Julia Wickes lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and two children. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Theology from St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary.
Lately my mind has been turning back to the years of my life when I, my husband, and our two small daughters lived in the student housing complex at the University of Notre Dame. While I sometimes am nostalgic for our time there, I would never wish to go back to student life. I am grateful that we have moved forward: my husband is in a stable job in academia and we are settled in a nice city where our girls are at good schools. After years of making do in a cramped apartments, we finally feel settled in a solid little house.
Don’t get me wrong: the University of Notre Dame is a great school—much loved for good reason—and its reputation is not just hype. But its location in the Rust Belt of the Midwest means that those who go there must also be prepared to accept some geographical drawbacks. Its placement near Lake Michigan creates lake effect weather. Condensation from the lake in winter keeps this area beneath an opaque dome the color of gunmetal for about two thirds of the year. And in keeping with this grey motif, the town itself exudes a mood of post-industrial depression. It is not the vibrant college-town one might expect (or, more specifically, that I naively expected before we moved there). Needless to say, our first few years there were difficult for me.
Slowly, over time, I began to reconcile myself to South Bend. The joy and preoccupying struggle of having children was a big part of that, as was the community of other student families. The student housing complex where we lived surrounded an enclosed playground the size of a football field. Green space, including some wooded areas with deer, encompassed its outskirts all around. We enjoyed easy access to campus, with lakes, swans, and ample areas for picnics. All of this made it a paradise by a child’s standard—a safe haven for exploration and running barefoot. My oldest daughter still asks if we can move back there one day.
Given that my personal associations with life at the University of Notre Dame are of hiddenness, simplicity, and safety, it is strange that the University itself has been the object of negative media attention in recent months. It is true that their football team had an undefeated season, but there was some tarnish after a St. Mary’s College student claimed to be raped by a football player and then committed suicide. Then, just after Notre Dame played in the National Championship last month, it was revealed that their most celebrated player, Manti Te’o, had been the victim of an elaborate hoax in which a man forged a fake online identity as a woman and deceived Te’o in order to become his long distance girlfriend. The dramatic and touching story of this supposed girlfriend (who ultimately “died” tragically in a car accident) had strung along the media, and many fans as well. The revelation that the tragic girlfriend story was actually fake came as a scandal and humiliation. When I heard this news, I was astounded that anyone could be that elaborately deceptive and intentionally cruel.
Sad stories of the vulnerable undergraduate population of the university reverberated into our lives from time to time while we lived just north of campus, but the cloistered nature of our housing complex afforded us a great sense of insulation. And, well, student families with small children have daily distractions and responsibilities that can keep their attention pulled mostly inward.
My circumstances there—a stay-at home mother, living within the financial confines of a graduate student stipend, in a town unlikely to make any “best of” list published by any magazine, ever—might seem dull and unglamorous. But I now view that time of hiddenness and inwardness as exactly what I needed–even as a luxury. It was a time of hibernation and incubation—perfect for starting a family and going through the awkward patches of pregnancy and post-partum adjustment. The cost of living in South Bend was low—most spouses of students could afford to opt out of finding employment—and given the cost of childcare, this made the most sense. So the predominant culture was one of stay-at-home parents. I was grateful to be exempt from any external pressures to perform at a job. I was grateful for weekday mornings when I could spread a blanket out on the playground and read while my children dug in the sandbox. During this time I read many, many books. During this time I was introspective. I made peace with many aspects of my past, myself, and my family. I also developed deep friendships. None of these things are small; they are the very things that make life meaningful.
And summers in South Bend could be nice. The wide open spaces of the Midwest—its wheat and glistening green corn fields, its robust trees and open skies—all had their own appeal.
During one summer, however, when my daughters were about three years and one year old, I hit a difficult patch. There was a family problem that did not have any obvious solution, and inwardly I was distressed. I wanted to talk to someone. A long distance friend suggested that I visit a nearby Serbian Orthodox monastery and talk to the abbess there about the things that were bothering me. She had a good reputation. I was not enthusiastic, but the idea grew inside of me until it seemed right. I called the monastery, nervously, and set up a time to visit.
It turned out—as things often turn out—that the abbess, who happened to be a remarkably young woman (in her thirties, I believe), was away. So instead of setting up a meeting with her I agreed to meet with another monastic in the community– an older woman who had been married and raised four children before she had entered the monastery. I determined to be open to whatever this meeting turned out to be.
When I met Mother Paraskeva, she immediately struck me as exceedingly practical—the kind of person that could be left in charge of lots of logistical affairs while the abbess was away, as indeed she was. She was friendly, and even warm, but I did not feel particularly inclined to open up to her, nor was there any natural chemistry or connection between us. She was not a dreamer like me; she was not the sort of person who gets weighed down by artistic inclinations or convoluted trains of thought. I worried that my ramblings would sound inevitably trite in the ears of such a woman. But I did not back out; I told her about the things that were on my mind. She gave me some advice, and most of it was conventional, and–without being at all disparaging–fairly predictable. She was kindhearted—that was clear—but there was no shining moment of inspiration during our short talk.
I am happy to say that, at this stage of my life, I knew better than to enter into an Orthodox monastic setting harboring any kind of manic fantasies of personal epiphanies. My expectations going into it was grounded enough, and although the encounter felt unexceptional, my mood while driving home through the cornfields was mellow and content. This excursion to the monastery was not a high and it was not a low. It just was. And maybe it was even a little boring, and that was alright too. I had a feeling of peace for having made a show of good faith, and I was hopeful that something more might emerge from this meeting in time.
