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Christ in the dining halls

Scott Boyle | Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Deep down, I’ve always been a shy and reserved person. So imagine my frustration as my parents signed me up for as many activities as possible during my summer months off from school. I went to Nature Camp, Farm Camp and Golf Camp. If it was a camp, I probably tried it. I had fun, but I was always the kid who received that ambiguous personalized message on the camp t-shirt that read: “You are a great listener! Wish I could have gotten to know you better!” I was never really good at taking risks.

Flash forward to the spring semester of my sophomore year here at Notre Dame. I was faced with the decision to take one of the biggest risks of my life: studying abroad in Toledo, Spain, during the fall of my junior year. I had never been outside of the country before, and although the prospect of leaving the Notre Dame family was quite daunting, I accepted.

My fears were short lived, however. The semester proved to be one of the best of my life. In my travels through the green, yet foreign hills of Spanish countryside, I discovered something quite comforting – life moved slower. Families came together to eat and socialize, only to leave hours later with loosened belts and happy hearts.

Upon my return to the United States, I realized quickly that my time abroad had changed me. I was more relaxed; I no longer moved at the frenetic pace to which I was accustomed pre-departure. More importantly, the desire to achieve, a heavy burden that had weighed on my heart since high school, slowly was loosening its fetters over me. I was like a child getting glasses for the first time. Being abroad had given me a new “prescription,” and I came back to Notre Dame with renewed energy and vigor to finish my undergraduate career.

But I was not the only one who had changed during my time abroad. Things at Notre Dame had changed and continued in my absence as well. Friend groups, for one, were different. And life, unfortunately, still moved at the same frenetic pace. I was holding on by my fingertips as the days whizzed by and the semester quickly picked up speed. I realized that I no longer “fit” with the same groups and thus could not rely on them, in the same way, for love and support.

But there was always one person who saw me as a good “fit:” Janet. Janet is one of the South Dining Hall monitors who I had befriended in the semesters before. And upon my return from Spain, when I longed so deeply to find my place again, Janet was there, Monday through Friday, to remind me.

To Janet, everyone is important; everyone “fits.” When she is in charge of monitoring the dining hall exits, for example, she waves and says goodbye to every single person that leaves. That’s right, every single person. To me, she has always best lived out the truth of C.S. Lewis’ words in “The Weight of Glory”: “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses … There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

I’ve always felt that Janet’s attention, in a simple yet very profound way, acknowledged the uniqueness, loveliness and yes, divinity, of every student. In my case, as I struggled to find my way back to love, her simple pleasantries were reminders that I was already receiving it in abundance. And although I felt I was slipping and no longer belonged, Janet was always quick to remind me I never escaped her gaze.

And, perhaps it is the same way with God. No matter how lonely, out-of-place or discouraged we feel, God is there gazing at us. Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us: “Christ plays in ten-thousand places, lovely in eyes and lovely in limbs not his. Christ is always there gazing at us, perhaps in unexpected people, like Janet, or in unexpected places like the dining hall.

But God doesn’t take days off. Henri Nouwen once wrote, “Everything that Jesus has done, said and undergone is meant to show us that the love we most long for is given to us by God, not because we’ve deserved it, but because God is a God of love…” This is a love given to us for always, for keeps, no matter what we make think or how we may feel.

I can’t be in the dining hall as much this year, but the next time you see Janet in South, give her a wave or strike up a conversation with her for me. And remember that we never talk to mere mortals, but Christ, who always plays in our midst.

Scott Boyle is a graduate of Notre Dame and intern in the Office of Campus Ministry. He can be reached at sboyle2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.