Here is a fun short video that Ave Maria University released a little while ago featuring Ben and Michael Novak’s dog, Hollow. I met Anna Kunza once or twice when visiting Ben in the last year or two, and her experience of Hollow opening your eyes to see a familiar place with new eyes resonates with me. Hollow is great.
As much as Hollow has been Michael and Ben Novak’s doggy, she has been and continues to be a familiar, remarkable, and much loved part of the town of Ave Maria’s community life. Born somewhere in the wilds of Colorado, found by a rancher, and rescued by Michael’s daughter Jana at the last moment at a shelter, Hollow always carried with her a bit of that Colorado ease and agreeableness that I see in my own family who live there. I think of her as basically wolfish in nature.
Hollow’s an example of the sort of creature that one comes across only every so often in life whose essential nature, temperament, and characteristics are so basically reassuring and pleasant that she makes an impression without even trying to do so. Anyway, I’ve loved Hollow for years. And Ben Novak captured a bit of her spirit a few months ago when he shared this bit of poetry with me:
Hollow does not ask why
Flowers grow or rivers flow
Or mountains rise or a bird flies.
Hollow does not know yesterday
Or anything that came before.
Though she remembers
Who was kind and where she lives,
What she likes, and who likes her.
Hollow remembers well the box
Her milkbones come from,
And where her bones are buried.
And where she likes to sleep,
And what time to wake me each morn
By crawling across the pillows at 6:00 am
to nuzzle her snout against my face.
At other times of day,
Hollow remembers when it’s time
To take me for a walk.
She nuzzles my hand, or straightens up
On her hind legs to paw my forearm till I stand up,
And knows exactly where to go and what to do
when I need to change clothes or
Put on my walking shoes;
She knows to jump up on my bed
And crawl to the edge where I can pet her
As opposed to lying near the pillows
When she merely wants to sleep.
Oh, she remembers it all for the next hour,
Where I walk and where to turn and where I stop,
Whether we take one route or another.
She remembers how we cross the boulevard,
Where she always stops beside my leg,
And does not move till I say “Heel,”
Though she has forgotten what it means to heel,
And merely runs ahead.
And she remembers where I am
As we walk each morn and eve,
Follows me or runs ahead and
Rummages through the bushes,
But always with an eye on me
To run up from behind
Or when she runs ahead,
To stop, turn around and catch my eye,
And wait till I catch up.
She remembers when I sit down along the way,
To come back and lie down nearby,
And jump up when my rest is done,
To continue on our walk.
She remembers how I like to sit each morn,
Usually just before dawn,
And smoke a cigarette, or two, or three,
On the stone bench by the fountain
In front of the Oratory,
Where she lies down nearby,
And together we watch the sun come up,
And the joggers run by,
And the cars drive by
On their way to early work.
She remembers to walk with me
Along the sidewalk all the way to where,
We turn to go between the houses
Back to the alley toward our home,
Where she is free to leave me
And run through the neighborhood
To check out everything,
Stopping at the lady’s house
Who gives her a morning treat,
And visiting the Campbells for her
Morning slice of American cheese,
And to be back scratching at my door
Within ten minutes or so.
And she remembers to eat daintily, like a lady,
Who gingerly takes the treat I offer,
Then drops it,
Just like ladies in olden times
Would drop a handkerchief
To allow a gentleman to pick it up for her;
Just so, Hollow drops her treat and looks at me
To pick it up and offer it again
So that she can, oh so lightly, take it
As though she is doing me a favor.
I arrived in Washington earlier this morning, but not before a short visit to Ave Maria last night, where I got to catch up with Ben Novak along with two students and a townie. I also got to see Hollow, and the great illustration of Ben and Hollow that his niece Alston drew. After sleeping a few hours, I hopped in the rental car and drove to Fort Myers for my 6:55am flight.
I’ll be in Washington until Friday morning for Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network purposes, then will head to New York for Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture’s Vita Institute seminar. Keeping an eye on the snowstorm that approaches.
A few years ago I was in Ave Maria, Florida visiting Ben and Michael Novak.
