Last Sunday, April 26th, Ave Maria University’s Shakespeare troupe completed its 12-performance run of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I never liked this play, but producer and director Travis Curtright introduced a rapid change of mood and constant flow of appropriate contemporary music between scenes and acts, in a steady course of merriment. I have liked every Ave Maria Shakespeare production for the last five years, as I have written before; but this year’s may have been the best ever. It is wonderful to see young actors play characters their own age, with young innocence and wonderment.
Why did I like this production so? In the past individual stars have lifted the whole level up. But this year each member of the cast, from the noble but bewitched lovers to the “rude mechanicals” of Athens, played his or her part to perfection. I have never seen a more balanced production, a fuller cast (in fact, two casts, A and B) so full of talent, and also love for one another. One could tangibly feel them boost each other, and at each performance raise their level above its predecessor. I have never seen a cast grow so much, from top to bottom, as this troupe did.
Their opening night was a joy, but from there to the final two performances was a wondrous bound. The audience was laughing from the beginning to the end, and ever harder.
The conclusion of Midsummer Night’s Dream reminded me that graduation is now only a few days away, and gave me pause to reflect on my last six years at Ave.
After my first semester here early in 2010, I wrote that Ave Maria was the most openly Catholic place that I had ever experienced. We have now grown to over 1,000 students, but even with this swollen number it retains its powerful Catholic identity. True enough, the outward form of the Catholic culture may have shifted somewhat, from a more liturgical and tradition-centered culture to one emphasizing evangelization, service to the poor, and a personal dedication to Our Lady of the Annunciation: “Be it done to me according to Thy will.”
But recently what struck me most, about both the Ave students who spoke during Senior Night and those from the Shakespeare troupe at a party after their final performance, was this: How often they gave thanks to the Lord or praised Ave Maria for its nourishment in a deeper Catholic faith.
Hot-blooded faith is not the only thing I cherish among Ave students. The high academic quality of the top third or so is also striking. I taught as a graduate instructor at Harvard for two years, and as assistant professor at Stanford for three. My estimate is that the top quarter of Ave students are every bit as good as the Harvard and Stanford students I taught. The proof is that we are getting so many of our students into really good graduate schools – at Cambridge, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen in the UK, Columbia, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere. So far, those I have recommended for internships and jobs in Washington – at one institution after another – have done so well that when I check back with those who hired them, I hear reports that our students are leading the pack and they want more of them. The same goes for those I have recommended for programs abroad in Germany, Italy, Poland, and Slovakia.
And no wonder: few students in the country get as solid a picture of the best in the Western tradition, from the Greeks and early Hebrews onward. While Ave’s core curriculum does not require Greek or Latin, enough of our students excel in these languages to outdo all but a few schools in the nation.
Not many universities in America can put on a 24-hour continuous reading of Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey, as Ave Maria has done in its “Homerathon.” That’s also what Stanley Lombardo, the premier English translator of Homer, said of Ave after his 2013 performance at the Homerathon.
I could say a lot about the spiritual depth of many Ave Maria students. Many do much spiritual reading on their own. Many go on weekend retreats during the school year. Perhaps the clause most frequently used among Ave students is “I need to discern.” By this they mean they need to pray over the matter to reach a calm and considered decision in the eyes of God. As they file out of the Oratory each Sunday after Mass, many local parishioners have marveled, many students are still kneeling in the pews, praying.
I will miss this senior class very much!
Photo credits to Tyler Neil. Used with permission.