Mother Paraskeva had given me a sort of homework assignment, along with a long prayer rope from the monastery bookstore. She wrote out a prayer rule of St. Seraphim of Sarov, a Russian hermit who is depicted in icons as living deep in the forest, befriending wild bears, and sometimes kneeling before an icon of the Theotokos, nailed, as it were, to a tree. She also told me a story attached to the rule (which is fuzzy in my memory) about some young women (monastics, I believe) who would say this prayer rule while walking around the periphery of a lake. She said that she prayed routinely for her children and grandchildren, of course, but that when something really big came up, she needed something stronger, and then she used this prayer rule.
That sounded good to me—like she was prescribing me the upward limit of a strong medicine. It also struck me that I myself was in walking distance from not one but two beautiful lakes. These lake paths were my favorite part of the University of Notre Dame’s campus and I remember them probably more fondly than anything else. The lakes were side by side, so by looping around one and then the other I always imagined my course as tracing out a figure eight, large and complete, the symbol for infinity.
I was in a low place: nonplussed, stumped, baffled, and sometimes despairing. But instead of hammering directly at my perceived problems, or taking drastic action, or (my most typical approach) talking about my problems endlessly on the phone with a friend, I embarked upon a prescribed activity that arguably made no sense. That is, I traced a figure eight around two lakes repeating the angelic salutation to the Theotokos: “Rejoice!” And a few steps later: “Rejoice!” This is not a strategic approach to getting one’s life in order that would ever emerge at the top of a Google search. There are no self-help books recommending this course of action on Amazon.com. If anything, I felt as if I was taking a curving path away from my problems, giving them only a sidelong glance, while skirting around them, like the lakes themselves.
With my one-year-old daughter strapped on my back, I would set off toward campus, my new prayer rope doubled up around my wrist. From Mother Paraskeva I learned the word decade as it applies to a section of ten knots on the rope (I had never owned a prayer rope so ambitious as to have decades, but this prayer rope had fifteen of them). Each decade—ten black woolen knots— was marked off by a light-colored bead of wood. It was summer; my back was sweaty from having a child pressed against it and my feet felt like they were pounding and squishing a little with each step, swollen in my sandals, thanks to the extra toddler weight, heat, humidity, and gravity. The added weight imparted an ungraceful plodding to my steps which was also exceedingly rhythmic and steady. The steady rhythm of my gait—like a Hobbit embarking with a month’s supply of food on his back— lent itself well to repetitive prayer.
When my one-year-old daughter and I would embark together on this ritual walk around the lakes, it was as if we were both entering into a pact with the present moment. All I had to worry about was the repetition of these soothing words, avoiding bumpy tree roots, and occasionally stepping aside for a swift undergrad in running shorts. The entire prayer rule from beginning to end—from door to door—took about an hour and fifteen minutes.
I am not painting myself as anyone holy, and am not boasting of a special prayer life. If anything, practicing prayer in this way was remarkable precisely because it was, for me, an anomaly. I did this walk regularly for about a month and then stopped for one reason or another—probably the onset of weather that was too hot or too cold, or—even more likely—the general and ever-present pull of spiritual atrophy. But lately I look back on that short stint in my life and appreciate how profound it was. I am positive now that real solutions came out of this– not the kind that answer a bullet list of problems point by point, but the kind that descend imperceptibly over the broad lawn of life, like dew, nourishing the grass evenly and uneventfully.
I miss those lake paths with their gravel, roots, leaves, and puddles. Sometimes, only for the sake of my children, I miss student housing, with all the other children and the expansive outdoor area. But even idyllic locations have a shadow side and many hidden struggles. We walk along in a strangely contorted world of shootings and suicides. Many people, not just vulnerable college kids, stumble into shame, shock, darkness, and dehumanization, even in the most outwardly lovely settings. There are always stories to scare and sadden. Are there any truly safe places in this world?
Since that time, my life moved forward, as it always does, and changed, as it always does. Not long after this our family received news of big changes that would whisk us away from Notre Dame into a very different time of life, with its own joys and problems. But during this quiet, dull, and inward time at Notre Dame, a prayer was woven into the fabric of my identity, my outlook, and, now—into the fabric of my memory. The soothing experience of that repeated act is now imprinted in my mind and heart, and I am glad now that I made this prayer a part of my life. Thank you, Mother Paraskeva. Thank you, St. Seraphim.
Perhaps my favorite prayer within the Prayer Rule of St. Seraphim is the one that comes at the end of each decade which says:
Open unto us the door of your lovingkindness, O blessed Theotokos. For hoping in you may we not be put to shame, but through you may we be delivered from our adversities. For you are the salvation of all Christian peoples.
When I visited Mother Paraskeva, I was consumed with my personal problems and there was a part of me that wanted a magical door into a life which would be different than the one that I was living. While walking around the lakes and praying for the door of lovingkindness to be opened, the image of a door impressed itself on my imagination, and I wondered where exactly such a door could be located. Then I realized: inside of myself. When that door of lovingkindness is opened within, then the safe places in this world begin to emerge–our worst problems begin to dissolve.
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