I struggle, falter, question. Who are You? Why am I here? What do You want from me?
I am bruised, weary, wondering at it all. We are made for community. Again and again, through stinging tears and heaving sobs, I beg spiritual advice from holy souls. I want them to tell me, assure me that I can walk alone. That I don't have to risk the soul-burning sadness ever again. They all tell me no. Instead, they say, I must step out, take a risk. God will be there, they assure me. God will provide the appointed place. At the appointed time. God will give you exactly the people He wants for you. You will know.You will see so clearly His purpose and His provision.
And so, when she proposes a crazy idea, an idea so far-fetched it could only have come from the Holy Spirit. I am caught breathless. Really, I wonder? Really? Here and now? With you? Yes, she tells me, yes, we will do this. And we put the wheels in motion, trusting the wisdom of the strong men in our lives who tell us yes, go. Go! I question, doubt, falter, stumble. Eucharisteo, she whispers. All's grace.
And God? He is very clear.
What is the one thing, if we can only do one thing, that you both want to do together? I pose the question, holding my breath, knowing that their answers will show me the Father's plan.
In unison, they the ask to go to that place, that one place in all the world that I am always sure God holds me.
Of course, I say. Of course we'll go. All the while wondering how. I've never driven there alone. Never managed all the details of such a big day out in a not-so-great part of the big city. The girl with this crazy idea? She has said that she is afraid to leave home. Me, too, I nod. Me, too. And we push each other through the plan.
I wonder how God wants me to do this thing.
I don't even ask the question and the man who always says I do, says it again. He's arranged every detail, taken the day off, given a servant's heart to helping us hear Him, see Him, inhale Him.
Inhaling deeply, I walk through the heavy doors. I so love that smell! Incense, not burning now, but lingering still, scenting the air with a familiar spicy aroma. My shoulders relax; my senses awaken. There is no other place on the planet that has this effect on me. I am here to spend the day at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. We have come here as a family countless times over the years. Too, I have been here with only a nursing baby, to recollect and gather myself in the months after childbirth. This time, though, I am here without children.
I am here with my husband and two dear friends, each of us holding in our hearts prayers so fragile, so precious. Prayers of hope, of future. Prayers for each other and for the ones we’ve left at home. I am here on pilgrimage.
This time, I hold nothing in my hands but my camera. Through the lens, I see the familiar in new ways. It is my camera. I bought it for myself when Michael left home and took his camera with him. But I barely know this camera. My hands most often are full of small girls. My camera is usually cradled by Mary Beth, who has a remarkable natural ability to make my life—our life together—look like poetry on these pages. I hold it gingerly, not unlike a new mother who fumbles awkwardly with gift of her newborn. Today, it is me who is left to write the words with pictures. I am the one who has to hear the poetry and see it. Capture it. Hold it forever in my heart.
The Basilica is the largest Catholic Church in the Americas. It is extraordinarily rich and beautiful. Around every corner, above every pew, along every corridor, there is beautiful, reverent art to contemplate. The sacred art in the shrine is world’s largest collection of ecclesiastical art. Both breathtaking art and amazing architecture are at once Romanesque and Byzantine. Outside, the huge dome is readily recognizable from miles away, a definitive Byzantine feature. Inside, the domed ceiling envelopes the pilgrim, the art at once drawing me up and tenderly reaching down to embrace me. I am here, at peace, surrounded by my God. John Cardinal Glennon, who influenced the design of the Basilica, wrote "While the Gothic . . . appears . . . to lift the people to God, the Roman style or the Byzantine . . . endeavors to bring God down to earth . . . [God] lives with us."
Everywhere in this building God lives with me and invites me to know Him better.
Today, I am not pulled by small hands, flitting from one chapel to another oratory. Today, I linger and pray, and I capture little bits of this place as I see them through my camera. Huge mosaics on the ceiling cannot be photographed both in their entirety and with detail, at least not with the camera I have and the skills with which I use it. So, I must focus on small parts of those mosaics, In doing so, I see them all the more clearly. There are so many small details here; I could come again and again for years and still uncover something new.
I pause briefly at those chapels where I have begged for babies. I whisper Thank You. And I ask, what now? He will answer. He always does. I listen.
The building is nearly empty on this day and I can spend as long as I like with the rosary depictions in the back of the church, I can take a picture over and over, until I can really see what is before me all along. Old Testament and New Testament together tell the stories of fifteen sacred events in the life of Our Lord—God Himself reaching down, nestling into my very being—I smell Him in the air; I see Him in the statues, the stained glass, the glorious mosaics.
Elizabeth wants to stay here. I can tell that she is reluctant to allow herself to be pushed away. Mike sees it too. He’s in cadence with her on this day. Lingering when he knows she wants to stay, moving the chair into position so that she can see more clearly through her own lens. My heart feels as if it would burst every time I see them, praying this whole building together. He is a God of hope. Of healing. We all come broken and wounded. We push open those heavy doors and breathe deeply of the God of mercy.
I fight the manic urge to pull Ann wildly from one favorite spot to another. I want her to know this place, to love it the way I do. And I know that a day here is not nearly long enough. I watch her as she reaches slowly, deliberately, wonderingly for her camera again and again. What does she see here in this unfamiliar place of her very familiar God?
Eucharisteo. Grace and joy. Here. My souls swells with happy hope of knowing the gift growing now in my dear friend. The gift she will give generously to us. A Holy Experience. Here. Now. I will see this place, one day soon, through her lens. And I will be forever changed because of it.
There are over 70 small chapels and oratories, donated from religious orders and churches all over the world. Each one is a slightly different expression of the faith. Each one speaks to the universality of Catholicism. Each culture expresses in its own way the richness of faith and gives it as a gift to the pilgrims who visit here. And I am awed and humbled and inspired by every single one of them. We come here, the four of us, trusting one another. We come here knowing with all certainty that we, too, experience and express God in our own ways. And here we are blessed by one another.
The light on this afternoon is a photographer’s dream. And I wish briefly that I were actually a photographer. Eucharisteo. It’s all grace, even my own inadequacy behind this lens. Quickly, those thoughts of imperfection (my silly constant companions) are pushed aside, and, instead I am grateful.
Grateful to be here in this moment, with this light, surrounded by God, enveloped by glory and beauty and majesty. Grateful that He illuminates my humble lens and through His eyes I see this place anew.
Grateful to have the inexpressible joy of getting to know these two women. Grateful my husband shares that joy. Grateful. I am grateful.
No flash necessary. God Himself is shedding light here.