“Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” These words, accompanying a statue of Christ with arms extended, greet me as I approach. The statue’s peaceful countenance, combined with the fresh air on the hillside and the relief of reaching a place of refreshing silence, reminds me of why I visit the Marian Grotto at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg, Md.
As a child, my family would come most years to the grotto on Good Friday, spending several hours in quiet prayer and reflection. In my teenage years, I would come to reflect on the many changes and challenges of becoming a young adult. Now, I bring concerns, issues to discern and prayers for others, recognizing the grotto as a place where I can follow Christ’s command to his disciples: “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest awhile” (Mark 6:31).
In the midst of rural Maryland, the grotto sits on a hill overlooking Mount St. Mary’s University and Seminary. It is a place of pilgrimage for many in surrounding states. Seminarians come with prayers for their studies and for their vocational discernment; families bring their children to teach them about their faith; and many come for the stillness that is so prevalent in this sanctuary. The unity of the faith is clearly seen here: People of every ethnicity, age and background seek out this prayerful refuge.
The grotto was built at the turn of the 19th century by a French priest, Father John Dubois, who was enamored by the beauty of the hillside. Several years later, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton began to visit the grotto, seeing it as a spot for prayer and leisure. In 1810, she wrote in a letter, “If you could breathe our mountain air and taste the repose of the deep woods and streams. Yesterday we all, about twenty children and sisters, dined in our grotto on the mountain, where we go Sundays for the Divine Office.” Her sentiments about the invigorating mountain air as well as its fittingness as a place of prayer still ring true today.
Turning off the main highway onto a small side road, I pass a Catholic church and then make the ascent up the hill to the grotto. At the top of the hill there is a cemetery and a tall bell tower with a golden statue of Mary that can be seen from miles away. The toll of the bell marking the hours is one of the few reminders that the world’s busy pace continues outside the serenity of this place. A short distance from the tower, a path welcomes visitors into the grotto itself.
The transformation from the concrete parking lot to the canopy of trees gracing the grotto path is striking, especially in the springtime. This beauty encourages leaving one’s burdens behind and turning to prayer, beginning with the Stations of the Cross that line the way. The Stations, encased in stone, are reverent calls to reflect on the suffering of Christ and to prepare one’s own heart to unite with his.
Beyond the Stations is a pool with a statue of Our Lady in the center. The natural pool is fed by springs from the hills. Many come with containers for this fresh water or merely take a sip from the font. Like the shrine in Lourdes, France, the water is a central focus of the grotto.
My favorite feature of the grotto is a very small Eucharistic chapel that is the gateway between the paths and the larger open-air church and the stone grotto itself. Its humble appearance only serves to emphasize the majesty of the Blessed Sacrament present inside. It is not difficult to feel certain that the Lord is there in that chapel, waiting, in a special way, just for the pilgrim who comes to kneel and spend some time in adoration. The worn chairs and kneelers tell a story of devotion, heartfelt supplication and of the men and women who realized the need for God’s love in their lives.
Past the chapel is a large hollow that has been set up with bleachers so that large Masses and gatherings can be held. It is a sacred space with an altar in front of a stone grotto, reminiscent of its namesake in France. Within the stone grotto, there are lit candles, flickering in recognition of the prayers of visitors. On the stone lectern are engraved words that have always caused me to stop and reflect: “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.”
Yes, faith is tangibly present in this space. It is not merely a collection of religious art and artifacts, but a living testimony to men and women who, throughout the years, have faithfully prayed here. Some come to kneel at the foot of a life-size crucifix; others bring books to read in the peaceful environment. Still others walk with friends in deep conversation.
Leaving the grotto by a different path, 15 mysteries of the Rosary are laid out in beautiful mosaics. Though the slope of the path makes kneeling a bit difficult, the mysteries lead pilgrims not only to the exit, but also more importantly, on a journey through the great events of Christ’s life.
By the time I put my rosary beads away, I find myself once again facing the pavement of the parking lot. Now, however, I feel that I have the grace of prayer to strengthen me as I return to my daily work, renewed by the spirit of peace at the grotto.
Caitlin Forst writes from Arlington, Virginia.