A Weekend Pilgrimage

A Weekend Pilgrimage June 18, 2022


This weekend I drove to Columbus by myself, repenting.

To repent means to turn around, after all. We repenting by noticing we’ve been going in the wrong direction. Sixteen years ago I went to Franciscan University to get a master’s degree in philosophy. I was intending to be a bioethicist and tell everyone why they were wrong about everything, for the glory of Jesus. It didn’t work out. Nothing I did worked out, for a decade and a half. Except for having a daughter. Except for writing some books. Except for helping some people. Except for learning to drive.

I was so sure of so many ridiculous things back then.

Now I’m sure of so much less.

It hurts so much. So many, many people I thought I could trust turned out to be the bad guys.  I’ve learned so much I didn’t know about myself. So many people turned their backs on me and I’ve met so many other friends in unexpected places.

Last month, some dear friends I met from online rabble rousing invited me to come to Columbus to stay in their new house on the South Side. So this weekend I did. I left Rosie and Michael to have a father daughter weekend. I packed a ridiculously large cooler bag of coffee and frozen bottles of water. I set the Archangel Michael icon next to me in the passenger seat, so I’d have someone to talk to. And I repented– I turned around. I turned my back on Steubenville, and I drove home for the weekend.

I’d never driven so far by myself before. It was quiet, with plenty of time to worry, plenty of time to remember. Plenty of time to wish I dared make contact with people I know don’t want to see me. Plenty of time to think about my mother dropping me off at that dormitory sixteen years ago, with a gruff “We hope this place can do something for you, because we give up.”

I wonder if I will ever see her again.

I wonder if I will have the chance to tell her what Steubenville has done for me.

There was so much we weren’t allowed to know, growing up. So many things were kept secret from us. We were sheltered from the big bad world so that the big bad world wouldn’t entice us away from the Faith. We weren’t even allowed to go to suspicious “liberal” Catholic churches, only the stuffy one staffed by Dominican friars, the one with the Communion rail. My mother always made me put on a skirt or a jumper before going into the church, and I always hid a pair of shorts under it so I could rip off the skirt in the parking lot and run to play with my brothers. But in church I tried to quiet my rambunctiousness and listen. I wanted to learn how to be good. I wanted to learn how to be a saint.

The thing that shattered my faith wasn’t anything from the big bad outside world. It was Steubenville, the Disneyland of American Catholicism. It was the angry church ladies who hate the poor. It was the TOR Franciscans. It was the horror of how Catholics treat one another. I am still gathering up the pieces of that faith. I think some are lost entirely. I don’t know what I’ll be when I reconstruct this mess.

I pondered all of this as Saint Michael and I reached that point, halfway between the Ohio river and the Scioto, where the hills disappear. Suddenly we weren’t in Appalachia anymore. We were in the Midwest.

The sky looks so different in the Midwest, though I couldn’t tell you how.

I watched the farmland give way to strip malls as we approached the 270 loop. And then there it was: the skyline. My hometown. The place I grew up. The place I was desperate to get away from a decade and a half ago when I knew everything. The place I want to move back to with all my heart, now that I’m shattered.

I followed signs for downtown, intending to go straight to my friends’ house. Next thing I knew, I was on Broad Street.

And then I recognized a side street and went down it.

And then I was pulling into the parking lot in front of my old church.

The church wouldn’t be unlocked in the afternoon on a weekday, would it? Wait, yes it would. It was Friday. On Friday they always have Benediction and Adoration after noonday Mass. It was only one-thirty; they might still be there.

I reached into the back to open my suitcase.

I stood there in the parking lot, hopping up and down to pull the modest skirt on over my khaki shorts.

I went inside, smelled the incense, dipped my hand in the font. I slid into the pew next to the stained glass window with the picture of Saint Dominic before the crucifix.

It looked the same as if I’d never left; only I was not the same. And I will never be the same. You can’t un-shatter a faith. You can only put it back together. And it will never be what it was before.

Inside, I was crying. Outside, I was quiet– just another frowsy middle-aged woman in a skirt, lingering in church after Benediction.

I stayed there for awhile.

On the way back out to the car, I stopped in the foyer at the shrine to Saint Therese, my confirmation patron. I hadn’t wanted her for a patron, but my mother talked me into it. She loved Saint Therese and I didn’t. I wanted to be Joan of Arc, as Saint Therese herself apparently did– or Francis, but I wasn’t supposed to pick a boy’s name. I was stuck with Therese.

There used to be a quote from the letters of Saint Therese painted on the wall above that shrine. “If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be a pleasant place of shelter for Jesus.” It was one of those quotes I’d taken to heart and tried to follow, a long time ago, when all I wanted was to be a saint. But now the quote was missing– the wall wasn’t visible at all, just a big elaborate wooden case with her relic in it.

“I forgive you,” I said. And then I corrected myself. “I am willing to forgive you, if I ever find out how.”

I went back to my car and drove.

That was the first part of my pilgrimage home.

I’ll have a lot more to say about it later.


Image via pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

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