Students find quiet in the busyness of college life

The late Adolphe G. Gueymard had a couple of tips for living a long and good life. Have faith in God, he often said, and develop a good work ethic.

He had something else to add.

“Don’t worry. Just take life as it is,” he said in a 2005 interview for the University of St. Thomas-Houston website. “Worrying will kill you quicker than anything.”

Gueymard, who died in 2008 at the age of 95, was a decorated U.S. Army officer of World War II and a generous donor to higher education. At the university in Texas, his philanthropy funded a labyrinth garden so that students, staff and visitors can have a special place to find peace and quiet, a place where they can take his “don’t worry” advice to heart.

A place for reflection

Labyrinths are just one of the many outdoor sacred spaces that can be found on campuses of Catholic colleges and universities. There also are grottoes, shrines, chapel gardens, crosses on hillsides, crucifixes in monastery cemeteries and other quiet places to be outdoors among reminders of the Catholic Faith. Students go to them for private prayer, opportunities to get away from the stress of their studies and to be in a presence that reminds them of their beliefs.

The Felicie Babin Gueymard Memorial Garden at the University of St. Thomas, named for the donor’s mother, is adjacent to the Chapel of St. Basil. The focal point is a replica of the renowned and ancient labyrinth of the Cathedral of Chartres in France, with 11 concentric circles of paths that eventually lead to the center rosette.

Labyrinths were built in medieval times as an alternative experience for Christians who could not make the long and dangerous journey to the Holy Land. Instead, they could pray as they made a safe pilgrimage walking the paths of a labyrinth.

People today walk labyrinths for prayer and meditation. Even those with little or no belief can find peace in the slow, meandering pace that goes in many directions before reaching the center. It’s a popular experience for staff as well as for students, and for all the same reasons.

“When I take those few moments to walk the labyrinth, I am able to stop the constant barrage of thoughts and ideas that occupy my brain,” said Dr. Charlene Dykman of the Cameron School of Business. “When I choose to focus on that path, I realize very experientially that I can choose to let go of the busyness of my brain and all the ideas I am constantly processing. The labyrinth helps me to pull back, sort of like Google Maps does, and see the whole picture better and more simply.”

It also helps her, she added, to “process things logically” in search of answers or better ways to teach students.

Prayerful setting

St Gregory garden
The cross of the Rosary Garden at St. Gregory’s University can be seen from overhead flights. Courtesy of St. Gregory’s

Fifty holly bushes form the beads of a rosary in the Rosary Garden at St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee, Okla., and each space between the decades of 10 Hail Marys represents an Our Father. Three other bushes mark the first Hail Marys that lead to the circle, and at the end of those three is a 30-foot cross made of hedges.

“If you take an aerial shot of St. Gregory’s, the cross is clearly visible on the mounded area,” said campus chaplain Benedictine Father Nicholas Ast, who also is vice president for mission and identity.

The outside of the garden is ringed by a walkway of river stone so that students can walk the perimeter and pause to pray at each bush and open space. Benches are placed inside the circle, and there’s a fountain in the center.

The Rosary Garden was built in the 1980s with part of the construction funded by local Knights of Columbus, including Council 5354 whose members planted the holly bushes. It’s temporarily closed during repair of the turrets of nearby Benedictine Hall that were damaged in an earthquake in November 2011.

Park benches and swings placed under trees or on hillsides also create sacred spaces on St. Gregory’s campus, some overlooking the cemetery or other places that inspire meditation and reflection. Many of the benches were donated by former faculty members and are inscribed with quotes from Scripture.

“For the students who find their spirituality to be drawn more to the outdoors, I think it’s important for them to be able to find a space like that on campus, whether it’s the Rosary Garden, or a grotto, or some other area where they can experience God and the beauty of nature, and the sounds of everyday life,” Father Ast said. “They are able to do these things, they are able to go to these places that are islands of peacefulness in what otherwise can be a very busy college campus.”

Prayer and petitions

Students at St. Gregory’s also want to have a grotto built on campus, he added, and the project is still in the planning stage.

A tree-lined path at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minn., leads to the stone grotto commemorating Our Lady of Lourdes in France, where in 1858 St. Bernadette Soubirous said that she saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary.

The grotto on campus was built in 1910 by Benedictine Father Raphael Knapp and was originally constructed of smooth field stones. In 1939, a redesign with large granite rocks gave it more of the look of a cave, like in the original shrine in Europe. It was completed with a fountain and a statue of Bernadette, which went missing around 1960. A new statue was installed in 2010, the centennial year of when the grotto was built.

The Grotto Walk and the grotto are popular sacred spaces for St. Benedict students to spend quiet time in prayer, and they sometimes leave written petitions folded and placed between the stones. 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.