Among the Wild Beasts: Between Harvard and Notre Dame

Notre Dame. In my first post in this series, I placed myself in the time of Lent, and in the desert. As Mark 1, the Gospel for Lent’s first Sunday, puts it:

And the Spirit immediately threw him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; he was with the wild beasts; the angels waited on him.

After this simple scene, Jesus comes out of the desert, preaching the kingdom of God and calling people to conversion. What was the desert like, so as to ignite Jesus’ ministry of the kingdom of God? Some scholars point to an obvious clue: Jesus was “with the wild beasts.” In the desert, with nothing but natural things around him; seeing things just as they are, stripped of the adornments of civilization, the overlay of fine words, ordinary social attraction and distaste.

Mark may even have in mind Daniel 4, where king Nebuchadnezzar ends up among the wild beasts, forced to see himself starkly anew, unadorned. The king had been walking on the roof terrace of his place, admiring his great city. But suddenly, “a voice came from heaven: ‘O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: This kingdom has departed from you! You shall be thrown out from human society, and your dwelling shall be with the wild beasts. You shall be made to eat grass like oxen, and seven eras shall pass, until you have learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals and gives it to whom he will.’ (Daniel 4)


The desert leaves us unadorned, facing things and ourselves just as they are: natural, returned to nature. Or as Lear put it, “Thou art the thing itself. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.” Such is Lent, a salutary resistance to our hyped-up culture. We go into the desert to be like Jesus, but may discover first the Nebuchadnezzar within us.

As I explained last time, I am a Harvard professor on sabbatical at Notre Dame, and trying to make Lent out of it. For this, we need to put aside predictable views of our universities, learning to look upon our surroundings without desire or distaste — with “an equal eye,” as the Bhagavad Gita puts it, neither attached to the one nor alienated from the other.

It is indeed interesting to think about Harvard from the vantage point of Notre Dame. In certain ways the two institutions are similarly old, wealthy, prestigious. 1) Harvard: founded in 1636; students: 22,000; faculty: 2400 (more or less, depending on how one counts); endowment: 37.6 billion; campus size: 210 acres; Latin motto: Veritas (Truth). 2) Notre Dame: founded in 1842; students: 8600; faculty: 1305; endowment: 11.8 billion; campus size: 1265 acres; Latin Motto: Vita, Dulcedo, Spes (Life, Sweetness, Hope) As a faculty member at Harvard, and a visitor at Notre Dame, I can see that both are more than satisfactory for all concerned. Few universities are as Catholic as Notre Dame, none are as wealthy as Harvard.

Perhaps the key difference is in the eye of the beholder. What strikes me as the difference right now — perhaps unsurprisingly, as a Catholic and Jesuit for a few months at Notre Dame – is that Notre Dame feels like a community, and Harvard does not. At Notre Dame, the center still holds, the campus is centripetal, spiritually centered on the Basilica and the Marian Shrine behind it; its many parts, no matter how complex, tend to cohere in a Catholic worldview, in the Church, in light of the Gospel, for Christ. Harvard has many, many centers, but no real center, and its energies are centrifugal. Harvard is outward-reaching, exceedingly mobile, on the move, perhaps endowed with smaller communities, but it is not a community, as a whole.

As deep as community, perhaps truth is at issue. I remember once hearing Drew Faust, our very fine and now outgoing president, speak to the meaning of the school motto, Veritas (without the original in Christo et ecclesia), with words to this effect: Truth means that any question can be asked without fear. Yes, and that is very good. But Truth has also to do with answers, values, perhaps even a few non-negotiables. Truth may differ for a Christian or a Hindu or a secular person, and differences must be respected, but there are many stopping points along the way. My sense is that here in South Bend, Truth can be still ultimately one, recognized unselfishly and without fear. In Cambridge, the possibilities keep unfolding, perhaps connected to truth, often aimed at the good in a very sincere and effective manner, but sometimes without foundations, words without foundations. We can say almost anything at Harvard, but that may not be enough. It is Truth that sets us free.

How does all this matter in terms of teaching, researching, and writing, as I hide out in my comfortable desert, finishing a book and starting two more? That is the matter for another post, next week.