I will always remember August 2005 as the time when I moved away from home, started my collegiate career, and began living as an adult on my own. While these were all monumental moments that were major milestones in my life, there was another event that occurred at this time that was much more important and influential. The impact of this occurrence was felt for years by millions of people all over the country, and its effects are still being felt in some areas, but it also had an unexpectedly large effect on my life as well. This awful moment that took place the last few days of August was Hurricane Katrina. This terrible event killed hundreds of people, ruined the lives of thousands more, and damaged the entire nation, but even with all of this carnage and mayhem, thanks to the strength and resiliency of the human spirit some good did come out of this horrible destruction. I will never forget that night Katrina hit, sitting in the chapel with my new dorm brothers, hoping that everyone’s family and friends were alright. As I sat there with my dorm brothers from the New Orleans area, as they were watching and waiting helplessly to hear from their loved ones, I learned an important lesson about life. This tense, stressful time filled with prayer and brotherhood showed me the power of community.
I was only 18 years old when I moved away from home and began living in the dorms at Notre Dame. Like every teenager on the cusp of adulthood, I thought I had everything in life figured out, and I was certain that my transition from living in a tiny, Midwestern town to being on a college campus with a graduating class larger than the population of where I grew up, would be a piece of cake. Also like most young adults, I could not have been more wrong. Almost as soon as I got to campus and began freshman orientation, I was in culture shock. I had spent my entire life in a one stoplight town of barely 2,000 people, nearly all of whom were white, Middle-class families, and now I was in an environment with over 10,000 students from all over the world and from every background you can imagine. I will admit, I was a little overwhelmed and taken aback by this huge shift in my surroundings. I do not want to give the impression that I was not enjoying my new life away from home or that I was not making friends, but for my first couple weeks on campus, even though I was trying to be very active socially, I never felt like I was really connected to my dorm brothers and other fellow “Domers.” This all changed though on the night of August 29th, when one of the worst hurricanes in our nation’s history struck New Orleans.
While I had been aware that a large hurricane had been heading for the United State’s gulf coast area, I really had not been paying too much attention to the specifics of this storm. Since I had no family or friends in that region, to me it was just another hurricane that the weather forecasters were trying to dramatize for higher ratings (“storm of the century” and “snowpocalypse” come to mind). The evening Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, I was going to check my mailbox that was down by the dorm’s chapel, and I noticed that there was a pretty big group of guys in the pews. This seemed a little strange to me, since there was no priest in the room and was not time for mass yet anyway, so I decided to see what was happening. As soon as I entered, before I even spoke to anyone, I could feel from the atmosphere of the room that something terrible had happened. I sat in the back next to an upper classman I had gotten to know during orientation, and once I was certain he was done praying, I quietly asked him what was going on. He explained to me how bad Katrina was, that currently there was little to no communication with people in that area, and that they were all praying for their loved ones and hoping they were safe. Looking at all of the red eyes, tears, and silently moving lips of prayer that surrounded me, I immediately felt bad for my new “siblings,” and the terrifying unknown they were currently in. Even though I am not Catholic, or even what you would call “religious,” I stayed there with my new brothers of Keough Hall and silently supported them with my presence. When one of them stood up and said that some of them were going to light candles at the Grotto, I decided to go along to offer any solace I could.
For those of you who are not familiar with the University of Notre Dame campus, have not seen the movie “Rudy,” and are not Catholic, I will give you some background. First, the “Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes,” or just the Grotto, is a miniature replica of the French shrine where the Virgin Mary appeared to Saint Bernadette multiple times in the mid-19th century. Father Sorin, the founder of Notre Dame, was so awed by the beauty and divinity of the original site, that he vowed to recreate it in some form on campus. It contains a stone from the original site in France, and it is one of the most sacred places on campus. Every evening, no matter how cold or wet it may be, the Rosary is prayed, and there is rarely a moment when there is not someone kneeling before the statue of the Virgin Mary, lighting a votive candle, and saying a prayer. Which brings us to the second topic to cover, the act of lighting candles in worship. I believe some other faiths do use candles as symbolic offerings during worship and prayer, but it is most widely known as a Roman Catholic tradition. While I am not Catholic, as best I can understand it, the lighting of a candle during prayer is a symbolic offering of devotion when you pray for someone or something. Generally, you light a candle for someone specific, and that flame is representative of your prayer. This is a very special and holy act that is quite sacred, and it is typically only used during difficult or trying times, like the night Katrina made landfall.
It was a dark, balmy August night as my dorm brothers and I made the quarter mile trek over to the Grotto. I do not think anyone said a word during the entire walk. There was nothing to be said anyway, as we all knew how each other was feeling, and there were no words that could make things better. When we arrived at our destination, some guys lit candles, others were kneeling with their rosary beads gripped tightly in their devoted hands, and a few, like myself, simply took a seat before the Virgin Mary, but we were all doing the same thing in our own way. We were all praying, not just for our own family’s safety, but for the safety our new brothers‘ families as well. This moment of destruction and terror had forged between us a bond that we would carry with us the rest of our lives. We now belonged to two families, our biological family and our Notre Dame family. Sharing in each other’s pain and suffering that night brought us together, and it did not matter what our backgrounds were, because we were all in the same family. Our group slowly dissipated as guys slowly trickled back to the dorm, but I will never forget how I felt walking back to my room that night. In just the couple hours I was out that evening, I had gone from a home sick, culture shocked fish out of water to a confident man with over 200 new brothers that I could count on. After that night I never felt like I did not belong or wonder if I was fitting in around the dorm, because I knew that we were all family.
I am not trying to compare my relationships with my parents and siblings to my relationships with my dorm brothers, as that is comparing apples and oranges, but this connection I formed that night in the Grotto is something special. It showed me the strength of banding together in a common goal, and how by coming together in your shared pain you can alleviate your suffering. Most of all though, this story teaches you the power of community and brotherhood. In that one evening, we created a union between us that to this day is extremely strong and has a major impact on our lives. If you have the courage to open up and let yourself feel with others, empathize with them, and support them without judgment, you can harness the true power within your hearts and minds. Whether you call it resilience, the might of the human spirit, or something else entirely, you will know it when you feel it, and its impact will last a lifetime. The force of this banding together will pleasantly envelope you and help you overcome whatever you are going through together. Sharing this powerful, emotionally charged experience will create a connection between you that will never weaken. It is a bond forged in the fires of suffering and despair, and like iron hammered on a hot anvil, it is unbreakable. It is a relationship you can only describe as family, and just like your original family, you will be much happier having these amazing connections in your life.