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A Vision of Heaven: Dorm Community as Christian Community

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How good it is and how pleasant
when kindred dwell as one.
—Psalm 133:1

A wise priest once held up for me, as an image of spiritual maturity, the Gospel story of the Visitation. Luke narrates the story of Mary running to Elizabeth immediately following Mary’s own visitation by an angel. Told by the angel that Elizabeth is with child, Mary goes to visit Elizabeth. Why? In the story of Mary’s annunciation, the angel announces to Mary her startling new vocation, and immediately follows that with the magnificent work that has been done in Elizabeth by God. Elizabeth’s bearing a child in her old age is given to Mary as a miraculous sign of grace. Rather than running to Elizabeth to announce her own monumental good news, as one might expect, Mary goes to Elizabeth to delight in Elizabeth’s good news. Mary, the model of all discipleship, models for us a radical call to rejoice in the other.

But Elizabeth’s response to Mary elevates the scene to a still more excellent image. Elizabeth cries out: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Lk 1:42). Elizabeth’s truly graced response—indeed, the evangelist deems it inspired, “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Lk 1:41)—to Mary’s celebration of her is a reciprocal celebration of Mary. Elizabeth’s response to Mary’s invitation to rejoice is the first image of Christian community: two women, rejoicing in the grace of God, not in their own lives, but in the other’s.

I found this image deeply resonant, as the Visitation is not only a model of Christian kinship, but is also the patronal chapel of the Walsh Hall community on Notre Dame’s campus, where I serve as an assistant rector. Over the course of my first year as assistant rector, I have found that this role issues the same challenge to me as Mary’s example to discipleship does to us all: the call to rejoice in the other.

An assistant rector has a much different job description than those of most of my twenty-something peers. It leaves most of my day free and fills up my night with community meetings, baking treats, and hosting hoards of college women in my room, planning Masses that occur at what—in the outside world—would be the ungodly and unimaginably late start times of 9 (or even 10!) pm. It means learning to stay up regularly until 2am, and stopping in the hallway to celebrate graduate or medical school acceptances, birthdays, or tests aced. It means learning to offer chocolate and a listening ear upon medical school rejections, bouts of homesickness, or tests flunked. It means living with 171 others in whom I am constantly called to radically rejoice, in good times and in bad.

This rejoicing in one another, rejoicing in the grace of God manifest in the other’s life, is truly taste of the eschatological vision of heaven, a unity of praise between the blessed for the source of their beatitude. Dante reflects an image of this rejoicing in the other in back-to-back cantos in Paradiso 11 and 12. In Canto 11, Thomas Aquinas, one of the most famous members of the Dominican order, praises not his founder, Dominic, but Francis, a saint “seraph-like in burning love.”[1] Echoing Thomas’ praise, in Canto 12, the Franciscan saint and theologian Bonaventure sings the praises of Dominic, a saintly mind “so full of living strength”[2] who served God through “loving, purely, the manna of God’s truth.”[3] Their twin paeans of praise for their founders praise the same object, for “in prizing him, you’ll praise the other, too.”[4] Their hymns to the other beautifully illustrate the Christian vocation of delighting and rejoicing in the other. In the heights of heaven, the beatified are enraptured not with their own glory, but with the glory of their compatriots of the heavenly realm. Their psalms of praise echo Elizabeth’s cry: “blessed are you among women.”

In the liturgy, the community of faithful who gather around the altar enter into the heavenly community of saints. The liturgy is a foretaste of the heavenly moment of perfect praise, while also being utterly human and imperfect. Our hall liturgy is far from pristine—wrong notes are sung, Eucharistic Ministers forget their places, assistant rectors forget to set up the credence table properly. Our Mass is human and it is messy. But, without fail, as the notes of the pianist’s chords signal the beginning of the Our Father, and the congregation of women move together to take each other’s hands, I find in this simple sign a moving vision of our unity in Christ. As we begin to sing the prayer of Our Father, the unique tune of many female voices melding together in a sweet and simple melody, I cannot help but feel that this vision is a vision of heaven. In this moment, we are living out our eschatological vocation of community in rejoicing in and with one another.

At the core of Christian community is the prayer of Francis of Assisi, the prince of the Church whom Aquinas praises through Dante’s pen:

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.

Christian community is realized not in our own reception of these gifts, but in a community where these gifts are constantly extended, from roommate to roommate, from minister to student, from senior to freshman. Christian community constantly reminds us that it is in giving that we truly receive. It is an economic exchange whose mystery challenges me each day, and yet whose reality I indubitably sense each time I take the hands of my residents or fellow hall staff, all beloved “Walshies” and pray with them together: “thy kingdom come; thy will be done,” as we rejoice together in the God who is truly other—in the words of the poet Christian Wiman—a God most “intimately me and not mine.”[5]

Featured Photo: Walsh Hall by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame.

[1] Dante, trans. Robin Kirkpatrick, Paradiso Canto 12, 37–39.

[2] Ibid., Canto 12, 58–60.

[3] Ibid., Canto 12, 82–84.

[4] Ibid., Canto 11, 40–42.

[5] Christian Wiman, “My Stop is Grand.”

Renée D. Roden

Renée D. Roden is a Master of Theological Studies student at the University of Notre Dame and a graduate fellow of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.