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A light in the darkness

| Monday, February 26, 2018

The night was freezing. My breath was illuminated in the cold and it wisped away among the candles. I walked among the rows until I found an open place, placing the match upon the wick of another candle and lighting it. A family friend had died the week before and I felt this was the least I could do,1,500 miles away in South Bend. Eight minutes, along South Quad briefly, past Lyons and Bond Halls, across the lake on a walk that had become so familiar by now. I left the Grotto after I had lit the candle and walked back to my dorm through the snow.

Last week for our first year Moreau class we read Dr. Tom Dooley’s Letter to Father Hesburgh. Among other things, Dr. Dooley talks about how much the Grotto means to him and this got me thinking of my experiences with one of the most characteristic features to our campus. Over my first year, the Grotto has become an important place to visit when I need to clear my head or simply take time just to step back and think.

It is important to say that I am not Catholic and not particularly religious. I’m a Sephardic Jew who has ancestors who fled Spain and went to Greece, but I consider myself ethnically and culturally Jewish more than anything. I have gone to my dorm mass several times with my roommate and I still don’t know what lines are coming. I am left standing when others start kneeling and left kneeling when everyone gets up for Communion. What I love about Notre Dame, however, is that even though we are a Catholic institution there is a place for everyone here. I have found that the culture of Catholicism creates the kind of atmosphere where a visit to the Grotto can literally change you without you ever having to become or even think about Catholicism.

The first time I saw the Grotto was during Welcome Weekend three years ago during my sister’s orientation. I remember the experience extremely clearly. It was raining heavily, and the lake was dotted with droplets that showered its surface. We were racing past the Main Building and behind the Basilica, trying to catch a glimpse of the lake before we sought shelter. And that’s how I first saw the Grotto, rain streaking down the statue of Mary like tears.

I have come back many times after this, and I have seen the Grotto in every season and weather imaginable. Picturesque Thomas Kinkade landscapes with leaves and autumn breezes. Inky nights and cold breezes. And more importantly, days when the light was flat and rain wouldn’t stop. One of the most important things visiting the Grotto has done for me is help me see things differently even if those things didn’t change at all. I’m not talking about meditation or religious realization. I’m telling you about how being a Jew in a Catholic university has helped me see things more expansively and through new and different eyes. In any and every season you find yourself in life, no matter the weather, sometimes stepping back from yourself is important.

Whenever I go to the Grotto and I see the flames that never go out, I’m reminded of a story in the Book of Judaism called the Talmud. Thousands of years ago Judea was invaded by Syrians and the temple in Jerusalem desecrated. The Maccabees recaptured the temple, purified it, and lit the menorah inside. Even though they had a limited amount of oil that should’ve lasted for one day, the menorah stayed lit for the entirety of eight days. In today’s culture where there is a meeting of diverse cultures at a college campus and in society, where questions on the future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students and a multi-billion border wall are predominant, uniting and keeping the candles lit, even if in a corner of campus, is a step toward the kind of thinking we need in our society. The indirect connection between us when we keep the candles lit in the Grotto, passing each other’s pain, reflection and happiness on to the next person, is an important process.

I don’t mean to ramble. Yes, I do.

I close with a portion of an article that ran in The Observer in 1986, written by Kathy Martin. “Scarcely a student passes through the challenges, dilemmas and triumphs of four college years here without taking refuge at one time or another in the peaceful silence of a moment of reflection before hundreds of glowing candles which are special prayers to the Virgin Mary. It is part of the Notre Dame experience and tradition.”

As I’ve said, I am not Catholic and not particularly religious, but I submit to you the importance of the Grotto. Across our four years on campus, we will find our spots and nooks where we meet with friends and study.  We will encounter a wealth of diverse perspectives in those relationships and in what we study. If we have the courage to look past ourselves and our presuppositions about the world and people, we will acquire vision and perhaps the imagination and ideas needed to overcome racism and prejudice. Find your Grotto, even if it isn’t the one across the lake.

When you do, light a candle and pass it on.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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