When I returned home from my first week at Notre Dame Vision as a junior in high school, my dad took me to Chik-Fil-A and asked me how the week was, and I proceeded to cry all over my cardboard container of chicken nuggets. I was utterly disappointed in my complete inability to describe with words just how much had taken place in my heart. And I was soon disappointed about how soggy my nuggets were, too.
I think it is imperative that anyone reading this piece understands that the task of trying to select combinations of syllables to adequately express the work that unfolds at Vision, and what it means to me, is and has always been absolutely tear-inducing.
I attended Vision as a rising junior in high school, and again as a rising senior. When I say, “I attended Vision,” what I essentially mean is: I found myself more aware of a God who loves creatively and eagerly, I found myself loved and listened to creatively by those around me, and I learned that I was supposed to be this creative love for others. What I also mean is that I saw the largest group of smiling people I had ever seen, I saw for the first time that humans could be funny and cool and Catholic, and I saw posters of saints drawn in black and white that always seemed to be beckoning us to be a part of their holy community. During each time at Vision, I received so many words. There were words that I wrote down desperately during keynote talks, knowing I would page through my notebook again and again upon returning home. There were the words my mentors gave to me and my fellow group members at the end of the week, personal letters that affirmed each of us and were the fruits of their creative and attentive love for us over the course of the week. There were words spoken in prayer: the Litany of the Saints sung our first night, the words of Scripture brought to life in musicals performed throughout the week, the words of the Mass that worked on my heart each day. I received so many words, yet, when my dad asked me how the week was, I was speechless.
I didn’t need to try to find words for all of this again until my freshman year of college, when I decided to apply to be a Mentor-in-Faith myself. My Vision application essay was one of the first times in my life that I attempted to answer a question poetically. And it was, simply because I felt that the grace I had experienced at Vision was so beautiful that it deserved to be responded to creatively. God’s creative pursuing of my little high school heart called for playfulness, for narrative, for the stretching of the imagination. Because the two often go hand in hand, my first poetic response was also my first creative risk. I responded to a prompt that asked us to describe our faith in 500 words with a short piece based on my experience of God’s grace at a lakeside spot. I had discovered this particular spot during an hour in the schedule dedicated to silent prayer when I attended Vision as a rising junior. By that time, I had begun to return time and time again to that little spot, a spot which to me had come to represent the same gift of space Vision had offered: the space to be loved, and the space to listen to God’s Word creatively unfolding in my own life. Instead of telling the story from my point of view, I decided to tell the story from my spot’s perspective: personifying my beloved patch of dirt in order to capture the growth in hope, patience, and virtue that I had seen unfolding in my heart since my first time at Vision. I showed it to one of my friends, who was also applying for Vision, and she, very gently, expressed concern that it might be a little too weird. But I knew that I had felt God’s grace throughout the composition of this weird little piece, and so, despite the risk, I submitted it.
At this time, I was working as a student worker in the now-McGrath Institute for Church Life, the home of Notre Dame Vision; I would spend pleasant hours devoted to stuffing envelopes and working on Excel spreadsheets. It was absolutely out of the ordinary when my Vision interviewer, Tim O’Malley (Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy), popped into the student worker room and told me with great conviction that my application essay was a fine piece of writing, and thanked me with a heartfelt gratitude that I had never received for my writing. I found it hard to return to my envelope stuffing after this, but luckily, my work was again interrupted just moments later by yet another absolutely out of the ordinary occurrence: Lenny DeLorenzo (Director of Notre Dame Vision) also popped into the student worker room, and after thanking me for my piece and affirming my creativity, he asked me if I wouldn’t mind my application essay being published as a piece on the ICL’s blog. I said yes, happily, wondering when I would find out if I had actually been accepted as a Vision Mentor-in-Faith. I thought it would be very awkward when I received the inevitable decision that they were not able to select me for the summer while my application essay still lingered hopefully up there in the blogosphere.
Thankfully, the awkwardness I had imagined never came to pass: days later, I opened an email with shaky hands during class to find out that I had been offered a position as a Mentor-in-Faith. Within this new role, I did the same thing I had loved to do as a Vision participant: each Thursday, during our hour of silence, I would amble over to the lake, make my way to my favorite spot. Here, in my little space of love and listening, I would pray that my high-schoolers might receive the same space I had received just a few summers ago.
Creativity always seems to beget creativity, and because of the creative love I had received so abundantly from my own Vision Mentors-in-Faith, I was able to imagine ways to love the high school students placed under my care each week. My imagination was always being stretched as a Mentor-in-Faith: from thinking up ways to break the ice during our first group dinner, to finding the right and gentle words to respond gratefully to a shared story of hardship, to reaching their hearts on our last morning together with words of hope and affirmation. I watched as high-schoolers responded to God’s creative pursuing creatively. I watched as they drew expansive chalk murals on sidewalks depicting the words of each session’s keynote, as they offered to lead prayer at the beginning of our small group time, and as they gave each other stunningly attentive words of affirmation at the end of each week. I watched as their imaginations were stretched: as they considered the story of the Prodigal Son presented in musical form, as they listened to Mentors-in-Faith share stories of God’s grace found in ordinary life, and as they were challenged to become creative love for their friends, families, and communities upon returning home.
I wasn’t able to find the words to tell my dad exactly what happened to me at Notre Dame Vision that first summer, but I have been trying to use words well ever since. In fact, since that first creative risk of my Vision application essay, I have happily taken many more. I surprised myself with the ways my stretched imagination has led me through my time at Notre Dame: it has been a time filled with poetry classes I never thought I’d take, articles I never thought I’d submit, stories of grace I never imagined I’d tell. And every word I wrote at Notre Dame was a testament to the creative formation, the grand stretches of my imagination, that I received at Vision: in attending Vision twice, and in serving as a Mentor-in-Faith twice, as a freshman and then again as a junior. In experiencing God’s creative love, and in learning how to be that love for others.
Creativity begets creativity, and my parents are two people that have taught me much about trusting in the ways God’s creative love orders our own lives.
They gave me a very creative graduation present.
They made me sit in the red plaid armchair that sits in our living room, a chair mostly reserved for sitting in on one’s birthday, and they processed down our staircase, just the two of them, holding together a large black frame. It wasn’t until they had brought the frame right up close that they flipped it around, revealing to me what was inside.
There are four photographs, matted vertically one by one, and placed simply on a black background. The first picture is my favorite spot, my Vision lakeside spot, in summer, with green trees and a clear blue sky. Next comes my spot in the fall, nestled amidst deep auburns and browns. Then comes my spot in the winter, with bare sticks poking out from leafless trees. Finally, at the bottom of the column, comes my spot in the spring: hopeful buds dot branches, and ripples lace the lake. It dawns on me, as my eyes reach the final picture, that my parents have been working on this for a year.
My dad tells me proudly that he would walk to my spot each season during his lunch break, careful to snap his photo at exactly noon each time. When he took me to Chik-Fil-A and asked me how my week was six years ago, I cried because I wanted so badly for him to understand just how much Vision had meant to me.
I think he does.
Featured photo courtesy of the author.