In December of 1953, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a letter to a young Jesuit named Robert Murray, SJ, who had read an advance copy of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which was due out shortly thereafter. In response to Murray’s comments on the book, Tolkien said, “I think I know exactly what you mean by the order of Grace; and of course by your references to Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded.” Here at Boston College, beauty is found—both in majesty and simplicity—in our chapel that is dedicated to Our Lady.
For my first two-and-a-half years at BC, I had visited St. Mary’s Chapel each and every day. It had begun sort of by accident. Someone had told me it was a nice place to go to Mass and, having found my first Sunday Mass on campus to be a bit spiritually empty, I decided to check it out at noon on the first day of classes. The organ was playing as I entered and saw the stone pillars that line the nave. The lively and colorful stained glass windows depicting the joys and sorrows of Mary’s life were dazzling from the September sunlight. Soon after, the priest entered and Mass began.
I found myself compelled to return each day at noon. I often saw the same people: faculty, staff, students, elderly who live in the community, and other visitors of all kinds. From day to day and week to week, the same priests cycled through saying the Mass: Fr. Opeil, Fr. Kennedy, Fr. Keenan, Fr. Tacelli, and others. It was a routine, a ritual. In time, I was not just there for Mass but at other hours of the day as well for a quick private prayer or a gathering with one of the groups I had gotten involved with.
On a snowy day in late December of 2012, I had just finished the last of my final exams for the semester, and before heading back to my room in Gabelli to pack up and head home for Christmas, I stopped by St. Mary’s Chapel. It was dark. Only two lights shone, both in the sanctuary—one was a spotlight, illuminating the old marble high altar with its golden tabernacle door and its 22-foot spire; the other was the small, flickering sanctuary candle in its red glass enclosure. The building was set to close for two years of renovations and, not knowing then that I would now be here for grad school, I thought that it would be my last time in the chapel as a BC student.
Over the last two years, the daily Masses still occurred, but they were in Gasson in a makeshift worship space. The experience for myself and for a few others from my class whom I spoke to was like an experience of exile, like that of the Jews in Babylon who longed for their homeland, to be in the central place of their worship. I had never been a daily Mass goer before coming to BC, and I ceased to be one during the last two years, going each Sunday but only very infrequently during the week. The majestic and simple beauty was missing.
St. Mary’s Hall reopened on Monday of this week, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, a great Marian feast. However, I got in there a bit sooner. I was given a tour of the
building last month for a
story that we ran in The Torch about the renovation and restoration that had been done. I was excited to go in there and see how this old, lovely building had been revitalized.
When we came to the chapel, much was still yet to be completed. The pews were missing, equipment was strewn about the space, and several laborers and artisans were tending to
structural and aesthetic tasks. When I walked in there this Monday, however, it looked just as I had left it on that December day two years ago.
I went in at about 10am because I couldn’t wait for Mass at noon. I prayed the rosary, and as I knelt in prayer, some people came and went as they always had, seeking a garden of God in the desert of the world. Jesuits and students alike were coming in to take a peek, to say a prayer. I returned at noon for Mass, and the chapel quickly filled to capacity. There were freshmen and sophomores who had likely never been in the chapel before. There were juniors who had only known the space in their first semester here, and seniors who had not known it much longer. There were also many of the regulars who had always come before.
I think it was my experiences in St. Mary’s that largely formed me as a Catholic in my time at BC, for I had not considered myself very religious before coming here. It was there that, in prayer, I wrestled with God like Jacob before me. It was the crucible of my life, where I came bearing every emotion, every experience, both joyful and sorrowful, mirthful and painful, taking it all to the Lord and trying to make sense of my life and my purpose. The majestic and simple beauty of Our Lady lifted my soul to her Son, who is Beauty Himself.
Returning there this week was like returning home. Despite the long absence, all seemed familiar. I had again come into my Father’s house, adorned in honor of my Mother, to be with my brothers and my sisters so that we might all commune with our Brother, Christ Jesus the Lord. It’s good to be home.