One afternoon, I was out walking Hollow, their incredibly wolf-like shepherd/husky. We were walking Annunciation Circle around Ave Maria Oratory, and as we neared the “Bean” coffee shop I met a young student named Peter. Peter knew Hollow immediately, because he knew Michael and Ben. Peter was sitting outside with his books studying; I think he was a freshman or sophomore at the time.
I asked what he was reading, and he said in the most casual way something like: “Oh, well I’m working on translating this language of ‘the Word became flesh’ from the Latin. It’s super interesting, because the older language is far more literal.”
“Right, I said. What does that even mean to people now: ‘Word became flesh?'”
“The more literal understanding of scriptural language around this stuff is something closer to the idea of God ‘pitching his fire’ among men. In other words, a more literal act of God the divine joining the ‘camp’ of men, maybe like a traveling companion might join a camp for a night.”
I’m butchering this somewhat, because Peter’s language was much clearer in that moment than my memory of it is now. But whatever precise point he was making, the essence of it has stuck with me ever since. When I heard him relate these thoughts, it was like a strike of lightning to me—this image of the Creator pitching a tent among men, firing the light of the campfires with the sort of power that doesn’t flicker or fade.
It’s a much simpler way, and a more arresting one, I think, to understand the principle that “God became flesh” and that the logos and the Word became man. In joining our camp, divinity came to relate to us in a new way—not as the God upon the mountaintop or an abstracted and necessarily distant power, but ultimately as a brother and a son and a person. In this, there are a whole world of implications for how we related to one another.
I’ll be thinking about this for the rest of my life.
We seem determined to let no part of nature remain truly natural—for no part of the environment to remain truly untouched by our hands. Even our natural spaces are increasingly tamed and managed and planned, which means they’re not really natural spaces any longer.
So I thank God that we still have the experience of rain showers to provide a sense of the natural and timeless and lovely amidst our landscapes.
A few years ago I shared one of my favorite E.B. White passages from Here Is New York, his great public diary of the city. I want to share the same passage again, because I was out on a walk in a light (but steady) rain after midnight in Ave Maria, Florida not too long ago, and a particular trees branches created a sort of curtain of vibrant green and electric light that immediately called to mind these words:
In the trees the night wind stirs, bringing the leaves to life, endowing them with speech; the electric lights illuminate the green branches from the under side, translating them into a new language.
The context for this is below. This is one of the gifts of reading; the ability for a simple thing like a solitary nighttime walk to transport you in spirit or transfigure a simple, unremarkable moment into one that bursts with an enchanted feeling.
It is seven o’clock and I re-examine an ex-speakeasy in East 53rd Street, with dinner in mind. A thin crowd, a summer-night buzz of fans interrupted by an occasional drink being shaken at the small bar. It is dark in here (the proprietor sees no reason for boosting his light bill just because liquor laws have changed). How dark, how pleasing; and how miraculously beautiful the murals showing Italian lake scenes—probably executed by a cousin of the owner. The owner himself mixes. The fans intone the prayer for cool salvation. From the next booth drifts the conversation of radio executives; from the green salad comes the little taste of garlic. Behind me (eighteen inches again) a young intellectual is trying to persuade a girl to come live with him and be his love. She has her guard up, but he is extremely reasonable, careful not to overplay his hand. A combination of intellectual companionship and sexuality is what they have to offer each other, he feels. In the mirror over the bar I can see the ritual of the second drink. Then he has to go to the men’s room and she has to go to the ladies’ room, and when they return, the argument has lost its tone. And the fan takes over again, the argument has lost its tone. And the memory of so many good little dinners in so many good little illegal places, with the theme of love, the sound of ventilation, the brief medicinal illusion of gin.
