The following is a transcript from the Raised Catholic podcast. To listen to the podcast, click here.
Today is episode 34: Holy Places
Well, hello, friends. As we hear in the Psalms, the Book of Jeremiah, and lots of other places in the Bible, God is everywhere. There’s nowhere that God is not, but today we’re talking about the physical spaces where finding God seems to be a little bit easier.
As I have probably mentioned, my husband and I are music ministers in our local parish, but this summer, we’re taking a bit of time off which has given us the opportunity to visit other churches for mass which our normal ministry schedule doesn’t really allow us to do. And this summer, I knew for sure that St. Cecilia’s in Boston would be on the list of places we’d visit. I’d been following their online masses during the time when we weren’t in church last year and even after we’d begun to gather locally, and I’m not alone. People from all over the country and the world are still tuning in to hear Fr. John Unni preach and enjoy the beautiful music and the sense of community and care for others that are so evident at St. Cecilia’s. My family arranged for us to visit the church this past Mother’s Day in order for us to receive a blessing there, and it was so lovely. The moment we stepped in the doors, all of us could feel it. There was something particularly holy about that particular place.
The idea of holy places can seem silly, because isn’t God is everywhere, but if you have been in a holy place, usually, you know it and you know it’s worth the trip to travel to one. In Celtic spirituality, they’re sometimes called ‘thin places’, places where the veil that separates us from the spiritual reality is particularly thin. In Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England, there are monuments, markings, and ruins that mark and name such places as ‘holy ground’.
I wonder if you have places like this – places you go to when you need a bit of peace or clarity or to feel the presence of God or the Communion of the Saints. I do.
There’s a grotto not far from me where I will always stop to light a candle, a small side-chapel at my daughter’s school in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the chapel at the top of a hill at a local college, the cemetery there where several priests are buried, including my friend Fr. Joe, and the chapel of my retreat house. I definitely felt St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City as a thin place as soon as I stepped in the doors, and weirdly, I almost always feel my mother with me when I walk into a particular BJ’s wholesale club but that’s another wacky story.
The journey of getting to a holy place is called a pilgrimage, and there are pilgrimages within every major world religion. Catholics might travel to Lourdes, Fatima, or Medjugorje, places where Mary is said to have come and delivered messages. The Kumbh Mela is a major Hindu pilgrimage and festival that’s celebrated every twelve years in a cycle on four river bank sites. According to the Encyclopedia Britanica, 60 million Hindus participated in the Kumbh Mela in 2001, making it one of the largest peaceful gathering of people in the world.
The Hajj is an annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia for Muslims. Hajj is a mandatory religious duty for Muslims that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime by all adult Muslims who are physically and financially capable of making the journey. Jews from all over the world make pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year at the festivals of Passover, Shavuout, and Sukkot. Buddhists travel to the Japanese island of Shikoku and complete a 750-mile route that circles the island and connects 88 temples and shrines. This takes about 45 days to complete on foot, by the way. Wow.
And there are so many more. Since 2013, the Camino de Santiago or the ‘way of St. James’ has attracted more than 200,000 pilgrims each year. The whole route through parts of France and Spain takes several days to walk, and it culminates at the shrine of the apostle St. James in northwestern Spain. And many Catholics and other Christians make their way to the Holy Land or to shrines all over the world.
So, why do we do this? If God is everywhere, why do so many people feel called to move their physical bodies to another place to experience God more fully? Well, some of the answer is in the journey itself. The intentional effort required – especially in longer pilgrimages – it must focus and orient us humans to receive something deeper from God. In the Martin Sheen movie, ‘The Way’ which is about the Camino de Santiago (I’ll link that here along with lots of other resources), you get a sense of just how meaningful the journey to a holy site can be. The walking and the getting there – it’s kind of the point. The journey can be a metaphor of the progress of the soul to commune with the divine.
I think of the perspective of God who watches His people do this kind of thing, to make that huge effort to put themselves somewhere holy, sometimes involving huge sacrifices of time, energy, and resources – and I think He must look on like a loving parent who watches their kid work at something challenging, rooting them on and how there is always some kind of reward that comes from God for our effort, even if it’s getting yourself to a different room in your house to pray as I’ve been doing lately, or to a beach or a mountaintop to hear God more clearly. As you might remember, that’s precisely what Jesus did so the idea of setting ourselves apart is something He Himself modeled for us. So, giving God time, being alone with Him in an intentional way will always be fruitful for us.
And as I think of holy places, I can’t help but remember from Scripture the room known as the Holy of Holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant. It was only accessible once a year on Yom Kippur and then, only by the High Priest. It was there and then that the priest made a sacrifice to atone for his own sins and the sins of all of the people, and this place was separated from the rest of the temple by a heavy drape which as we remember, was torn down the center when Jesus died. That tearing symbolized the new access we all had to the nearness and the heart of God, without need of an intercessor, and this meant that every place had the potential of becoming Holy Ground. Hm, I love thinking about that.
So how do we find our own holy places and what should we do with them when we get there? There are so many known pilgrimages, tours, and shrines, and if our spirit sparks when we consider these, maybe there’s more to think and pray and plan about there. I know that I try to step into a church in any new city I visit – part of that is because my late Irish Catholic mother told me that I could make a wish in any new church I enter – I wonder if your mother taught you the same thing, but also I know that the red light that is visible in any Catholic Church is a sign that the Eucharist is there and that, plus the history of all of the people who’ve come before, who’ve prayed and agonizied, and experienced God’s grace within those walls – well, this has real meaning for me. The history of a holy place that matters, it adds up, and we can feel it even if the details are known only to those participating souls and to God.
If you’ve ever walked a labyrinth, then you know the meaning of intention, movement, and revelation. After all, no one just lands in a labyrinth. They’re built and visited for a purpose, and when you walk one, you see just how much the journey matters. And although you could race to the center, you would miss so much along the way. Your perspective changes depending on where you are in a labyrinth. I walked one once where at some turns I saw beach, another, a road, another, the trees. You would think I was in three different places. Well, you gain something with the time and process that makes that final step to the center that much more meaningful.
So, friend, may you find a holy place today, a place to be still and listen and feel the awe of our great big God seeing and loving you right at a particular moment and place in time and space. It’s my prayer for you today, and I can’t wait to hear where your road takes you next. In our retreat house, we sing a song called ‘Holy Ground’, which helps us appreciate the holy place we’re in but also calls us to recognize tha,t because we’re God’s children, we can always find Holy Ground right under our feet. So, whether you travel to a holy place or find one in your own backyard, may you and your dear ones feel the very real presence of God surrounding you today, friend.
Well, thanks so much for listening. If you need me, you can find me on Instagram @kerrycampbellwrites or on my blog at mylittleepiphanies.com. Thanks so much for sharing this podcast with friends, for rating, reviewing, subscribing, all of that really helps. And thanks for all of your kind feedback – I really appreciate that. So, let’s go find a holy place today, even if it’s right where we already are, and I’ll see you next time.