Reflections on Notre Dame’s greatest debate.

There comes a time in every man’s life when he is forced to choose between the noble and the base, the convenient and the worthwhile, the shallow pleasure which will meet his basic animal desires, or the profound beauty which reverberates to the depths of his soul. 

As a new resident of North Quad, I confront this moral dilemma daily. North Dining Hall, that ponderous gray mass of stone and steel, pins me under its iron gaze and beckons across the quad with cold authority. It whispers promises of convenience and better food—surely that’s all you really need from your meal, o mortal man? I struggle desperately against that siren call. 

Sweet memories of red brick, high wooden ceilings, and hanging chandeliers flicker at the edges of my consciousness like some half-remembered blissful dream, the faint recollections of a past life in another, better world, pleading for me to return home. And yet, I am ashamed to say, my willpower invariably crumbles under this quotidian struggle, and I find myself compelled, like Tolkien’s Smeagol, to abandon all that is bright and beautiful and pursue my lower appetites into the dark, cold depths of that cinder block cave. 

At this point, the reader may wonder why exactly North Dining Hall deserves such vicious verbal flagellation. I answer, quite simply and with the utmost sincerity, that it is a shallow, soulless simulacrum of a dining hall; indeed, it is the architectural incarnation of the spiritual and cultural decay which plagues modern consumerist society. 

The spiritual vacuum begins sucking away one’s soul the moment one enters the dining hall. Like items on a conveyor belt, each student is expected to filter into a line and tap their card to open an automatic gate. If I am lucky, I may have the chance to smile and greet the person supervising the process, but in the typical meal time rush, this is nearly impossible. Contrast this with South Dining Hall, where only the most miserly of misanthropes can help but smile and greet the person to whom they give their card, who almost always responds with a pleasant “Enjoy your meal!” Oh, the humanity!

Now, let us consider the dining experience itself. From the moment I sit down, music and TV screens begin howling at me from all sides. Keeping focused on my own table is like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube by flashlight while surrounded by a pack of braying wolves. Authentic human conversation with friends? Difficult, especially if the friends like TV. Sitting alone, taking time to reflect on my life and be alone with my thoughts? A Carthusian monk would find contemplation a trial in that environment. 

Finally, examine the aesthetics of the room. What “art” there is to be had in the main dining area consists, not even of painted fruit but photographs of fruits and vegetables suspended in a single linear, horizontal plane with an oversaturated, digitally enhanced vibrance. What better captures the narcissistic, self-referential navel-gazing of post-modern artwork than a dining hall which can’t imagine anything worth lifting one’s mind toward besides food? What better captures the lack of creativity or spontaneity in modern society than a collection of “artworks” arranged perfectly straight in one dimension?

Lest I suffer a self-induced aneurysm, I will move on to other aesthetic considerations. Metal and plastic furniture scream brute efficiency and cost-cutting. As I cajole my rubber-bottom chair to scooch across the gray-pattern carpet designed solely for the purpose of concealing dirt and spilled food, I think yearningly of the simple, yet elegant wooden chairs of South, the noise—if not satisfying, at least authentic—that they make as I easily scoot back on the hard tile floor and which echoes off of the high ceiling for all to hear. Oh, the ceiling! Would that I could ever lift my mind to the height of that timbered plafond while dining in North! 

In the midst of this soulless, cost-efficient, unimaginative materialism, I note one exception. Standing out at us from above the entrance to the hall, painfully out of place in its drab surroundings, is a crucifix. Christ looks down upon the wretched diners, promising more than unfrozen bread alone and living water that never needs to be replenished at the drink station. As the poet Friedrich Hölderlin said, “Where danger is, grows the saving power also.” It is precisely in contrast to the miserable nihilism of self-centered materialism that the saving power of self-giving love becomes most strikingly visible; it is precisely in the moment of spiritual desolation that we cry out for something to give life meaning and joy, and dare to hope for an answer. 

Thus, our temple to the gods of modernity is turned on its head—Christ who expelled the money changers infiltrating the Jewish temple now becomes the infiltrator Himself, the simple witness of His incarnation and sacrifice becomes the perfect subversion of this shrine to cold, inhuman efficiency. 

Then again, perhaps it is only a dining hall after all. 

Jack McEnery is a Junior Program of Liberal Studies major with digital marketing and theology minors living in Alumni Hall. He can usually be found reading in the PLS lounge while consuming copious quantities of caffeine, and is quite comfortable collecting questions, concerns, or chocolate chip cookies from anyone. You can email him at (especially if you have chocolate chip cookies).