On Knowing Things That Truly Matter

Whenever I come across Groucho Marx’s advice about never wanting to join a club that would have someone like him as a member, I immediately think of the Roman Catholic Church, whose admission standards are considerably more relaxed. In fact, so wildly promiscuous is Old Mother Church that even Groucho Marx would be welcome. She owns and operates the perfect club, one that is eager to enroll everyone. If you’ve got a beating heart, then what’s keeping you? Not even sinners are excluded; indeed, it is a condition of admission that you be one. The arms of Mother Church are as wide and welcoming as the world itself. 

That image of inclusivity, of sheer expansiveness, came to me the other night when, invited to Dartmouth College to give a talk, it suddenly occurred to me that had I sought admission to so august an institution, I’d never have gotten in. But I’d have been in very good company, to be sure, inasmuch as most everyone who applies can’t seem to get in either. The figures are pretty staggering, actually. Of the twenty-one thousand plus who annually apply, less than two thousand are accepted. Do the rejects, I wonder, go on to Harvard?

So, the irony of my giving a talk to a group of students I’d never have been asked to join was not lost on me. Just thinking about it generated no end of hilarity. On the other hand, way back when I might have thought about going there, or to any of the other elite institutions to which a guy like me stood no chance of getting in, it would not have been owing to poor SAT scores alone. Not having heaps of money would most likely have been disqualifying as well. Nearly 60 percent of the students at Dartmouth, I was told, come from among the highest-earning families in the country. Sons and daughters of carpenters and plumbers need not apply.

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And so, again, how very different things are in the Roman Catholic Church, where this wonderfully permissive note is repeatedly struck—reflecting, as it were, God’s own deepest desire that everyone should belong. What this means as a practical matter is we’re all meant to fall passionately in love with his Bride, who is our Mother.

How beautifully Bernini has given this architectural expression in his famous Colonnade surrounding the great Square of St. Peter’s. The symbolism of the thing instantly, inescapably captures the whole point of Christ’s giving us a Bride and a Mother in the first place—in order that her ample and maternal arms might reach out to encompass all the pilgrims of the earth, urging them all with gentle persistence to come home to God. “You cannot have God as Father,” St. Cyprian of Carthage famously said, “if you will not have the Church as Mother.”

And, yes, even in these painfully dysfunctional times, when divorce and family disintegration are the new normal, mothers and fathers are nevertheless meant to go together—a point I probably should have made more insistently with the students at Dartmouth, who, for all their advantages of income and intelligence, are no less vulnerable to the ravages of a broken society than the rest of us, or than my own students, for that matter, who must make their way home to God amid many of the same difficulties. We must all maneuver our way, more or less, across that same minefield. 

But at least my students will have the consolation of knowing, having incessantly heard it from me and others, that there is a God, that He has made us for Himself, and that nothing pleases Him more than when we ask His help in getting us across that minefield.  

Thee, God, I come from, to thee go,
All day long I like fountain flow
From thy hand out, swayed about
Mote-like in thy mighty glow.
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

Why else would God have given us a Church, the very prolongation of His divine/human presence, if not to enable us to reach Him? Why else are we here, for heaven sake, if not to get there? “The whole point of life,” declared that great pilgrim in search of the Absolute, Léon Bloy, “is to await the resurrection of the dead.”

My students know this even if, as I suspect, they did not ace their college boards. Certainly, I didn’t ace mine. They know, and I know that they know, not only who they are, but why they are here and where, with the grace of God, they hope someday to go. That surely gives them an edge, inestimable and eternal, over even the brightest bulbs of the Ivy League. They are privileged to see everything sub specie aeternitatis. They may not know the phrase, Latin having gone the way of the wombat, but they do know its meaning, which has the happy effect of making most everything else look, more or less, flat as a map.

The late Professor Jeffrey Hart, who was a legendary figure on the Dartmouth campus and a great leveler of liberal pieties, complained once about his students:  

The great majority I meet at Dartmouth know where they are in space but not where they are in time. They live in Hanover, New Hampshire, but they do not know where they came from. They are not aware that they also inhabit Western Civilization. They do not know that this civilization had a beginning and went through a serious of momentous developments. An old Dartmouth professor of mine memorably defined the ‘citizen’ as the person who, if necessary, could refound his civilization. In no sense at Dartmouth are we even attempting to nurture citizens in that sense.

How blest I am to know a great many students who not only know where they are in relation to space, but also to time. And even, praise God, where they are in relation to eternity. I may fret and grouse about this or that lecture they didn’t get. But under the aspect of the heavens, I worry not at all about them.

[Image: Bernini’s Colonnade]


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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