By John and Jeanne Garvey
One of the lessons parents learn as their offspring reach adolescence and young adulthood, is that you can have no secrets from your children. They discover the sins of your youth, and observe the ones you carry into adult life. They are also preternaturally attuned to their parents’ moods and the unspoken thoughts that pass between them.
We had these observations in mind when we decided, a dozen years ago, to live on campus among the students. What a misfortune it would be if the younger members of our new family learned, as they inevitably would, what feet of clay the couple living in Nugent Hall had. How long could we maintain the illusion that we enjoyed a marriage unmarred by disagreement or ill temper?
That was one worry. Then there was the difficulty of following in office a president who had received the sacrament of holy orders. Fr. O’Connell filled the role of the religious leader of the community almost effortlessly. He celebrated Mass to open and close the year. It was natural for him to speak about God in his everyday affairs, not just in his homilies. He was a priest after all. But what about us, ordinary people unaccustomed to, maybe even a little uncomfortable with, displays of piety?
As it happened, we had things turned around. We came in expecting to teach our students some lessons about growing in their faith. We leave having learned more than we imparted. Simone Weil recounts how she was drawn to the Christian faith while visiting the abbey at Solesmes one Holy Week.
There was a young English Catholic there from whom I gained my first idea of the supernatural power of the sacraments because of the truly angelic radiance with which he seemed to be clothed after going to communion. … For nothing among human things has such power to keep our gaze fixed ever more intensely upon God, than friendship for the friends of God.
It has been like that for us. We have had the grace of joining our students at Masses, baptisms, confirmations, weddings, funerals, pilgrimages, marches, vespers, adoration, benediction, retreats, and stations of the cross. We have joined them in doing corporal works of mercy on service projects and spring break trips. We have heard them speak and read their essays about the virtues that comprise the Christian life. And we have listened to them as they have wrestled with the problems of growing up and the decisions that will fix the course of their lives.
We are too experienced as parents to imagine that our students are angels (though one of us is more naturally suspicious than the other). At the same time we have seen them touched, hundreds of times, by the angelic radiance that Simone Weil spoke of. And when that happens we find ourselves grateful for their example, and a little humbled that it’s they who are setting an example for us, and not the other way around.
We have also found, to our relief, that talking about our faith has come naturally, as it does to parents. Neither of us is as theologically literate as the priests in Curley or the faculty in Caldwell Hall. But it is the rare student who is drawn to the faith by reading St. Thomas Aquinas or Hans Urs von Balthasar. Pope Benedict had it right when he said “the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth … are the saints and the beauty that the faith has demonstrated.” Our conversations have taken place in that language.
Perhaps the greatest reward for our decision to live on campus has been the love the students have shown us. We have always been around universities, mostly as teachers and employees who met with students only intermittently outside class. Here we were astonished, then amused, and finally touched to learn that students were curious to know about us, and interested in making our acquaintance. We are, not to put too fine a point on it, old. It is uncommon these days for friendships to cross generational boundaries. But that has not deterred the students we have lived among. And once again we have them to thank, and not the other way around. Because “nothing among human things has such power to keep our gaze fixed … upon God” as friendship for the friends of God.