Some people might think that the halcyon quads of Notre Dame protect it from all those dark things that lurk outside its walls: death, disease, loneliness, failure, divorce, unemployment.
But walk around this campus for a few hours, or, like me, spend a little time with our students, and you find that these realities are impinging on lives here as much as anywhere else.
And every Thursday, when the Folk Choir ends its rehearsals with intentional prayer – then you really do hear about all the things that are in the hearts and souls of our young people.
This is how it happens, every week:
One of our students (this year it's Francis) comes up and lights a trio of candles before the icon of the Madonna and Child (This image is very important to us, as it was given to the choir by the monks of Gethsemani Abbey). Then the lights go out, and we are surrounded by darkness and the candlelight before Mother and Child.
We sing "Day Is Done" – as we have for the past twenty-five years. And then, after a little quiet, the intentions begin to pour forth: "For my dad, who lost his job." "For the loneliest person on campus tonight." "For the men of Michigan City prison." "For a friend from my high school, who just committed suicide." "For my uncle, who was just diagnosed with cancer."
Every week, the litany of needs pours forth. In the quiet of that rehearsal room, week in and week out, the intentions are named.
This past month, it's been a little different. Just before prayer, one of our seniors had asked if he could take the podium. He came forward, slowly, and pulled out a letter to the choir.
He wrote the letter because what he had to say would've been impossible to deliver off the cuff. He had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Chances are he would be looking at surgery, perhaps in the next couple of months. He had lost feeling on half of his face.
And then he spoke of the love he had for the choir, of how important it was to share this news with the people he loved and loved to sing with. He spoke of how, if he had to walk such a valley, how he couldn't conceive of facing it without all those loving faces in that room.
Then he sat down.
And, again, as always, the lights went out, and we sang "Day Is Done." It was sung softly, but from my place at the podium I was overwhelmed by the quiet strength, the utterly gentle but fierce protection blanketed over our choir by that old Welsh hymn.
Since that moment, we've had others – another operation in the choir to remove the threat of cancer, a former member of the ensemble who suddenly but inexplicably had a stroke, a family member who was hospitalized for a week.
These are the realities. But there are other realities, too – powerful ones. Like what happened when that young man sat back down after announcing his tumor. The lights went out – but the arms reached out as well. As we moved from verse to verse, and my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, I could see arms and hands strongly but gently placed on the young man's shoulders.
We are rocketing right now into the season of Advent, and those who know campus life know that this quiet season is anything else but on Our Lady's campus. But in the here and now, as life slips from the trees and solstice begins to knock on our door, there is that amazing thing that Christians keep deep in their souls – their rage against the night, their steady stance against the darkness. It is the Easter Vigil, every day – our chance to light the Paschal fire in the hearts of those we love, those whom we care for.
Even at night, the day may be done. But Love and Light are never very far away.