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Unexpected Awe

“Catholicism is a very tangible business—it’s about seeing and hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling as much as it’s about texts and arguments and ideas.” Those are the words of George Weigel in Letters to a Young Catholic. Weigel explains “what it means to be a Catholic today” by taking his readers on vicarious pilgrimages. “Visiting some of the more intriguing parts of the Catholic world will,” he hopes, “be an experience of the mystery of the Church, which is crucial to understanding it.”

In this issue, Joanna Bogle takes us to some of those intriguing parts of the Catholic world. But we need not be surrounded by exquisite stained glass or gaze reverently at martyrs’ relics to appreciate the mystery of the Church. A simple anecdote might illustrate.

On one of many childhood trips to San Diego to escape the Phoenix heat, my dad decided to sandwich in a visit to the mission between sailing and Sea World. He said a mission was like a museum, which did little to add appeal for a kid on vacation.

But as we climbed the steep stairs from the lower parking lot, I looked up at the snow-white façade with its bell tower and red roof and was thrilled by the beauty of the place. One of the massive wooden doors was open and we stepped into the cool, dark interior. No one else was there and the silence seemed to be watching us. It is a long, long walk to the front of the church. The altar, the enormous crucifix, the statues, the candles—it was all so old, so strange, so frightening. I wasn’t sure I liked it, yet I didn’t want to leave.

Dad finally coaxed me out into the sunny, flower-filled courtyard and over to the tiny museum. He zipped through himself, then waited with uncharacteristic impatience as I, with uncharacteristic focus, read every single item about the Franciscans and their mission.

The fascination didn’t last long. I promptly forgot all about the incident until a couple years ago, when as a new resident of San Diego I made a pilgrimage to the Mission San Diego de Alcalà. I was halfway up the steep stairs when I realized I had been there before. Suddenly I was a child again and that strange and overpowering feeling flooded back—but this time I recognized it. It was awe. It occurred to me, then, that the long-ago visit to the mission “museum” was the first time I’d been in a Catholic church and therefore the first time I’d been in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

Of course, I had no knowledge at the time of what that meant. But I had an intuition, and as Josef Pieper explains, intuition is the perfect form of knowing. “For intuition is knowledge of what is actually present” and “a type of knowing which does not merely move toward its object, but already rests in it.” Finally intuition is accompanied by amazement “because it exceeds our comprehension” (Happiness and Contemplation, St. Augustine’s Press, 1998).

The moment of intuition is the beginning of contemplation, and that moment can strike at any time. It’s more likely to come, however, when we put ourselves in the presence of the holy. That’s one good reason (there are many) for making pilgrimages. They remind us, when we are back amid the “tangible business” of our ordinary lives, of the holiness and mystery within our home parish.

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