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Rediscovering the "I," Rediscovering the World

In Kansas, a three-month lecture series on Luigi Giussani's book was a chance for many "to tackle 'The Religious Sense' from within the faith." From understanding art to teaching children; from treating patients to supporting co-workers...
Fred Kaffenberger

Every other Wednesday since January, I've been driving to Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. The most beautiful part of the drive is the 20 minutes between Leavenworth and Atchison where the two-lane Amelia Earhart Highway winds through the glacial hills of northeast Kansas. In the distance, from the other side of the Missouri River, two coal towers loom like the dominant thought of the modern age. When I get to this part of the drive, by habit I shut off the radio and allow the zone of silence to embrace me. What fills me on this road is not the insistence of power but, instead, a hope to encounter beauty, a hope which poet Giacomo Leopardi expresses in the most desperate way in his poem, "To His Lady":

No hope of seeing you alive / remains for me now, / except when, naked and alone, / my soul will go down a new street / to an unfamiliar home.

For me, the new street is Amelia Earhart Highway, and the unfamiliar home is Benedictine College, where I am going to listen to witnesses speak about Fr. Giussani's book, The Religious Sense. The Religious Sense Seminar, for both students and adults, has met every other week through the Spring Semester. Salvatore Snaiderbaur, Professor of International Business, organized this event after returning from the New York Encounter. At the Encounter, Fr. Carrón challenged each of us present to "tackle The Religious Sense from within the faith." Not only does Carrón speak with a new inflection but, Salvatore notes, he's "unafraid to contaminate the book with something special to him." That is to say, to verify what he's been given. Salvatore returned to Atchison with the desire for a new kind of public event: a seminar. Like the New York Encounter, it would be first an opportunity for us to verify the proposal of Msgr. Giussani and, second, a gesture open to everyone. His criteria for inviting speakers was: "I wanted people that had experience with jobs–a variety that could reveal the breadth of the theme."

At about 8:30 pm, the students arrive in Westerman Auditorium to listen to witnesses speak about their lives in the context of the three premises of The Religious Sense. We begin with a song, often "New Creation," and end by singing "Romaria." At the first meeting, Salvatore introduces the meaning of the religious sense. Yes, he showed us Giussani's diagram with the arrows all aiming toward the mysterious X, and the one arrow descending infallibly into circumstances. But then he also showed us the skyscrapers of New York which climb upward, and the interior of a Gothic church striving toward heaven. His favorite image, however, was that of a ruined church with no roof–and so, totally open to the infinite. Making his own the themes of Fr. Carrón, Msgr. Giussani, and Pope Benedict XVI, Salvatore startled us with the claim that "Christianity is not only a religion, not an attempt to reach God, but God who comes into history." Too often, however, this novelty of Christianity lies to the side while I and those around me have built up a religion of interesting ideas. Salvatore then introduced the three premises of The Religious Sense: realism, reasonableness, and the impact of morality in the dynamic of knowing. During the seminar, the speakers and participants would work closely on these three premises, to see how they play out in diverse circumstances.

A DIALOGUE WITH REALITY. Each meeting, the students have many questions for the speakers. If we're open to everything, isn't there the possibility of being tricked or of making a mistake? What boundaries are there for a nurse or a doctor or a teacher in caring for their patients or their students? How do I remain faithful to the Church and yet open to reality? Among the adults, Kim Shankman, the Dean, usually has a question or two for the speakers also. The variety of speakers challenges everyone to think about these questions. Dr. Richard White, Professor of Theology, played a segment of an interview between Bill Moyers and Sister Wendy Becket. Dr. White pointed out to us the way Sr. Wendy commends everyone to learn from art: "Looking and waiting. And going away, and coming back, and looking and waiting." Realism means that the object determines the method, and the method that art requires is looking. Sr. Wendy stresses that along with this looking, we also need patience for our judgment to be formed by the encounter with the humanity of the painter. Another provocative speaker was Matthew Ramsey, Professor of Special Education, who recounted a fascinating life history. When he was laid off from his job writing for the local newspaper, he began substitute teaching. Although this life was enjoyable for a while, he eventually tired of the idleness and instability, and told us that "one day I was driving around and I started to pray for something more."