Another hot night I stop off at the Goldman Band concert in the Mall in Central Park. The people seated on the benches fanned out in front of the band shell are attentive, appreciative. In the trees the night wind stirs, bringing the leaves to life, endowing them with speech; the electric lights illuminate the green branches from the under side, translating them into a new language. Overhead a plane passes dreamily, its running lights winking. On the bench directly in front of me, a boy sits with his arm around his girl; they are proud of each other and are swathed in music. The cornetist steps forward for a solo, begins, “Drink to me only with thine eyes…” In the wide, warm night the horn is startlingly pure and magical. Then from the North River another horn solo begins—the Queen Mary announcing her intentions. She is not on key; she is a half tone off. The trumpeter in the bandstand never flinches. The horns quarrel savagely, but no one minds having the intimation of travel injected into the pledge of love. “I leave,” sobs Mary. “And I will pledge with mine,” sighs the trumpeter. Along the asphalt paths strollers pass to and fro; they behave considerately, respecting the musical atmosphere. Popsicles are moving well. In the warm grass beyond the fence, forms wriggle in the shadows, and the skirts of the girls approaching on the Mall are ballooned by the breeze, and their bare shoulders catch the lamplight. “Drink to me only with thine eyes.” It is a magical occasion, and it’s all free.
A year ago today I spent the afternoon at Hollywood Beach while I waited for friends to join me for a visit to Ben Novak in Ave Maria ninety minutes west. And a year later I’m back where I was, having flown into Fort Lauderdale and enjoying a beautiful day. This weekend I’ll be in Ave Maria with Ben again, along with Alex Smith from Philadelphia and Kevin Horne from State College. I sat beneath a palm tree, leaning against its trunk and drifting in and out of sleep for a little while; woke up at one point to capture this scene:
A visit to Old Heidelberg is in the calendar for this evening.
I was looking back through my old writings, and found the following reflection that I wrote in mid-March 2012 after visiting Ave Maria for what I think was my first or second visit there.
I’m on my way back to Philadelphia, riding Amtrak’s Silver Meteor northward from Ave Maria, Florida. On the way down I had lunch with a woman who had never heard of the place, it being a town and university so freshly sprung.
For most of my time visiting, traveling, and working in Ave Maria the students were largely away on spring break. The exception was The Queen Mary Pub in the town square, the sole watering hole in Ave Maria and a place that ended up feeling like a second home, literally a place where everybody knows your name.
A few years after the founding of what was to become Penn State a lawmaker quipped that State College was a town “equally inaccessible from all parts of the state.” This isolation blessed the town with a separation from the day-to-day chaos of the world, providing a special atmosphere in which to learn. It’s also what helped cultivate the spirit of Happy Valley as a place “outside of time” in some sense.
I think much the same could be said for Ave Maria today, a college town that’s miles away from the nearest neighboring town on 5,000 acres of land near a 22,000 acre preserve. A special spirit could develop here, too. The place has existed here for fewer than five years, so time will tell.
In the center of the town there’s Ave Maria Oratory, a cathedral-like church. Outside the town square there are maybe 200 homes spread across the landscape. At night the sky is yours to behold in its fullness, while even in winter warm air tends to fill your lungs on an evening run. Children that ride bikes past one another on a street greet each other by name. It’s a deeply human place, even while still surrounded by marsh and swamp.
The “Notre Dame of the South,” I’ve heard it called, Ave Maria is an experiment in whether the values that once shaped both American and Catholic culture can be regenerated in the midst of an overwhelmingly secular time, whether old ways can again direct distinctly Christian lives.
“When we have broken from our god of tradition,
and ceased from our god of rhetoric,
then may God fire the heart with His presence.”
I’m writing from a rocking chair in the Philadelphia airport, waiting for my phone to charge before heading into the city. Just getting back from a week in Ave Maria/Naples, where I was fortunate to meet, reconnect with, and speak with many good people.
It’s now been five years that I’ve been visiting Ave Maria, and the town seems to be developing nicely, overall. It’s growing in earnest—about 4,000 residents live there now, according to one long-time resident. Ave Maria University doesn’t seem to be growing in a substantial way, but it does seem to be more or less stable. Its identity is evolving, though. A major drama a few years ago was dropping Latin as a requirement, and now a somewhat subterranean drama involves an attempt from the administration to do away with a focus on great literature in favor of a more technical focus on composition.
“If you want to be a great writer you’ve got to learn how to be a great reader.” These words aren’t the unique property of the high school English teacher whom I so vividly remember uttering them, but I think they resonated with me because they speak to the truth. I can’t imagine Ave Maria University will be better or more distinctive if it moves away from its great literature professors.
In any event, I was fortunate to spend the week there amidst work, meetings, planning, and very good friends and people I love.
(I took this photo from the beach in Naples when I arrived last Sunday.)