The city of St. Louis and Saint Louis University (SLU) in particular have been important touchstones for me since the mid-1980s when as a college student I participated in a SLU study abroad program in France. Dear friendships with then-SLU students Laura and Denise led to many visits to St. Louis through the years. More recently SLU has been present to me through three separate campus visits with two of my children during their college searches, including this past weekend. Despite the busy schedule of admissions programming, unexpectedly I found myself on a spiritual pilgrimage.
A late afternoon visit with Laura on Friday was the first holy encounter. Ensconced in her cozily lived-in front room, enjoying fresh-brewed coffee and homemade cookies while children of all ages came and went, I was quickly transported back to our time together in France. We didn’t really know each other’s families, but back then we had read our letters aloud to one another (snail mail only in those days!), so our siblings and parents and their doings became an ongoing narrative to savor, like an old-fashioned serial in a magazine. We easily picked up the threads of our respective stories even though we hadn’t seen each other in more than a decade. Statues of the Blessed Virgin and Our Lady of Guadalupe on her mantel along with references to praying the rosary gave me a pang. Laura had always been very devout, and these outward signs reminded me viscerally that 25 years ago I had shared that kind of religious expression. Driving back to the University a short while later, tears welled up in response to emotion I could not quite name.
On Saturday afternoon, needing solitude and silence, I skipped the financial aid session in favor of a visit to the campus church, St. Francis Xavier, colloquially called “College Church.” It’s a majestic structure in the Gothic-revival style built in the late 19th century with imposing granite columns lining the nave, while colorful stained glass bathes the interior in light. I was viscerally reminded again of being a college student traveling in Europe, where Gothic churches and cathedrals are ubiquitous and when my relationship with the institutional Church was much simpler and a lot stronger than it is today. I sat quietly in a pew, trying to be open to the movement of spirit. Tears welled up again, gratitude for a renewed friendship with Laura but also a kind of grief in regards to the Church. After a while, I began to walk around looking at the windows and statues. Renovated in 1990, College Church tastefully integrates traditional and contemporary.
Strolling down a side aisle, I found that the confessionals are a delightful example of this blend. Some have been opened up completely and chairs placed in them for overflow seating during mass, but several on each side are still just for confession. These retain the usual three doors, with the priest in the center and penitents on either side. While one side contains a kneeler and a cloth-covered panel in the wall for an anonymous confession, on the other side, the wall was removed and the space combined with the priest’s center cubicle. Two chairs indicated that face to face confession was available on this side. Wishing I had a camera, I smiled with gladness to discover space for varied preferences. Would that it be a metaphor for the Church! I closed out my pilgrimage with a final evocation of visits to European churches and lit a candle at a Mary statue in thanksgiving for the grace of the trip.
Photo by Skeke via Flickr under a Creative Commons license