September 30, 2022

Reflection / John Shaughnessy

A sacred place close to the heart—and the special gifts it brings

John ShaughnessyNOTRE DAME, Ind.—There are places for many of us that touch our soul more deeply, sacred places where we feel closer to Christ and the Blessed Mother as we share our joys, our fears, our hopes and our heartbreaks.

For most of my long life, that place has been the Grotto on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. There, in moments of worry, indecision and thanksgiving as a student, I felt even closer to the Blessed Mother, knowing the comfort she could give and firmly believing that she would intercede with her Son for me, a belief that connected me even more to both of them.

Ever since, I have regularly returned to that sacred place as a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather and a friend, kneeling in front of this shrine and talking to Mary after lighting a candle there—a candle that sometimes I have prayed would illuminate a hope, a candle that other times I have hoped would chase away the darkness of my fears, my doubts, my heartbreaks.

Through all the years, through all the visits there, I can’t remember a time when I left the Grotto that I didn’t feel that the Blessed Mother had heard me, that she and her Son were walking with me. It’s a feeling of security, of humility, of believing that my life—our lives—are connected to them by their care and their love.

While the power of that connection makes the Grotto my favorite place on that beautiful campus, my second favorite place at Notre Dame evokes a different kind of power—the powerful combination of imagination, faith and determination, a great gift that God has bestowed on humanity to make this world a better place.

This site is near a log cabin on a grassy hill overlooking St. Mary’s Lake. It’s the place where Holy Cross Father Edward Sorin, Notre Dame’s founder, and seven Holy Cross brothers arrived in late November of 1842 after an 11-day journey of more than 250 miles on foot and in wagons from Vincennes to South Bend. And the journey was made during a brutal early winter when the snow along the way was as deep as a foot.

A marker on that grassy hill shares the letter that Father Sorin wrote on Dec. 5, 1842, to Blessed Basil Moreau, the priest who founded the Congregation of Holy Cross in France.

In part, Father Sorin wrote, “This attractive spot has taken from the lake which surrounds it the beautiful name of Notre Dame du Lac. ... It is from here that I write you now.

“Everything was frozen over. Yet it all seemed so beautiful. The lake, especially with its broad carpet of dazzling white snow, quite naturally reminded us of the spotless purity of our august Lady whose name it bears, and also of the purity of soul that should mark the new inhabitants of this chosen spot ...

“Though it was quite cold, we went to the very end of the lake, and like children, came back fascinated with the marvelous beauties of our new home. ... Once more we felt that Providence had been good to us and we blessed God from the depths of our soul.

“Will you permit me, dear Father, to share with you a preoccupation which gives me no rest? Briefly, it is this: Notre Dame du Lac was given to us by the bishop only on condition that we establish here a college at the earliest opportunity. As there is no other school within more than a hundred miles, this college cannot fail to succeed. ... Before long, it will develop on a large scale. ... It will be one of the most powerful means for good in this country.

“Finally, dear Father, you cannot help see that this new branch of your family is destined to grow under the protection of Our Lady of the Lake and of St. Joseph. At least, this is my deep conviction. Time will tell if I am wrong.”

Two sacred places. One reminds us to bring our joys, our fears, our hopes and our heartbreaks to Jesus and his mother. The other reminds us how God calls us to use the gifts he has given us to make this world a better place in any way we can.

And both rest on the foundation, the firm belief, that Jesus and his mother will be there for us on our journey, comforting and guiding us with their love.

(John Shaughnessy is the assistant editor of The Criterion.)

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