We have begun another school year at this University named in honor of Our Lady. But the beginning of school is not the only pressing event in August. In August we celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Queenship of Mary.
Although devotion to Mary has changed considerably in the past 40 years, the feasts remain important to the life of the Church and to our understanding how God acts in us. The most important role that Mary plays is to lead us to her Son Jesus, the heart of our faith and of our Church. When we perceive more clearly how Mary devoted her entire life to Jesus, we perceive, in her own words, a lowly servant.
The principal message of Mary is something that we need to experience in our innermost being. But it is a message that we don’t really like. The message is this: It is safe and even good to be humble, to accept our lowliness and, what humanly speaking is more disconcerting, the feeling of being nothing. Let me explain.
In her Magnificat Mary proclaimed, “God has looked with favor on his lowly servant in her nothingness.” She knew her position to be a fact and was not afraid to acknowledge it. She found it to be the source of her joy: “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” She was at rest in the center of her nothingness, her dependence on God and her need for a Savior.
The lowly know their need to be exalted by God. The poor know their need to be filled with the riches of God. The empty know how much they need God. Those who have nothing know that God is everything.
We need to know our nothingness, our lowliness and our emptiness. The more we empty ourselves of pride and worldly worth, the more God can fill us with himself. The more we humble ourselves, the more God can exalt us. It’s a complete reversal of the world’s values as we experience them day-to-day. And since we are terrified to be “nothing,” we are always looking for ways to prove that we are something.
If we are nothing, what can make us feel like we are something? Data, metrics and graphs: things that calm our fears with numerical assertions of our importance. These can make us feel like we’re somebody big and we’re going somewhere important. I lament that the Church and her institutions have become more and more addicted to data and metrics during the past 40 years. Is this addiction to data and metrics related to Mary’s fading into the background and our corresponding loss of knowing our dependence on God?
Data and metrics are part of the life of a great University like Notre Dame. Research has to be done to make good and informed decisions. But who can measure the grace of God? Who can analyze data on how the Lord moves in our lives? What metrics can explain the mercy and forgiveness of God? Who can chart the growth of the interior life or God drawing the soul closer to Himself? What metric can explain a student at Notre Dame who immigrated to this country when she was seven, whose parents have minimum wage jobs, who graduated last spring and enrolled last month in medical school at Johns Hopkins? Some of this can be explained, but most of it is grace and God’s action in the Notre Dame community, something that cannot be measured.
Can we think about life and mission at Notre Dame without reducing it to graphs and charts? Can we believe that God chooses the human and the intangible to confound the metrics?
If the Angel Gabriel operated by any measureable, data-driven standards, Mary would have been considered so insignificant that no one would have given her a second thought.
If there must be a metric, let it be this: Is Notre Dame producing saints? Not just scholars or researchers or good people, but saints. Do our students leave here more convinced that they are unconditionally loved by God and that nothing can ever separate them from the love of God? This is the main metric that must guide our work and mission.
In the midst of all our critical work and decision-making, may God help us keep a proper perspective on our need to somehow prove our greatness or our worth by filling ourselves with accumulations of data and measurements. In our own lives and in the life of this great university of Our Lady, may we know — without fear — our complete and utter nothingness and emptiness so as to be totally open to all that God wants to give us.