Lead, kindly light
Dan Sehlhorst | Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Early in the morning of Feb. 27, I found myself unable to sleep. As I tossed and turned, I made the typically uneventful decision to check my email, during which I discovered one of the most heart-wrenching moments in my lifetime. On a small screen, I read through fuzzy, half asleep eyes the saddest message ever to come to my inbox.
I learned that University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh had been called home late on the night of Feb. 26.
Fr. Hesburgh was undoubtedly the most incredible man that I have ever met. He is one of the few individuals I would dare call a hero. After the initial shock, the first decision I made on Friday morning was to visit the Grotto and pay my respects to my hero.
As the sun rose behind the clouds over a frozen, snow-covered St. Mary’s Lake, I was greeted by an arrangement of candles spelling “Ted.” I was touched by the thoughtfulness of the anonymous individual that left a sign of the enormous love this community felt for Fr. Ted in a sacred space that so fittingly represented his dedication to his faith and Our Lady’s University.
I noticed some of the candles in the “Ted” display had been extinguished after running out of wax. I felt called to replace them, knowing that any memorial to Fr. Hesburgh, even a temporary one, deserved to be complete. As I lit the first candle, I noticed that the flame stayed very small, only lighting the tip of the wick. It flickered weakly in the sub-zero degree wind. I hoped that it would not be smothered by the cold, harsh darkness.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the minuscule flame worked its way down the wick, flickering near the point of disappearing several times. When it reached the body of the wax, the flame grew. At first slowly, then faster, the flame erupted into a bright, beautiful glow.
I felt, in that moment, under the gaze of Our Lady, that I had received a blessing. I saw in this small flame the story of faith and the story of leadership. Alone, our light shines dimly, flickering near the point of passing away. When we connect to our God, the source of our life and our spirit, and engage in building community that lives faith in its relationships, we receive strength, hope and love that empower each individual to shine with their full potential.
Fr. Hesburgh was a courageous leader in faith, calling for civil and human rights, international peace and gender equality, making enormous progress in eradicating injustice and building community. Fr. Ted was truly a titan of a man, but also a man of startling humility and devoted faith who asked simply to be known as a priest.
As a man of God, there is no doubt in my mind that Fr. Hesburgh was exemplary. In the days following his death, I have heard many stories about his deeply personal prayer. It has been described as something so profound that it left those who witnessed his words feeling as something of a spectator to an intimate, extraordinarily significant conversation.
It is clear to me that Fr. Ted led this University from a place of faith, knowing that our faith called us to pursue truth, fight injustice and attain excellence. It is also clear to me that our path to stronger community and justice is a continued expression of the faith that leads us toward truth.
One of my favorite songs is “Lead, Kindly Light,” as sung by the Notre Dame Folk Choir. Every time I hear its beautiful words, I feel a sharp tug deep in my soul. Just as the Lord once said, “Come, follow me,” the lyrics are calling me to take a step beyond that request and actively follow the Light, my faith.
Fr. Ted has often been called visionary. I found this term to be insufficient to describe the depth of a once-in-a-generation mind paired with a heart that everyone knew to be so full of love and devotion. When I read the back of my ticket to the memorial tribute, I was struck by the relevance of the quote from Fr. Hesburgh, “Vision alone gives us only a visionary, in the pejorative sense of the word. But join vision and faith, and mountains begin.”
With being an inspiration comes a massive and irremovable responsibility to show the ultimate example of maturity and moral leadership. I cannot express my gratitude to Fr. Hesburgh for exercising this leadership for our community and building the place that has instilled in me a love of truth, a love of community and a love of justice.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.