Sunday, October 7, 2012

Prayers at the Grotto

There is a place that touches my soul--and has touched the souls of countless others--every time I gaze upon it: this special place is the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes at the University of Notre Dame, a faithful replica of the one in France that marks the location of Mary's 19th-century apparitions to St. Bernadette.  I've blogged about this beautiful stone cave carved into a little hillside behind the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Notre Dame's glorious campus before; but it's a subject that bears repeating--especially on a Sunday, when one's mind is focused on prayer.
My husband, two of my sons, and I, praying at the Grotto a few weekends ago.
Some people think Notre Dame is all about the football, but there is so much more to that place than football or any other sport.  To me--and to so many others, I know--Notre Dame is about the Grotto and all that the Grotto stands for.  It's about celebrating our Catholic Faith on a daily basis, out loud and with joy; and it's about realizing our frailties, but feeling confident that we can ask Our Blessed Mother--Our Lady, for whom the university was named--to help us out as we struggle along in our quest to be joined one day with Her Beloved Son.

Don't get me wrong, the football is great.  Especially this year--so far anyway!  (Did you catch the 41-3 win over Miami last night?  How about those Irish, huh?)  And there are so many other wonderful traditions that make Notre Dame a unique and special institution.  But the Grotto...the Grotto is in a league of its own.

Mounted at the Grotto is a copy of a letter that Dr. Thomas A. Dooley, Class of '48, wrote in Dec., 1960 to then Notre Dame President Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C.  Tom Dooley was a well-known and acclaimed humanitarian who brought relief to Southeast Asia during the 1950's; he was, in fact, the very man who inspired Pres. John F. Kennedy to establish the Peace Corps.  Six weeks before his death, as he lay suffering in a Chinese hospital, Dooley wrote this very moving letter to Fr. Hesburgh about the Grotto.  Here are some excerpts:

Nothing earthly or human can touch me...Because I can pray...How do people on earth endure anything if they cannot have God?

I realize that the external symbols that surround one when he prays are not important...

But just now...and just so many times, how I long for the Grotto.  Away from the Grotto, Dooley just prays.  But at the Grotto, especially now when there must be snow everywhere and the lake is ice glass and that triangular fountain on the left is frozen solid and all the priests are bundled in their too-large, too-long old black coats and the students wear snow boots...if I could go to the Grotto now, then I think I could sing inside.  I could be full of faith and poetry and loveliness and know more beauty, tenderness, and compassion.  This is soggy sentimentalism, I know, (old prayers from a hospital bed are just as pleasing to God as more youthful prayers from a Grotto on the lid of night).

But like telling a mother in labor, "It's okay, millions have endured the labor pains and survived will, too."  It's consoling...but doesn't lessen the pain.  Accordingly, knowing prayers from here are just as good as from the Grotto doesn't lessen my gnawing, yearning passion to be there.

So Father Hesburgh, Notre Dame is...always in my heart.  That Grotto is the rock to which my life is anchored.  Do the students ever appreciate what they have, while they have it?  I know I never did.

[I just want to offer] my thanks to my beloved Notre Dame.  Though I lack a certain buoyancy in my bones just now, I lack none in my spirit.  I must return to the states very soon, and I hope to sneak into that Grotto...before the snow has melted.

It is well-nigh impossible to visit Notre Dame's Grotto and read Tom Dooley's letter without tears springing to your eyes, a lump forming in your throat.  I think he expressed perfectly what so many others have felt when they've lit candles there or knelt to pray a Rosary.

And lucky me--at this time next weekend, I'll be out at Notre Dame again, to watch another football game with my husband and drive our youngest son back home with us for his week-long fall break.  And while I'm there, I'll get another chance to pray at the Grotto about which Tom Dooley wrote so movingly and eloquently.


  1. Beautiful picture! Did Katie take that?

  2. She did, and I didn't know she'd taken it until after. I love it.

  3. This letter about the grotto is so beautiful, thanks for sharing it.

    1. It's always my pleasure to talk about the Grotto! I love that place.