A Pilgrimage

Thoughts from a contemplative pilgrimage through Louisville, KY, to see the ordinary more fully as it truly is.

The chiming Cathedral bells sound ominous in the cold morning air. I stand in the center of Founder’s Square, watch the waking city, and imagine a time not so long ago in this place when trees were the tallest forms and the noise of birds beginning their day deafened the ear. I imagine native people, the ones who called this land home for thousands of years, gathering to bury their dead. The river must have sounded so close, like the roar of a world just-beyond. Perhaps the forest thinned in this spot, offered a patch of light and a panoramic view of darkness. On a misty morning like this, as they whispered their prayers, turned the earth, and lowered still bodies, could they have guessed that Europeans would come to flatten their burial grounds in a mere few hundred years?

The ideals we suppose upon which we are founded – hope in a New World and, presumably, a better one – were never manifest. This square is a lie; the world was not made new, or better, by covering sacred spaces with asphalt and steel. One cannot build progress on the bones of the dead, nor fashion an image after something that never was. The ghosts of another time are more real than the mirage of this metropolis.

I envision dark eyes, long, silky hair, silent breath lingering here. I see faces, past and future, turned toward this moment with dependent curiosity. The choice to place myself here as a witness holds the promise of reconciling the gap between where we have been, or what we have done, and where we are going, or what we are creating. My aching heart, wracked with sorrow at suffering long past, offers me the chance of healing. Although I cannot resurrect old bones, perhaps I can hold them in the light, one hand clutching the talismans, the other reaching out to the rushing potential that courses through this moment, this air, my veins, this holy ground.

The gold stars that adorn the ceiling of this sanctuary, though beautiful to behold, are flat representations of reality. The walls are painted to look like blocks of limestone and marble, but are, in fact, artificial simulations. The structure is one of glittering opulence, but little substance.

The Church: a grand façade, a spectacular temple of jewels, metals, and stone that craft an empty chasm; a cold, lifeless void in which human flesh is made to seem unsacred.

When I was seventeen, the priest who once offered me my First Communion held aloft to his congregation a new, solid gold chalice and paten. Each parishioner stood in thunderous applause at the just and proper display of devotion. This extravagant piety violated the truth I understood the Eucharist to be. I felt my little remaining faith in the Church crumble like clutched hosts.

Eucharistos: “gratitude.” Communio: “mutual participation.”

The pull of hungry bellies and empty pockets, of forgotten people and neglected neighborhoods tugged my gut as the cup and plate gleamed. Imagine how many starving children that cost could feed. Was this what Jesus meant to tell us when he said, “Take and eat; this is my body” – to show gratitude by squandering the poor’s money on precious platters? Did he mean us to fixate on his lifeless body, or the Living Body?

As I approach her statue, I gaze upon the pristine face of the Virgin, her eyes cast skyward, her foot gently resting on serpentine evil. Although such depiction makes her seem otherworldly, the truth is that she was as fully human as I am. As a young woman, she felt a child press upon her inmost being. She wailed, pushed, screamed, and sweated, and her flesh ripped as she birthed her son. She nursed him, disciplined him, held him, worried for him, took pride in him, watched him, grieved him, and loved him in all his humanness.

Jesus learned a thing or two from his mother: he touched the blind man, kissed the leper, held the children, ate with tax collectors, walked with fishermen, hanged with criminals, suffered for those he loved.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners. Teach us toward holy embodiment.

The soft, tiny feather I found swept into this musty corner behind the west façade of Fourth Street Live! is breaking my heart with its fragility. Everything is precious, worth touching carefully like the miracle it is. The dust of this nook coats the alley, the pavement, the sign that reads “SERVING LUNCH DAILY 12:15PM-1:00PM.”

I want to paint the wall between Fourth Street Live! and the back of the Cathedral. I want to craft a mural for the folks who line up daily for a lunch at this little soup kitchen. I want to study their faces, mix my palette, and paint a radiant scene to capture the wonder of each one. I want those humble people to behold the blossoming masterpiece and their reflection in it. I want the earthy glory of every person in the queue to come pouring out onto that divisive canvas as a reminder of the humanity we can see, but keep hidden for convenience.

Someday, I want the wall to be demolished to rubble. I want people to destroy it because they have realized it shields them from their friends and neighbors on the other side. I want the Cathedral Lunchroom to close for lack of business. I want Hard Rock Café to practice its slogan, “Love All, Serve All.” I want Fourth Street Live! to represent truly the life that thrives and struggles in its sacred intersection. I want no one to slip through the cracks.

Even in this dead-end alley lies possibility, soft and waiting to be found – a feather of hope.

This tree is beautiful, its layers of papery bark peeling back in rhythm with the seasons. I sit in its dappled shade and watch a man who is sleeping on a bench in the sunshine. Cars irreverently whiz by; the drivers are irritated by their delays, feel victimized by the beat of traffic lights and congestion. They do not see the man tucked beneath his scrubby cover. In their haste, they do not see the way the light casts his features into a dazzling vision of grit and beauty. They do not see the circle of pilgrims who have been bearing witness to their city all day.

They do not see the young woman looking at a man from under a tree, or him looking back. They do not see the small smile he slips me. They do not see the fact that he is, under the veil of dark skin, shining like the sun.

This, and this, always this is a moment of pilgrimage, of epiphany.