The weekend after my husband and I returned from our honeymoon, more than 50 relative strangers prepared a blessing for us. We had found the parish only two weeks before departing for our wedding extravaganza. We had been greeted by almost everyone in the building on our first Sunday, and they remembered our names when we came back the next week. But would they remember us after we were gone almost a month?
I registered us as parishioners the moment the congregation lowered their hands, having extended them to cover us in prayer as we began our journey of marriage: They remembered.
On October 15, we celebrated our first wedding anniversary. We haven’t missed a Sunday. To this day, I’m astonished. After five years of church shopping, barely attending Mass, I fully believed that our wedding would be the last liturgy I stepped into willingly. I just couldn’t find a place of rest. Everywhere I went, the parish was too wealthy, too sanitized, too cold, too ethnically homogenous (normally white). I was tired of explaining my non-Catholic partner, as if he was a blot on my spiritual resume and not the best part of my spiritual life. I was tired of wondering where the offertory money went. I was tired of impersonal, irrelevant, inane homilies. I was tired of being asked, every week, when we would be having kids. I was tired of “justice” being too political. For years I was searching, carrying on in pain, trudging reluctantly forward towards what I was certain was the sidewalk’s end.
And then, by the grace of God, we went to Mass with the Lasallian Volunteer alumni community before a regional event. At our parish.
The walls are adorned with three dozen flags representing the global communities to which our parishioners belong. That beautiful rainbow flag is right there, in the middle, watching the transformation of the Body.
There are oodles of children. Oodles of grandparents, many now widowed, leaning happily upon their longtime friends. There are a few young couples and a few middle-aged couples and handfuls of young single people from the university around the corner. There are droves of vowed religious men and women, hailing from worldwide congregations who have come to Chicago to serve. There is jazz music. There is clapping. Even now, there is a robust Zoom ministry waving to us from the corner screen.
There is joy, everywhere I look.
We are committed to this joy. It is not an easy commitment. We do not have a car. And while the parish is on the South Side like we are, it is in a different neighborhood, and the South Side public transit infrastructure was not designed for people to move freely between neighborhoods south of 55. To get to church, we ride a train North only two stops, then get off and walk 20-30 minutes in a looped course around a series of housing projects surrounded by fences. We are lucky to carpool when the weather is biting cold. But most of the time, we make our trek.
We have begun calling it our weekly pilgrimage. Just as I labored, hard, through the years-long journey of finding this place, so too must we make a small journey every Sunday to experience it, again and again.
When we get off the train, we walk up and over the tracks to a street that hasn’t been used by cars in decades. Previously the entrances to the old Mercy hospital – which is now covered in graffiti and set to be demolished – the overgrowth extends far past the unusable sidewalks and latches onto the cement barricades. Just last week, they added a new fence. Now, we march through a grass median, where bark and mulch have been laid for a makeshift path. We pass around the first housing project. We cross MLK Drive. We pass around the second housing project. We walk past the Enterprise car rental where we stood in 100-degree heat for five hours. That was three years ago. We were trying to get out of town for my COVID birthday. We pass the car dealership that provided us with bottled water and a business card that miserable day: “Call me if you never want to do this again.” We turn the final corner, pass the food pantry, and arrive.
We have likely talked about everything. Guy’s late father comes up a lot, as does his grandfather, who is soon to die. We talk about my family and its unique dynamic. We talk about our friends, their impending marriages. We talk about Chicago and how much we love it, while Sears Tower watches. We talk about simple pleasures, like the gift of a walk together each week. And we talk about the weather, if we underestimated our attire.
This notion of pilgrimage has been a revolutionary entry-point for my non-Catholic Guy. We were still a year out from dating when I went to World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland and later went on to study religion in India for over a month that same year. Even then, he was fascinated by this idea of traveling to a new place, making a journey to someplace spiritually significant, and watching as you became transformed not just by the destination but by the going.
This speaks deeply to his upbringing in the mountains of Northern California. He was hiking before he could talk, backpacking and camping and eating freeze-dried food from a bag with his father and godfather. Just last month, Guy scattered his father’s ashes with that same godfather on the hike in Yosemite that meant the most to them. Guy is most himself outdoors. And he is constantly in motion. If he were a Looney Tunes character, he would be the Tasmanian Devil. He runs everywhere, even if he’s not in a rush, because he loves the thrill of going.
Guy loves our parish. He feels welcomed. He is missed when he is traveling. He goes even when I’m not there. He hands out programs sometimes, and he’s getting way better at singing. They forget he isn’t Catholic. The destination is not guaranteed; I don’t know if he would ever convert. No one cares. I certainly don’t. He shows up.
Marriage, I keep being told, is journeying alongside another person while you create things together and change together. I think, too, that marriage might be a place of rest itself.
This summer, Guy and I went to World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal. For those unfamiliar, World Youth Day is a global gathering of young Catholics held in a major city every three years. Think “Catholic Olympics.” When the Church says “young people,” it typically means 18–35 year-olds. This is different from the American view of “young” as being high-school age. As a result, 2023 was the first year that the event organizers formally reduced the age range to 14-30. To my surprise, I went from being right in the middle of the age group to being almost too old. I won’t qualify to attend the next one. And frankly, I think I’m glad about that.
When I returned from Krakow in 2016, I was disappointed. I had a fun time. I saw so much. Yet, I did not feel any sort of significant spiritual change. There was not an old church I could point to where I felt I’d experienced transformation, not a prayer I could remember touching my heart. I chalked it up to having been the group leader. Perhaps, because I was technically “working” it, I hadn’t been able to fully enter in?
