drink.

The Dominican Church of St. Mary's, New Haven, CT.
(Photo courtesy of the Society of St. Hugh of Cluny)

I breathed the air of St. Mary's, taking deep drags thick with the Presence that separates a Catholic Church from an oddly decorated room. Incense burned with the prayers of two millennia. Candles flickered and kneelers dropped on hard wood. A bell chimed and I heard something come floating down from the choir loft. What was that music? It was so beautiful, so sublime, and so... sacred. I had never heard chant and my soul leapt like John in the womb of St. Elizabeth. My previously spoken prayers and off-tune responses seemed so inadequate. Chant returned my voice at Mass. The Kyrie was finally a suitable expression of penitence, before rolling into thanksgiving at the Gloria. Instead of sounding like the Pledge of Allegiance, the chanted Credo turned dogma into prayer. While every Mass is the source and summit of our faith, here was a place that worshipped as though that were true and not just a rote line in the Catechism. It reduced other campus religious offerings to ersatz ritual: Yale Divinity students burning the 10 Commandments for Ash Wednesday, Campus Crusaders for Christ huddling around a guitar, the campus chapel emptied out for silent "meditation."

If the liturgy wars were raging at St. Mary's, I was blissfully unaware. Instead of pandering to the fickle tastes of college students, I found something wonderfully consistent on Hillhouse Avenue. Priests said Mass without egotism. Instead of stumbling towards "relevance," homilies stayed fresh by addressing the saint's daily feast or the Holy Father's recent remarks. Ignoring pop songs and movie quotes, source material came from the great deposit of Catholic theology that every Dominican masters. Mass was never hurried or impatient, always paced with moments of silent reflection. Latin was simply the language for the Ordinary and most of the Propers, not a tribal totem. The schola stayed in the loft, only their chants entered the sanctuary.

An Ivy League athlete is naturally adjusted to sacrifice. A full load of classes is scheduled around morning film sessions, afternoon weight-lifting and evening practices. Without "redshirt" years, we race to gain weight. To make the switch from linebacker to defensive tackle, I learned new math: 7 daily meals for a total of 5000 calories = 60 lbs. I have felt the crushing weight of 500 lbs. on my back and oxygen starved lungs after morning runs. I have seen teammates limp into Mass with ice bags on their knees and neck, twisting with cramps as they kneel. This liturgy was demanding and that suited me perfectly. Disciplined eating made sense and fasting was the religious corollary. Prayerful posture was inoffensive as technique is drilled hundreds of time at practice. A football player told to face the sideline to receive a play-call will find "facing East" to be an appropriate liturgical orientation. My best coaches understood that they could not coerce us into effort or excellence. They must propose, instruct, and motivate with the unique and delicate temperament of each player in careful consideration. While liturgy at St. Mary's was demanding, it never imposed a specific emotion. I felt joy on the darkest of Good Fridays, and deep sadness on the most glorious feast days.

Even on an idyllic campus, there were crises of confidence. Why was I propping my eyes open over some dry textbook? Why did I wake up early to sweat in the gym? Why did my back hurt? Why was I force feeding myself? What is the point of a history major? Across campus the Friars' bore greater burdens. Their study was more intense than mine. Their regimen of prayer was more strict than any offseason training program. What animated them? Where did they draw strength? I have charged into the Yale Bowl on game day. At commencement, I watched the university president march to the podium. But when an elderly Friar exited the sacristy and tenderly processed to the altar, I saw a strength unmatched. Leaning forward, each step was a prayer with the weight of a thousand confessions and midnight calls pressing down. He wasn't walking aimlessly for a procession demands a destination. His destination was his strength: to the altar of God, to the God who gives joy to my youth!

There is the lesson for campus chaplains, for youth ministers, for parents, for pastors. The temptation is to provide undergraduates with an endless supply of activities, bands, dinners, trips, and lectures. These can be great blessings. But first consider: Why are they wandering? Instead of a diversion, make sure they find something beautiful and true. A soft-spoken Bavarian whose primary focus is the Queen of the Sciences, not biology or physics, remarked that “as soon as one recognizes the incomparable grandeur of the whole, one's vision penetrates farther and the question arises about a God who is at the origin of all things."

Stephen Schmalhofer studied history at Yale University and formerly blogged at "For God, For Country and For Yale." He resides in New City where he works in finance and is a parishioner at the Church of Our Saviour.

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