My shoes clap on the sidewalk and my backpack thumps in rhythm as I walk, humming the song singing in my head and pounding through my feet: “God, you are good to me, good to me…” I reach the road and a map of Franciscan University—and remember the first time I had looked at it, trying to find my way in a foreign place. I smile and pause for a moment to reminisce, remembering when I first visited this university that now feels like home.
That warm summer day, my family and I had been nearby vacationing and decided to visit. The campus had been still and silent, not a soul in sight, but peace had penetrated my soul. On that first visit, I could already see myself making a new home here. Because we had entered through the back entrance, the first place we had explored was the Portiuncula Chapel, a model of the church built by Saint Francis which rested at the edge of the woods.
Crossing the road and passing through the stone pillars, I enter this quiet corner of the campus, where the trees gather around to welcome me, frantically waving their leaves like excited little children. Ahead of me stands the Portiuncula, the humble, brown stone house which has planted itself into the ground as if it had always been there and vowed it would never leave. It greets me like a good father, a constant comfort and strength. I pause to genuflect towards this sacred sanctuary. Then I turn and approach a circle of benches gathered around a small stone and a flickering fire—the tomb of the unborn.
As I rest on one of the benches, I lift my eyes to the lively green leaves set against the stirring blue sky. The sunlight glitters off the leaves, sprinkling over the branches, over me, and across the cobblestone platter of brown, red, and gray. The wind rustles softly as it dances with the leaves. The wave of wind gently washes over my face, cold and crisp, with the scent of coming autumn. Through the trees, Steubenville’s peaks take my breath away as they first did on that summer day—meek little mountains of clay chronicle the ages passed with layers of red, brown, and gray. I close my eyes as another refreshing wave washes over the trees toward me, bringing with it fresh memories—memories of back home and our house in the trees. The wind plays with my hair and whispers in my ear: “You are home—your new home.”
I walk up the slope towards the grotto, past the nativity scene, past the Stations of the Cross which wind down the cliff side. Setting myself on one of the cool, stone benches that rest in rows around the grotto, I gaze at the wall of stones stacked high, supporting each other and holding up the Virgin Mother. They form my shelter, bending over me, like a mother protecting her child. With arms stretched wide, she seems to motion me to her side, to sit by the tulips and trust in her, to rest by the roses offered to her, queen of heaven and mother of earth. Though this woman is made of stone, the woman in Heaven watches with her Son. I stay for a while to gaze at the statue smiling at me, as if saying sweetly: “Welcome home.”
When I visit again at sunset, the air has grown cold and the sky dim, pale blue fading to pink, orange, and gold. I stand by the tomb of the unborn, the chill of the autumn air pricking my bare face and ears like tiny needles. The welcoming warmth and light of the little lamp calls me forward to pray. I kneel on the cold rock and watch the flames reach out to me, leaping over the edge of the coal-black lamp. Behind it sits the tomb of the unborn, shaped like a stone table, like an altar. The kneeler seems to freeze to my knees, but I don’t care. Wrapped in my coat, scarf, and gloves, my core has not been touched by the cold; and in the stillness of the night, peace descends on me like a warm flame in my chest. The air already feels like Christmastime—and Christmastime feels like home.
As it grows darker, I step inside the Portiuncula. I remember the first time I went through that door—its squeal and screech as it opened echoed through the empty room like in a cave. I remember when I first stepped inside it that summer, and found it small, shadowy, and swelteringly hot, but nonetheless filled with silent stillness. Now, stepping in from the cold air feels like coming to sit by a warm fireplace after a day in the snow. The two double-doors stand large and tall like those of a great church, but are clothed in a humble brown, the color of hot cocoa. The stone walls surround me, reminding me of the cave where Jesus was born. The wooden beams support the ceiling above me, reminding me of his Cross. Beyond the rows of pews, down the aisle, the alter stands before me, displaying the Holy Monstrance in the tabernacle. I gaze on the tabernacle of wood, like a manger standing erect, and on the tiny gold beams of the Monstrance, which extend outward like beams of sunshine, as if radiating holy light. I gaze on the Holy Eucharist, round and white like the moon, surrounded by a crown of silver like tinsel—like the stars. I gaze on my Lord, and my Lord gazes on me. And my Lord says to me: “One day I will bring you home.” One day He will bring me to my Eternal Home.
At the Portiuncula I feel welcome, comforted, and safe. I find a home among the trees, in the grotto, and in the chapel with Jesus, whether in sunlight or in night. As I leave the Portiuncula, I am surrounded by the dark, cold night, but I am not at all afraid. With the image of my Lord still clear in my head, and the chilly air reminding me of Christmastimes to come, I am filled with peace. Here I found the home of Our Savior, Our Father, and Our King—here I found the home of my soul.
God bless and keep you!
Article image: the Portiuncula Chapel at Franciscan University of Steubenville (photo mine)