After Lisbon, I returned with a similar feeling and realized this was a larger World Youth Day problem. Like many church-related things designed for young people, the malleability of an exhausted person is part of the intention. If you’re tired, hungry, feeling vulnerable around a group of cute people your age, with no “real” adults around to watch you flirt, hormones and fatigue combine into an urgency that makes everything feel overwhelming and surreal. The high of a praise and worship night is far more acute. The sadness of a “cry night” feels transformative. You probably just need a good night’s rest, but you’re far easier to manipulate into thinking what you really need is a gut-wrenching, life-altering re-conversion.
World Youth Day is just the same. In Lisbon, the food situation was even more dire. Due to labor disagreements between merchants in the city and the government agency helping plan the large-scale event, very few restaurants opted into the 2023 WYD dining package that comes with the event registration. As a result, 2 million people were essentially competing against each other for the same dozen fast food restaurants in order to eat the meals they’d already paid for. In 92 degrees Fahrenheit, after averaging 6 miles of walking a day, this was a difficult physical situation that culminated with a sleepover in a dusty, rocky ditch.
But, as adults, we were able to see the forest for the trees. I am too old to mistake the stressors of these logistical difficulties as “spiritual warfare” designed to transform me. I was just hungry. When all 2 million of us were funneled down a two-lane highway dozens of feet in the air, crammed in like sardines lest we fall from the overpass on our final 10-mile pilgrim walk to the vigil site, I was not feeling the thrum of “being on fire for Jesus.” This was crowd crush.
This is not to say there weren’t deeply enriching parts of World Youth Day this year. One of the new changes to the week was a shift from large-scale catechesis sessions to a more synodal process: Groups were divided among local parishes for week-long catechesis and liturgy in the presence of an assigned Bishop. This allowed us to get to personally encounter other groups as well as the generous parish hosts. I gave a talk I’m really proud of (you can read it HERE). It was these personal moments where I truly felt the Spirit move. Like a pocket of rest amidst the whirlwind of the week.
Luckily, I was wise enough to plan for two bonus days on the back end of our trip. After everyone left, Guy and I got our own hotel in a part of town we had yet to visit, where we could eat real food, sleep well, and recalibrate our pace. This was by far the best part of the trip. At the end of the journey, I found a good man beside me. A pilgrimage to each other as much as with.
Every Sunday, during the consecration of the Eucharist, the priest says the phrase, “…and when our earthly pilgrimage is done…” Guy and I smile at each other. All of life is a pilgrimage towards some mysterious end. As a person who struggles to believe in an afterlife, I am realizing I feel the same disenchantment that I did at the end of both World Youth Days: What if it ends and there is no massive transformation awaiting me? Oh don’t hate me, but what if “the real treasure is the friends we made along the way?”
This is where Guy and I find ourselves, as we celebrate a year down and many to go. We are relishing the first steps of the journey. And I, personally, am thrilled that already, only one year in, we’ve discovered one kind of shared vocabulary for how this implicates our spirits, and we have found a space in which to grow.
I have been extremely protective of our parish, and of this newfound charism that’s animating our married life. I don’t even want to name the church! It’s not that I don’t want my loved ones to come: Come! It’s that I don’t want it to be harmed. I have found a sacred thing. What if that rainbow flag is taken down? What if the old multipurpose building – where the altar sits amidst rows of chairs that extend up onto the creaking stage – is demolished and replaced with the decades-old promise that a new cathedral-style church would be built on the ruins of the old one, torn down due to “broken doorknobs?” (It’s amazing the excuses an Archdiocese will use to destroy the first Catholic church to serve Black people in the city.) What if it all changes, and it’s all my fault?
There’s much about my younger life wrapped up in these anxieties, but there is also a latent exhaustion with the performance and vulnerability of social media. I want you all, my online community, to know me. I also want some things just for myself. Especially after years of my professional life – both writing and ministry – being implicated by and in my spiritual life, I know well how exhausting and unfulfilling it is to have what nourishes you spiritually also be your job.
Frankly, I don’t think those things can exist without some other supplementation: A secular source of income, a free source of faith.
I don’t think I’m planning to be too much more forthcoming online with my experience in my parish. This privacy has already afforded me a unique type of solidarity with the people whom I worship with each week, particularly those who also know me through my job. Something about praying together in this unbelievable space allows them to see me beyond just my 9-5. When things about that job are difficult, the friends I worship with are able to see me as bigger than a workplace. I’m a whole person with many kinds of contexts. This has been irreplaceable these past five months in particular, as my workplace undergoes significant transition that has left me grasping for anything I can control in the interim. I still don’t have clarity. I still don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing Monday through Friday. But I know who I am, come Sunday at 9:30am.
So the pilgrimage continues. I’m prioritizing rest. And Guy and I are learning how to rest together. This is one of our biggest differences: Guy rests by going and going. I rest by stopping to take it all in. We have only ever gone on one hike together: That COVID birthday three years ago. After finally getting our rental car, we drove six hours North into Wisconsin and camped together for the first time. My first time ever, if you don’t count WYD in Krakow. The charcuterie Guy prepared may have melted in his backpack and it might’ve rained when we didn’t expect it to, but it was a beautiful night. One I would happily do over again. Yosemite is first on the list.
With love — Madison