Not much mattered but the path before us.
As we set out towards the Grotto those Sunday nights, unfinished schoolwork seemed as distant as the dock on St. Joseph’s Beach. We laughed and recapped the weekend as we crossed North Quad and passed the back of the Main Building, pausing at the top of the stairway that leads to the shrine.
Depending on the season, the trees above the Grotto rustled softly or shook violently as we walked down the stairs in silence. Some of us knelt for a few seconds, others for ten minutes. We never felt pressured. Everything in college is measured by time, but time doesn’t pass at the Grotto.
If I finished my prayer early, I’d stand back and watch the candles flicker. One by one, the silhouettes of my friends came into focus as they rose from the bench to join me a few yards away.
We waited like that, faces barely lit from the soft candlelight, until each one of us was standing.
A few good friends from Siegfried Hall started the tradition back in 2010, when I was a sophomore. Every Sunday night after Mass they’d throw on sneakers and sweatshirts, swing open the big front doors of Siegfried and make the pilgrimage over to the Grotto.
My friend Pete Elliott ’12 was one of the original post-Mass Grotto-goers. He and another founding father, Mike McDonnell ’11, pestered fellow Ramblers and friends over at Pasquerilla West until a “rotating cast of characters” began showing up to the weekly Grotto trips.
“Like most good things…we couldn’t help but share it with others,” Pete said.
I joined for the first time senior year — reluctantly, I must admit. I felt I’d already paid my spiritual dues by attending Siegfried Mass, and balked at the idea of further cutting into my precious study time.
But the Siegfried boys urged me to come along.
“You’ll get your work done eventually,” they said. “This will be worth it.”
They were right.
Sometimes, I struggled to pull myself out of my off-campus apartment and make the trek over to Siegfried in the dead of winter. But I knew how warm I would feel when I entered the crowded chapel filled with familiar faces. I looked forward to the dorm’s signature Gospel music and wonderfully, absurdly long sign of peace.
Following Mass, we’d wait at Siegfried’s entrance for the Grotto group to convene. We always left later than planned. Without fail, someone forgot a sweatshirt, or needed to pack a backpack, or chatted with a guest too long.
We waited, though, because going to the Grotto together was the perfect way to close off one week and begin another. Friday and Saturday we might be spread anywhere from Brothers to Finny’s, Chicago to the Lake Michigan Dunes, but on Sundays at 11 p.m. we could all be together and catch up.
That’s not to say these trips were exclusive — new faces joined all the time, fading in and out of the post-Mass Grotto circle. But those who showed up once wouldn’t get off so easy the next time. Newcomers who tagged along out of curiosity were often guilt-tripped into becoming regulars.
I was one of them.
It’s important to note these visits weren’t only social, but incredibly spiritual. Solidarity was palpable as we knelt in a line before newly lit candles, silent prayers filling the open shrine before us.
As the South Bend winter faded our senior year, we felt a growing urgency to return to the Grotto. Despite rain, papers, finals or theses, a loyal group gathered at the entrance of Siegfried each Sunday night. It saddened us to think this place that had been so accessible for four years would soon be out of reach.
The Grotto would always wait, but graduation wouldn’t.
Now, one year out of Notre Dame, those Grotto trips are an aspect of college I miss most. They embodied the best parts of the Notre Dame experience — friendship, support, love and faith. I think of my Grotto group, ranging from good friends to mere acquaintances, as a smaller, more tangible representation of the Notre Dame family.
And while our weekly tradition may be out of practice, it continues to bond us from points across the country.
Pete put it best: “I think [the Grotto] is a great metaphor for us post-ND,” he said. “We are scattered all in our respective parts of the country, but we will always be spiritually connected. And I wager we will someday again meet in front of Siegfried and walk the same pilgrimage step-for-step.”
Sara Felsenstein is a television associate producer and freelance writer based in New York City. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org: email@example.com or visit her website, www.sarafelsenstein.com.