The following day he got a call to teach emotionally disturbed kids, and he discovered a motivation to teach them every day–even though he would be stabbed 7 times. He witnessed to us a desire that went beyond paying the bills and pursuing distractions. He discovered charity for others because of his own need for a greater destiny. He spoke tangentially of educational constructivism, but it's clear that what drives his teaching is his attention to his students.

In 2002, David Jones, along with Fr. Meinrad Miller, OSB, invited Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete from New York and Mike Eppler from Indiana to present The Religious Sense for the first time at Benedictine College. David Jones and Dr. Jerry Brungardt, presenters in the series of these months, were among dozens of others moved by this meeting nine years ago. Since then, David has been deployed to Iraq, and is now a Lieutenant Colonel who teaches army majors at Fort Leavenworth. Dean Shankman asked the question we were all wondering about: "How has your work as a soldier been shaped by participation in Communion and Liberation?" David then told us that Salvatore had encouraged him to develop his friendships in the army, something that turned out to be crucial. While deployed, these very friends helped and supported him during a dramatic time when he was separated from his wife who had fallen ill.

When Doctor Jerry Brungardt came to hear Msgr. Albacete speak in 2002, a friendship was born that emphasized an openness to all of life, something Jerry was intrigued by. He recalled when he was a young doctor, the same patient inexplicably returned every month. Finally, a janitor told him, "Do you know why he gets sick every month? When his check comes, his family comes and buys drugs." Attention to all of reality is necessary for really helping patients, and not merely with medical expertise. For example, as a hospice doctor now, he makes sure that each person gets the nutrition they need, instead of imposing the nutritional requirements of a young healthy person on everyone. In his discussion of his work, Jerry clearly showed the value of the three premises: letting the object dictate the method, being attentive to reality in all of its aspects, and loving the truth more than one's own opinions.

MORE GOOD THAN BAD. The redbuds are blooming now along with the green budding oaks and other trees. I am preparing to drive to another presentation in this series. Karen, my wife, surprises me by saying, "I'm coming too!" She wants to hear Emad Mekhail speak. Emad is from Egypt, but has run a business in Wichita, Kansas, for 22 years with his partners: one Muslim and the other a secularist. Karen and Emad belong to a CL entrepreneur's group that has come together to form a common judgment and to help each other in their work. He explains the impact of this common judgment: one of his inventory workers cares so much that it causes problems with others in the company. There is talk of letting this man go but, instead, Emad proposed to his partners: "There's more good than bad in him, so let's risk on him." Emad has been meeting with this man every month to discuss quality control issues in a reasonable way. Listening to Emad, it's clear to me that my own conflicts with co-workers may be a chance to discover something I've overlooked, and thus become more attentive to all of reality.

The other part of this presentation was by Lorenzo Patelli, Professor of Business at Benedictine College. Lorenzo introduced us to the person and writings of Francois Michelin, especially in the book, And Why Not?. One of the key words for Michelin is responsibility, such that management is not the boss of the company as much as the workers and even more the customers. Without the workers, management has no product to sell. And without customers, the workers do not have anything to produce.

When Michelin is asked if the word factory should be replaced by company, he insists, "To engage in factory work, you have to have an in-depth knowledge of the kind of materials you are working with. You have to have a love for these materials." Michelin, like Sr. Wendy, is someone who urges us to learn patiently from the object how best to approach it.

IN A DEEPER WAY. At the conclusion of this meeting, Salvatore reminded us that it's insufficient to impose Christian ideas and images on the world around us. Rather, "Christ enables us to rediscover the world." Salvatore recently visited the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City. He saw again the Rothko painting that's there, but this time he recognized something that Rothko had given to Congdon. When Congdon became Christian, he painted many traditional scenes. But after an encounter with Rothko, Congdon changed, became simpler, and started to paint his great Italian landscapes–while also discovering the traditional theme of the crucifixion in a deeper way.

The renewal of the religious sense means this, to answer a question Mike Eppler posed here in 2002: "What do you see when you look out your window?" Whether one is looking at business, paintings, medicine, teaching, being a student, a dean, or a soldier: how does the reality you confront lead you toward happiness and beauty?