Relocating temporarily from Washington, D.C., to Florida from January 10 to February 20 was a kind providence. True, Florida had its coldest weather in 50 years, but don’t cry for me, northern America. Down there, “cold” means about 45 degrees Fahrenheit early in the morning, rarely below that. Some afternoons it hit 70 degrees. Meanwhile, Washington had some three feet of snow. My visiting nephew had to have the flat part of Karen’s studio roof shoveled after each of the two storms, lest the weight of the snow and backed-up ice do serious damage.
But the great joy for me was not the weather. It was teaching a mini-course on “Religion and the U.S. Founding” at Ave Maria University. It reminded me that my true vocation, next to writing, is teaching young people. I loved all ten of the “kids” in my seminar. We covered much ground in a short amount of time (and they got it), and we had good talks including a weekly lunch. They took down clear outlines of key points, and had a lot of laughs at my stumbling efforts to recover old skills at teaching. (I meander more than I used to.) Each student wrote two papers — for extra credit, some wrote a third — and they were all really quite good.
Nearly all the students were sophomores or juniors. They hailed from everywhere from the Philippines to Honduras; from Goa, India, to Toronto, Canada; as well as from Texas and California to Bethesda, Md. One was a very impressive Marine, another an aspiring (and already experienced) political leader in Canada. There are about 850 others like them on campus at Ave Maria University this year. Incoming classes now number 300 or more — 500 soon, we hope.
I have never lived in a more Catholic culture than Ave Maria’s — well, maybe once before, in St. Pius X Seminary during my college years at Stonehill College. From my room on the Piazza to the Oratory, embraced by the Piazza like a horseshoe, the distance was about 75 yards, and to the Adoration Chapel on the side of the Canizaro Library, 100 yards. All day and all night, students and staff are found in the latter according to formal voluntary shifts, and as the Spirit moves a steady trickle all day. On Sundays, some 97 percent of the whole town goes to Mass, and on weekdays about 65 percent of the students.
What most impressed me, though, was what Dostoevsky called the “humble charity” of those one meets — the good manners, the willingness to help and even to seek occasions to help. One of the storeowners came out on the sidewalk to ask if she could bring me food or other things from Publix on her trip later that afternoon; two days later, she stopped at Walgreens in nearby Naples for a prescription I needed.
Further, I was invited out to dinner often by faculty members, and rejoiced in the big families a great many had underfoot. I met a lot of holy people. I admired the serious learning of a remarkably committed and self-sacrificing faculty, and (according to students) the seriousness and impressiveness of their teaching. Prof. Mark Guerra with a colleague from another university won a huge grant from the University of Chicago, from a field of 700 applicants and 40 finalists.