Ave Maria

  • Suspension in Ave

    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 later, another visit

    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.

  • First visits to Ave Maria

    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.” 


  • Ave Maria for a week

    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.)

  • Discretion in little places

    A thing I wrote in May 2013 while having a beer:

    I’m sitting here in The Queen Mary Pub in a small town deep in South Florida, on the fringes of the Everglades. It’s nearly midnight and I find myself alone at the bar reading C.S. Lewis’s “Perelandra.” A few inches away, my glass of London Pride finds itself nearly missing.

    It’s been a pleasant evening, one of those where the bar isn’t too crowded, and even with mostly college students ordering pitchers an aura of warm feelings and consciousness soaks the place.

    And yet, because it’s in our nature, probably, to end up meddling with the moments that should most please most of us, I hear one of the bartenders, a woman, whisper to the barman who’s been nearby… “See that girl over at that table? How old is she?”

    My barman’s filling a drink. “I dunno,” he says. “But she hasn’t ordered anything and she’s been there without a glass.”

    “I’m going to grab her ID,” replies his colleague decisively. “I mean, ask for it,” she quickly corrects herself.

    It turns out the girl doesn’t have her ID with her. She’s asked to leave. Her friends at their table are left to finish the night without her, and she’ll be walking home alone.

    Let’s break away from this scene for a moment to visit our friends at Merriam Webster. Specifically, “discretion,” which we’re told is the “freedom to decide what should be done in a particular situation.”

    I feel for this girl who was made to leave, even if she wasn’t of legal age. Because despite doing no concrete or true harm to anyone here among us, one among us was compelled to do a concrete harm to her evening.

    In law, there’s a general idea that a case can’t be judged unless actual harm has come to some party. Law is not meant to be decided abstractly—which is why we have philosophy.

    In the case of the girl here at the pub, from whose company we’re now the poorer, there was no harm. Even presuming she was, in fact, underage, my barman had been watching her. She was enjoying good company even if not good spirits. Even if she was underage, no genuine harm was done to anyone.

    And yet, our culture has developed in such a way that we send her away anyway. An abstract law protecting abstract principles occupies a higher place than the barman exercising his own discretion.

    In a sense, we’re no longer in some out of the way place on the fringes of a national preserve. In the act of eliminating discretion, a barkeep became an agent of Tallahassee, the Florida capital. She became an agent of something other than her own conscience, disrupting private fellowship for an abstract principle.

    We become poorer people as our chances to exercise discretion—to personally decide how a principle might best be applied in a particular situation—disappear from our culture.

    In a constitutional culture constructed to favor the concrete and local culture of a place over the distant and abstract sentimentality of a state or federal capital, it only makes sense to leave as much room as possible for acts of discretion.

    Just as “one size fits all” rarely suits fashion, it certainly doesn’t suit our cultures and communities well, because it frustrates their ability to be authentically unique, special places. It makes them like anyplace else.

    And it feels more and more difficult to go anyplace anymore that anymore feels like any special place.

    Anyway, back to my Lewis and London Pride.

  • In Ave Maria briefly

    I’m back in Ave Maria, visiting solo for personal and work reasons. It’s been ~90 degrees here typically, which I love.

    I’m staying with the Novaks near the center of town, though Micheal is in Washington this year teaching with Catholic University. It’s strange being down here without him here. He’s been here every time I’ve visited since I starting coming down five years ago.


    The town continues to grow. A paver stone was just installed in front of Ave Maria Oratory in honor of Terri Schiavo’s parents, Mary and Robert Schindler. It looks sharp and is a nice lasting honor for them.

    On Wednesday I’ll fly back to Philadelphia. I wonder whether the leaves have started to turn golden in Pennsylvania.

  • At Ave Maria’s Oratory

    Tropical Storm Colin is threatening Florida’s Panhandle, which is very far—hundreds of miles—from where we are, but it’s resulting in periodic heavy rains nonetheless. Or perhaps that’s just Florida weather this time of year:

    In any event, I’ll be down here for the next few days enjoying time with friends, enjoying time at the Pub, enjoying the heat and humidity, and enjoying reading time. I haven’t booked a return flight yet, but will probably head back to Philadelphia sometime mid-next week.

    I place tremendous value in the ability to work from anywhere, and try not to lose sight of how rare that flexibility is.

  • Afternoon at Hollywood Beach

    I’m writing from Hollywood Beach, Florida’s “broadwalk,” specifically from the patio of an allegedly French-type restaurant where I’m having lunch and bottled beers. I’ve got my iPhone charging inside, and am working from my iPad in the shade on this beautifully hot, mid-80s afternoon.

    Later this afternoon, Kevin Horne arrives in Fort Lauderdale and we’ll drive across South Florida to Ave Maria to visit with Chris Buchignani, also visiting, and Ben Novak who lives there. This will be my third visit to Ave Maria this year.

    In the meantime, beautiful way to spend an afternoon.

  • Ex Corde Ecclesiae

    James M. Patterson writes on the turmoil between the president and faculty at Mount St. Mary’s University, and in Patterson’s writing he returns to look at the characteristics that should define a Catholic university:

    Ex Corde Ecclesiae [is] St. John Paul the Great’s 1990 papal encyclical. It explains the purpose of the Catholic university as, “an academic community, which, in a rigorous and critical fashion, assists in the protection and advancement of human dignity and of a cultural heritage through research, teaching and various services offered to the local, national and international communities.” To that end, the Catholic university must cast “the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasure of human knowledge” and remain faithful “to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church” in “service to the people of God and of the human family.”

    Great, succinct way to understand why Catholics rightly call for institutions like Notre Dame, Georgetown, Loyola, etc. to conserve their distinctive identities.

    A Catholic institution should exist to serve the culture by being distinct from it. If it’s simply another institution doing great research, teaching students, and affirming the reality of different perspectives without any unifying perspective, then they might as well be state schools. Even the state once believed e pluribus unum

    This is certainly something I hope Ave Maria University can do—conserve its distinctive character.

  • Early hours

    Early hours

    I like to put the work in during the early hours of the day. I’m sitting here in Ave Maria, outside The Bean with a black iced coffee, rum butter muffin, and iPad Pro. It’s an overcast morning, and the quality of the light is vaguely menacing.

    In looking over my Todoist agenda for the day, I always find I’m able to tackle most of it early in the morning at times like this. Peter Drucker, Cal Newport, and many smart people talk about the importance of deep work, uninterrupted focus, etc. to achieving big projects—completely true. There’s junk that’s been left in my notes since November that hasn’t been addressed, because many of them require enormous chunks of time that I haven’t carved out yet.

    I’ll be tackling those notes and addressing what I can before wiping the rest away. It’s as important to know when to wipe the slate clean and start fresh as when to put in the time to knock something out.