As I do almost every night Monday through Thursday, I head to the dorm room where Night Prayer, or Compline of Liturgy of the Hours will be prayed. In the apartment, every effort has been made to make guests feel welcome; bright string lights run across the ceiling and a vase of flowers sits near a jar of candy on the table. A kind voice beckons me to sit on the couch, and we chat for a moment as people file in–students of all class levels, some coming from the 9:00 Mass, others from the library. For some, this nightly prayer as a community, partaking in the time-honored Catholic tradition of marking and blessing the hours in an otherwise hectic college life is the most treasured part of the day. From my vantage point as a senior, I am suddenly awestruck when I remember that night prayer on the Mount campus began three years ago with two of my friends, Mary Grace and Olivia, and has expanded to often more than a dozen people. The leader clears his throat. “God, come to my assistance.” In a chorus comes the response: “Lord make haste to help me.”
Presence. That’s a word I’ve been thinking a lot about these past weeks, asking myself what it means to have been welcomed into the Catholic community at Mount St. Mary’s, to remain in it for a time, and to soon be leaving. Will this community continue to be present in my life, and if so, how?
The Mount’s Catholic community, Campus Ministry in particular, has been a central part of my college experience since the second weekend of freshman year when I attended a party off campus at the FOCUS missionaries’ home. I pinpoint that night as the moment I truly felt welcome on this campus, when it seemed that everyone wanted to introduce themselves and to know my name. My name. In years past I had often felt excluded but now I was seen, and soon, through friendships that began that very night, shown not only that I was worthy of love but that I was immensely loved.
In time I came to see that what keeps the Mount’s Catholic community vibrant and coherent is that it is fundamentally one of joy. Don’t get me wrong; we have daily struggles and great hardships, we are sinners needing God’s grace, but we know that Christ’s love is strong enough to lead us to victory. And each person fills a unique part in this community. I, for instance, embrace my own gifts but also am at times tending toward melancholy and anxiety, yet it is the exuberant joy of those who are more outgoing, who live their faith a bit more out loud than I, that has lifted my spirit many a time. When I think of these specific people the words of Pier Giorgio Frassati come to mind, his response to someone who asked if he was happy: “How can I not be happy when God is the center of my life?”
Even if my time in this community will last only six more months, my time here will continue to provide meaning in the life lessons I will take with me. Upon reflection, I saw that they fall into three broad themes:
1) None of us has to carry our cross alone. Fall semester of junior year I was going through a particular stressful and exhausting time filled with a full courseload, two on-campus jobs, and worries in my family situation. One day the Gospel came from Matthew chapter 11, in which Jesus instructs His followers to “take my yoke upon you…for my yoke is easy, my burden light.” This made no sense to me and I found myself questioning God’s word. The very next day, an acquaintance volunteered to assist me with some physical labor, and I was reminded of the fact that it was not good for man to be alone, that we are meant to share each other’s burdens and to walk with one another, quite literally, on the road to heaven. (Galatians 6:2)
Later that year I found myself struggling with a faith-related fear, feeling very isolated in darkness and uncertainty. One evening, by chance, I found out that a good friend of mine had previously struggled with the same fear. We had lived side by side for three years but knew nothing of what the other was going through; when we learned of it, a period of healing for both of us was ushered in. By bringing this to the light we were able to carry our crosses together and be a conduit to each other of the hope that is found in Jesus.
2) I have learned that despite all the good things a community like the Mount Catholic community can provide, no one or group of people can truly fulfill me but Jesus. In my time here what I noticed growing up was confirmed: people disappoint me. There is that temptation to think that if I just get to know this person a little more, if this person shows an interest in me, if all my friends are together in one place having fun, then I will be fulfilled. These things happen and I find that there is still more to learn about this person or that there is still a longing in my heart for more community, but of a different sort. It is at these times that I am reminded of a piece of wisdom I received from a former seminarian here, Esteban. When he came to the Mount he knew no one and asked Jesus to be his best friend. Surprisingly, I felt a bit like that starting my senior year. My best friends had graduated and, afraid of being lonely, I too told Jesus that He must be the one there for me. This has helped me to grow in trust but also as a reminder that no one knows me better than Jesus, that Jesus longs to be my most important relationship and the one who will ultimately fulfill me in heaven, and that is why our hearts yearn for a reality we cannot yet possess. In the meantime, God has placed people in my life to help me on that path toward unity with God.
3) While my time at the Mount is almost done, I have learned one final valuable lesson here: that the Church is truly universal and I will find it wherever I go. Before entering college I never dreamed that I would meet so many committed Catholics here at the Mount or in Guyana and Colorado, places I’ve traveled to on service trips. The Church is a large and a small place at the same time. Just as God has placed new people in my life before, He will do so again when I graduate. God provides for His people, and knowing that I personally find His presence in the examples of other people, He will provide for me. The fact that I might have to lean on Jesus’ strong hand a bit more than usual will only allow me to better see His love and care in my life.