In the Old Testament, we read stories of people building altars to remember God’s goodness and faithfulness. Their hope and trust in God became part of the landscape, set in the earth and engraved in stone. Altars grew into sites of pilgrimage, a record of the stories of the people and their history with God.
We, too, need places to record of our stories of faith: memorials to remember where, when, and how we have encountered the living God. Last weekend I had the opportunity to revisit one of the altars where I have met God. A place of prayer, peace, hope, more than a few tears. A grotto that sustained me through four years of college and numerous visits since. A sacred shrine that is loved by many, crowded on fall weekends and quiet on snowy afternoons.
I lit a candle. Touched the well-worn stone from Lourdes on the cave wall. Watched throngs of old and young shuffle past for their chance to kneel on the hard wood bench and offer a prayer.
Each time I visit, the grotto reminds of God’s faithfulness. Of prayers both answered and unanswered, and the mysterious wisdom at work in God’s providence. I remember all the things I have prayed for there, in that earthly place of stone and light, and I am overwhelmed by the closeness of the living God, the Spirit of the place.
But it is not simply the statue of Mary, or the rows of flickering candles, or the iron-rod kneeler that makes this place an altar for me. It is the simple plaque that bears the words of another alum who loved the grotto, even from afar where his vocation as a doctor led him to serve the poor. His words remind me of the altars that ground us in faith:
I realize that the external symbols that surround one when he prays are not important…It is the Something else there that counts.
But just now…and just so many times, how I long for the Grotto. Away from the Grotto, Dooley just prays. But at the Grotto, especially now when there must be snow everywhere and the lake is ice glass and that triangular fountain on the left is frozen solid, and all the priests are bundled in their too-large, too-long black coats and the students wear snow boots…if I could go to the Grotto now, then I think I could sing inside. I could be full of faith and poetry and loveliness and know more beauty, tenderness and compassion.
When I think about altars and stories and the places that ground us in faith, I see my writing in a new light. How I record the stories of S’s growing up, and my growing into the vocation of mothering, matters to both of us. Writing can stand as a witness to our encounters with the living God, as words within the Word. And I believe we encounter God in each other, in the spirit of the Risen Christ alive within us.
When I return to these stories, to the glimpses of grace I find in raising S and doing the work I am called to do in the world, the stories become my touchstones, the rocks of the altars I build to remember God’s faithfulness. When I am away from them, I can pray, but when I return to these stories, I can sing inside. I am full of faith and poetry and loveliness; I know more beauty, tenderness, and compassion.
We are our stories. They remind us who we are, whose we are, where we are going and where we have been. Something Else is always there; it is we who need the stories – and the altars and the stones – to remind us that we are here, too.