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Pilgrimage

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Paige Crowther '07, whose brother Welles '99 was last seen wearing a red bandanna and guiding others to safety in the World Trade Center. By Lee Pellegrini

On September 11, remembering the lives of 22 alumni

Another shimmering September day, blue and gold, just like the other. At high noon a lone bagpiper in tartan kilt stirred up the air in front of St. Mary's Hall, and people streamed toward the lawn next to Burns Library. The crowd--some 1,100 students, faculty, administrators, and BC alumni -- drifted respectfully around the fathers and mothers, wives and husbands, sisters and brothers who'd lost their loved ones in a shocking moment on a day now known by its numbers. These family members, dressed as for a funeral and wearing name tags, were led to seats on a red carpet on the lawn. Two years later to the day, they could walk upright and shake a hand in greeting. But the rest of us cannot know the steps they took to reach this place.

Boston College has given these families something many of them did not have: a public place to memorialize their dead. The University has constructed in the thick grass of the Burns lawn a permanent bluestone labyrinth, modeled on the one in the floor of the Cathedral at Chartres. It is sited at an angle facing the corner of College Road and Commonwealth Avenue. The 50-foot-wide labyrinth has been constructed of 600 stones quarried in Endicott, New York, cut flat in an ever so slight curve with laser-guided radial technology, to fit the 28 loops that make up the complex circular design. This ancient shape first occupied space on BC's campus five years ago, when a temporary labyrinth, sponsored by the French honor society Pi Delta Phi, was painted on the Burns lawn owing to the inspiration and guidance of Rebecca Valette, now professor emerita of Romance languages. A fresh pattern was applied, a year later, to the lawn across Beacon Street from Carney Hall; the painted images eroded with the weather.

The program to dedicate the permanent labyrinth to Boston College alumni lost on September 11, 2001, opened with the Gasson bells tolling 22 times, an accounting of the dead that was relieved when the Liturgical Arts Group began to sing "On Eagles' Wings." The song's refrain echoed the quote from Isaiah printed on the commemorative card handed out to the audience: "They that hope in the Lord / Will renew their strength, / They will soar as with eagles' wings; / They will run and not grow weary, / Walk and not grow faint."

As James Erps, SJ, director of campus ministry, began to speak, fall leaves blew over the crowd and across the green lawn. Fr. Erps described the labyrinth as 11 concentric circles in a single meandering path that "eventually and inevitably leads to the center," reflecting the path of our lives. He prayed for peace, and for God to "bring us to that New Jerusalem which is our goal and your promise." Among medieval Christians, the University's president, William P. Leahy, SJ, explained a few minutes later, the labyrinth was a way to make a symbolic pilgrimage "through uncertainty and trial to God." Fr. Leahy spoke of the meaning of this labyrinth and of why for thousands of years human beings have constructed and paced its sacred shape: "Even in darkness, there is a path on which we can walk. Even in confusion there is grace to guide our journey. And even when we seem to stand most distant from where we began, we can turn yet again toward home, moving according to the sure compass of God's enduring love."

The new labyrinth at Burns Library. By Lee Pellegrini

And then those for whom the bells tolled anonymously were given names, read out, along with their class years, by 22 BC undergraduates who took up places along the perimeter of the labyrinth. The students stood straight in the sun, beside the 22 stones on which were inscribed the names of the dead. Part summons, part memorial, this ritual calling-out trailed eerie echoes of long-ago Commencements.

Through the silence that ensued, the piper played "Amazing Grace" as he paced slowly into the labyrinth and directly to the rosette at its core. A young boy in the family section bit his trembling lip; a man who might have been his father stood stiffly nearby, arms crossed over his chest as if to hold himself, literally, together. Fr. Erps and Fr. Leahy then stood in the center to bless the labyrinth with holy water, invoking the "Lord of our beginnings and Lord of our ends." They prayed to God to remember the journey that led those men and women to their days on the Heights and, finally, led them elsewhere. On this day, Fr. Leahy said, we offer as their legacy a "place of prayer and place of peace, a place of memories and of hope." It seems the geometry of loss is defined by right angles--planes against walls--and collapsing vectors of height. But the geometry of consolation is found in a circle, a circle within a circle, the rosette that is the labyrinth's core and the symbol of the union of divine and human love.

The Voices of Imani, BC's gospel choir, sang, "I've got a feelin' everything's gonna be all right," an emotional tribute to hope, to faith, to the path in the night and the destination that awaits, to the perfection of endings written by a God who was there at the beginning. Afterwards, amid the ebb and flow of the dispersing crowd, a few people took to the labyrinth's path. Among them was a little boy of about four in a red sweater, one of many children at the ceremony. He first ran the path, then thought better of it and walked carefully, but couldn't resist breaking into a run from time to time. The skip in his step wasn't possible for his elders, who hovered helplessly by their loved ones' stones or dropped to one knee to pray or lay a flower beside the name they loved.

A couple of days after the ceremony, I walked the labyrinth myself, alone. It was late afternoon, part clouds and part sun, and it had rained that morning. Some of the grey-blue stones of the labyrinth were still wet, a darker grey, but I took off my shoes anyway; the stones seemed so smooth, the edges true, and this would be one of the season's last warm days. The path was narrow and insistent. It took me far out to the perimeter when I didn't expect it, face-to-face with the flowers left there, wet and beginning to molder, the colored pictures of a young man or of a whole family, protected by plastic. The path pulled me in again, closer to the center, then out, then in, until just when I thought I'd never make it, I was, bam, in the center. I felt exposed there, catapulted into a sudden expanse after the slender passage. But I also felt safe. The roar of the traffic on Commonwealth Avenue receded and I was embraced by a space as perfect and timeless as a womb. Always a little self-conscious about cosmic design, I knew one thing: I am as much in the dark as they were, those souls who were named in cut stone around me.

And then it was time to return to work. Just for a moment I contemplated jumping the lines and simply slipping away. But I did a slow turn, put one foot in front of the other, and walked unhurriedly the path that had been laid out for me, in all its baffling turns, where others have walked before me, and others will walk after.

Clare M. Dunsford


Clare M. Dunsford is an associate dean in the College of Arts & Sciences.

 

Photos (from top):

 

Paige Crowther '07, whose brother Welles '99 was last seen wearing a red bandanna and guiding others to safety in the World Trade Center. By Lee Pellegrini

 

The new labyrinth at Burns Library. By Lee Pellegrini

 


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