The blaze of the bonfire had ebbed to a low red flame, and the great pile of live coals born of it skipped and sparked among the ashes. I sat on one of several rude wooden benches, and as I sat I thoughtfully sucked my long pipe. Then, taking the curved stem from between my teeth I indicated the fire. “Ought’n it to be put out?” I said. From where he lounged in the shadows, one of the half-dozen or so others nearby me said: “well, I’ll be heading off to round up the kids in a bit.” The kids in question were the various visiting summer students, high schoolers who had been dropped off, awkward and uncertain, at the small college campus. In the distance, the more enthusiastic of them—those who actually wanted to be here—could still be faintly heard singing snatches of the old Irish folk tunes, which only a short while ago were being roared out around the great fire. The speaker, a fellow worker at the college during the sultry New England summer, rose and went sighing off into the night.
The other who remained were strangers. They had been offered supper and a place to sleep, an offer received with thanks. These five or six young men and women were pilgrims on their way to the shrine of the Virgin in Washington— a motley bunch, but thrown together by God’s good graces. I was introduced to several of them, and when they joined the larger company around the bonfire had laughed at their terribly bad jokes. Since then, I have entirely forgotten their names.
It may be, however, that my remembering their names is of very little consequence, for what occurred next sealed between their company and myself a bond more significant, more lasting, than a mere acquaintance. For seeing that I was intent on remaining by the fireside for a little while longer, as I tended the coals and added a few sticks to the low flame, one of the strangers—their leader—went off to where they had stowed their packs and returned with a collection of volumes under his arm, bound in worn leather. These he distributed to each of the small company, who thumbed through worn pages familiar with use, until a final place had been marked. In the glow of the fire the rim of the leader’s glasses glinted as he turned to me.
“We’re going to pray the Night Office. Would you care to join us?”
“Alright,” I said. “Thank you.”
Then in that place, under the course of the constellations with the Bear at the azimuth, we sang the ancient prayers of the people of God, and though the Psalm tones were unfamiliar, the words I knew from memory. Salva Nos, Domine vigilantes, custodi nos dormientes. Their voices rose, mine trailing behind a little, and as we sang I suddenly had an intimation of that awful and beautiful doctrine of my religion— I mean a sight, however hidden in the vast dark mirror of the world, of the Communion of Saints. Here was a conjunctive presence, a joining-with, a union and enactment of the great prayer of the whole Church that spills forth from the offering of her tremendous lover, sicut unguentum in capite, quod descendit in barbam Aaron.
So there I stood, peering over someone’s shoulder at a shared breviary, the words barely visible in the dying embers of the fire, and with this stranger I chanted an ancient hymn to the Mother of God, sounding those archaic words of long travail: in hac lacriumarum vale. And I felt that I was not among strangers, but among friends.
In his Commentary on the Psalms St. Augustine writes, “we sigh in our pilgrimage; we shall rejoice in the city. But we find companions in this pilgrimage, who have already seen this city herself; who summon us to run towards her.” In this life our steps grow long; our heads wearily nod through what seems a trackless wood of action and habit and the endless necessity of reparation. And yet…who would deny that there are chance meetings in life, rare company to keep? You may very well welcome a stranger into your midst who returns to you a gift greater and more precious than whatever meager fare you offer him, though only met in passing. Such meetings mirror our own state: we are also, while on this middle-earth, strangers and sojourners.
The last of the fire had died down to ashes. The stars glinted overhead. The time was late and the company needed to disperse. I walked slowly across the campus, up the dormitory stairs, and with the last words of the Salve Regina running through my mind, I lay down and fell fast asleep.
Then I awoke in the morning, and the strangers had departed.