On Place and Prayer: Being Present in the World We Inhabit

In my first semester at Eastern, on a warm summer day, I walked with two close friends into Wayne. As we entered the bridge tunnel leading into Wayne, I noticed the graffiti which announced that we were “now entering lil chicago.” I still don’t know exactly why this area is known by such a distinctive moniker, but I think it gives that tunnel personality and this place a sense of mystery. I love that tunnel, and I love that graffiti because it reminds me that this is a particular place with unique characteristics, and I love it because it marks the transition in my mind from being on Eastern’s campus and being out on the town.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about place, and about entering and leaving places well. A friend of mine who is a senior at Eastern told me she wants more than anything to leave this place well, and she’s working to figure out what that means. I don’t think I know either, but I think I understand what she means by the question. Every week at Mass, I walk through two sets of doors: the first are the doors which bridge the outside world from the inside one. Once I’ve entered those doors into what is called the vestibule, I’m ready to prepare myself for the liturgy ahead. The second set of doors lead into the nave where I’ll sit and stand and kneel during the service. But before I enter those doors, I place my fingers in blessed waters and make the Sign of the Cross, a reminder of my baptism. Once I’ve entered the nave, I kneel briefly beside the aisle and toward the altar to orient myself physically, and then I spend a minute or two in kneeling prayer in my aisle to orient myself in mind in preparation for the liturgy. At the end of the service, this whole process is reversed: kneeling in prayer in the aisle, briefly kneeling beside the aisle, fingers in blessed water in between the two sets of doors and then leaving this space and entering again into the outside world. This may sound tedious, but for me it is not: I love this liturgical rhythm even more than I love the bridge and the graffiti I encounter on the walk to Wayne. As a Catholic, this is my way of loving a place, the physical local church, and of entering and leaving it in a way that manifests that love. I think my friend, when she says she wants to leave Eastern well, means something similar; it means that she wants to leave it in a way that is loving and full of meaning.

The historic Wayne Presbyterian Church in Wayne, PA, blocks away from Lil’ Chicago.

We entered Eastern through a liturgy. And like the Catholic liturgy, the ministers we encounter in this liturgy are dressed for their role. Here, the ministers are our professors and school leaders who don Medieval garb and promenade in the gym to the sound of triumphal music before prayers are offered and a homiletic address is given. We enter, we stand, we sing, we sit, we clap, we shake hands with President Duffett and at the end, we walk out of the gym doors and onto campus, anticipating all the great things which lie ahead of us. We will leave Eastern in a slightly different liturgy. We ourselves will put on liturgical garb designating our roles as graduating students, and one of our own number will give the homily, addressing all gathered that day. When we walk off that stage, we will walk out into the great big world and toward all which lies ahead of us.

Loving a place means being grateful for it. The Mass centers on the Eucharist: “And when He had given thanks, He broke the bread…,” and likewise, I think, loving Eastern as a place means giving thanks to God for it. Thank you, Lord, for Walton Pond and the window seat outside Dr. Putnam’s office in Fowler Hall and for Baird Library and the Breezeway and all those places which are special to us. The Eucharist is about celebration, and, likewise, we celebrate these places which we are thankful for and joyfully cherish these places together. The Eucharist is also about being broken and poured out as bloody wine as a gift for others. I think loving a place means letting that place demand things of us, allowing it to change us even when it means we must suffer—especially when it means we must suffer. There is a suffering in living in this place: messy breakups, fights with roommates, conflicts with professors, crises of faith precipitated by challenging texts assigned in class. Loving a place means we love in and through and despite our suffering. There is also suffering in leaving this place, and with it, a temptation in the final weeks to withdraw from place and people. But to leave well means to love this place till the last minute on the last day and then to carry that love and all your memories with you for the rest of your life.

In his “Four Quartets,” the poet T.S. Eliot writes, “you are not here to verify, / instruct yourself or inform curiosity / or carry report. You are here to kneel / Where prayer has been valid.” I think loving this place well means being here, kneeling in Walton Chapel, surrounded by the prayers of all those students who have come before us. And I think that leaving this place well means leaving prayers here for all who will come after us.

Anthony Barr (’19) is a Templeton scholar double-majoring in English Literature and History and minoring in Orthodox Thought and Culture. He is a homeschool grad with several years of experience working for two publishing companies. He is interested in the ways in which literature and spirituality inform one another.

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