When I returned to my hometown in Northern Virginia for summer break, I felt a kind of dissonance almost immediately. My first few days were spent taking strolls and drives with friends, meandering streets that once felt so familiar, but now felt so different. My elementary school had been torn down, replaced with the bare bones of some new monstrosity, and the lookout spot that was the centerpiece of my youth was no longer open past sundown. Needless to say, it took a few weeks to feel like myself again—it took many trips to my favorite coffee shop, many late-night catch-ups and many journal entries. Of course, I missed my school friends and the daily stimulation of college life, but, perhaps more than that, I came to realize that I missed the Grotto.
Throughout the summer, I found myself craving a safe place in my hometown where I could cry and unpack my emotions and feel everything — a place where I could be alone but amongst others. I found myself desperately trying to fill this void, desperately trying to find my Grotto. I tried going to the Basilica of Saint Mary, the one with the high ceilings and ornate paintings, but it didn’t feel right; I tried sitting along the Potomac River, the moonlight glistening against the water, but it didn’t feel right; I tried sitting in my car in the high school parking circle listening to nostalgic music, but it didn’t feel right. Nothing quite had the magic that I found at the Grotto; nothing could compare.
Right when I thought I’d tried every place worth trying, I felt a strange calling to go to the hill by my house. I had just finished tutoring my neighbor and needed a moment of solitude, so I sat perched on that grassy hill for an hour, hearing the whoosh of cars combined with the crickets, feeling the rush and the stillness all at once. I looked at all the drivers passing by and began to think about all their lives, all their homes, all the complexity of their relationships and jobs and families. But thinking of all these worlds I would never know didn’t make me feel small, it made me feel like a valuable part of a beautiful whole. There I was, alone, an outsider watching from a quiet hill, but, somehow, I was so bonded to all these drivers. I was bonded by the humanity and beauty of being in the same place at the same time as all these perfect strangers.
That’s when, for the first time since I’d been home, I felt that overwhelming, gut-wrenching Grotto feeling, a feeling of warmth and familiarity like the smells of our youth or the taste of our favorite foods. On that hill, I was transported to those cold South Bend nights, clinging to my wool coat, my fingertips turning blue, as I walked toward the Grotto. I was transported to the moments I saw the glow from the cavern, the moments I felt the warmth and love from hundreds of candles representing hundreds of people and intentions.
Without a doubt, what makes the Grotto is the people. Without people, the Grotto wouldn’t be illuminated with candles each night; without people, the Grotto would serve no purpose. I’ve always felt the Grotto was a place for everyone to feel everything, regardless of background or religious belief. At the Grotto, all are welcome. Some Grotto-goers are Catholic, some aren’t; some go after nights out partying, some go after class; some go to pray, some go to sit and watch Tik Toks in peace; some go when they need a good cry, some go every single night. Some Grotto-goers go in packs, some go alone; some light candles for their best friends, some light candles for people they haven’t even met yet; some light candles in hopes of a good test score, some light candles in the wake of a bad test score. Grotto-goers come in all shapes and sizes, with all different needs and desires and lives. They are much like the drivers on the busy street by my house.
Maybe my Grotto will always be that hill by my childhood home; maybe, later in life, my Grotto will become a person or a feeling or a prayer, but I’m learning that we all have a duty to ourselves to bring the Grotto everywhere we go. We all have a duty to be more human to each other, be the flame in the vacant corner. The Grotto is not just in Notre Dame, Indiana. The Grotto is in those moments you looked out for a perfect stranger; the Grotto is in that friend who is there for you unconditionally or the song that always puts you in a good mood. Here, the Grotto is our comfort place, but I’m convinced that all roads lead to the Grotto, even if those roads take you far, far away from Indiana.
Kate Casper (aka, Casper, Underdog, or Jasmine) is from Northern Virginia, currently residing in Breen-Phillips Hall. She strives to be the best waste of your time. You can contact her at email@example.com.