A weekend of pilgrimage | Mary Pezzulo

This weekend I drove to Columbus on my own, repentant.

To repent means to turn around, after all. We repent by noticing that we have gone in the wrong direction. Sixteen years ago I went to Franciscan University to get a master’s degree in philosophy. I intended to be a bioethicist and tell everyone why they were wrong about everything, for the glory of Jesus. It did not work. Nothing I’ve done has worked for a decade and a half. Except to have a daughter. Except to write a few books. Except to help some people. Except for learning to drive.

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

Now I am sure of much less.

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

Last month, some dear friends I met through an online bustle invited me to come to Columbus to stay at their new South Side home. So this weekend I did. I left Rosie and Michael for a father-daughter weekend. I packed a ridiculously large cooler bag of coffee and frozen water bottles. I placed the Archangel Michael icon next to me in the passenger seat, to have someone to talk to. And I repented – I turned around. I turned my back on Steubenville and headed home for the weekend.

I had never driven this far on my own before. It was quiet, with plenty of time to worry, plenty of time to remember. Lots of time for wishing I dare get in touch with people I know don’t want to see me. Plenty of time to think about my mom dropping me off at this dorm sixteen years ago with a gruff “We hope this place can do something for you, because we’re giving up.”

I wonder if I will ever see her again.

I wonder if I will have the opportunity to tell him what Steubenville has done for me.

There were so many things 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 turn us away from the Faith. We weren’t even allowed to go to suspect “liberal” Catholic churches, only the stuffy one run by Dominican friars, the one with the Communion rail. My mom always made me put on a skirt or sweater before I went into church, and I always hid shorts underneath so I could rip the skirt off in the parking lot and run around playing with my brothers. But at church, I tried to calm my exuberance and listen. I wanted to learn to be good. I wanted to learn to be a saint.

The thing that broke my faith wasn’t something from the big, bad world outside. It was Steubenville, the Disneyland of American Catholicism. It was the angry church ladies who hate the poor. They were the Franciscans of the TOR. It was the horror of the way Catholics treat each other. I’m still picking up the pieces of that faith. I think some are completely lost. I don’t know what I will be when I rebuild this mess.

I thought about all of this as St. Michael and I got to that point, halfway between the Ohio River and the Scioto, where the hills disappear. Suddenly we were no longer in Appalachia. We were in the Midwest.

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

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

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

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

And then I parked in the parking lot in front of my old church.

The church wouldn’t be open weekday afternoons, would it? Wait, yes. It was Friday. On Fridays, they always have blessing and adoration after midday mass. It was only 1:30 p.m.; they may still be there.

I reached behind to open my suitcase.

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

I entered, I smelled the incense, I dipped my hand in the stoup. I slipped onto the bench next to the stained glass window with the image of Saint Dominic in front of the crucifix.

It was the same as if I had never left; only I was no longer the same. And I will never be the same again. You can’t destroy 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 middle-aged woman in a skirt, hungry, lingering in church after the blessing.

I stayed there for a while.

On the way back to the car, I stopped in the hall of the sanctuary of Saint Thérèse, my confirmation patroness. I hadn’t wanted her as a patron, but my mother convinced me. She loved Saint Thérèse and I did not. I wanted to be Joan of Arc, as Saint Therese herself apparently did – or Francis, but I wasn’t supposed to choose a boy’s name. I was stuck with Therese.

There was once a quote from the letters of Saint Theresa painted on the wall above this shrine. “If you are ready to calmly bear the test of displeasing yourselves, then you will be a pleasant shelter for Jesus.” It was one of those quotes that I had taken to heart and tried to follow, long ago, when all I wanted was to be a saint. But now the quote was missing – the wall was not visible at all, just a large elaborate wooden crate with his relic in it.

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

I returned to my car and drove.

This was the first part of my pilgrimage home.

I will have much more to say about this later.

Image via pixabay

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

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