Along with my husband, I recently visited St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, home of the Benedictine fathers and brothers, neighbor to the Sisters of Saint Benedict in nearby St. Joseph, MN, and homestead for the Liturgical Movement in the United States.
The Abbey, with its impressive Abbey Church, is a site of pilgrimage. This is a place of prayer and work, of education, of intentional time devoted to spiritual growth and the receiving of guests who arrive on its doorsteps. If we’re listening, those of us who travel there, with our busy minds and full calendars, begin to hear the quietness of St. John’s. Appointments, duties, and responsibilities still exist, but the noise around them is hushed. Time is less cluttered. Mornings are brighter with hope and the splendor of God’s creation, days of work are satisfying, and evenings bring to us a deep feeling of thankfulness (even if our thankful relaxation still involves unwinding with watching an episode of reality-TV real-estate).
For me, St. John’s holds many pilgrimages: pilgrimages to prayer in the morning, to friends for mealtimes, and to the cemetery, where my (liturgical movement) heroes are resting. Until recently, however, one common pilgrimage has eluded me. The Stella Maris Chapel, dedicated to Mary, Star of the Sea, sits tantalizingly within sight across the lake from the Abbey Guest House. It blinks and beckons walkers, runners, and wanderers to find it. It seems to be situated just around the corner…except, let us not forget that we are in Minnesota. Not only are there a lot of lakes, but there are a lot of big lakes. A lot of big lakes full of lots of curves and jutting peninsulas. The Stella Maris Chapel is farther away than it looks!
Since my first visit to St. John’s in early 2010, I had been determined to visit this chapel. It really isn’t that much farther than a good hike through the woods, taking about 45 minutes (according to most sources I have consulted). Yet, each time I’d visited St. John’s, I failed to complete the journey. My first attempt was voided by 3 feet of snow on the ground (which, interestingly enough, did not deter me from finding the gravestones of Virgil Michel and Godfrey Diekmann in the Abbey cemetery, but that’s another story). On other occasions, I’ve felt too pressed for time to get out around the lake, and began rushing down the lakeshore path, only to realize sadly that I’d left myself too little time—literally, with too-little daylight—to walk the lake. The quickly-falling darkness would leave me alone in the woods of Minnesota at night. There might not be coyotes, I tried to reason, before turning back.
Yet, this last time, I was lucky enough (or blessed?) to have a willing walking partner, and a more peaceful spirit. My husband, Matt, and I started our pilgrimage to that Stella Maris Chapel on the first night of our arrival at St. John’s. But, even with two of us, we had to turn back—coyotes (bears, fisher cats, squirrels), again, threatened us in the darkening Minnesota woods. We were turned back, but were still determined. The second time we tried, we intentionally chose to spend our afternoon before dinner walking to the Chapel. We walked, around each curve, and along each peninsula. We saw birds and turtles, smelled scented pine trees, crossed wooden footbridges surrounded by lily pads and swimming fish, and greeted the various shrines and resting spots along the path. We even saw runners and walkers, coming from the opposite direction, and encouraged each other—see, there must be another side!
We rounded another curve, climbed another hill—and with rising excitement—we found the Chapel. Surrounded by the Sea of Lake Sagatagan, the current red and white stone structure was built by young monks of the Abbey in 1915. The recently-renovated chapel stands with open doors and open windows, letting wind, air, and light travel freely through the building. We had arrived. We stood in the middle of the white-washed space and I imagined all the pilgrims who’d come there before me. I’d been waiting so long to be in this space, and with such anticipation—but as I stood there, I began to feel, with growing suspicion, that I almost wished we had not made it yet.
Why would one feel this way? My suspicion was raised because I suddenly realized these sneaky Benedictines had planned yet another way to invite their guests to experience the prayer and work involved in the Christian life. Our English word, “pilgrimage” comes from a Latin root peregrinus—a word which brings together notions of “beyond” (per-) and “country” (ager). The pilgrim doesn’t simply arrive somewhere, but ventures through a new land, and is asked to love what is encountered along the way. For me, and my own vocation (marriage), not only was I essaying to find some pinnacle of peace and prayer in the backyard of the twentieth-century American liturgical renewal, but I was dragging my husband along with me. Or, perhaps more accurately, I needed the support of my community, the small cell of my Christian family, to sojourn this route successfully. Secondly, while we’d experienced the delight of arriving at the foot of Mary, Star of the Sea, it was the scores of turtles, the birds I don’t get to see in central Indiana, and the marks of the beavers on thin birch stumps around the lakeshore which made this pilgrimage so special. The pilgrimage we walked seems to have been as much about the destination framed by chapel walls as it was fed by the work of winding around that circuitous lakeshore path, conveniently dotted by benches inviting us to pause in prayer.
The metaphor of the Stella Maris Chapel seems obvious—I suppressed an eye roll as I grasped this great metaphor I’d just spent 45 minutes—or, more accurately, almost 6 years—walking toward. Once again, I’ve learned something about peace and prayer, work and community, from the monks of St. John’s. I suppose now I have to continue working and praying in the Christian life which I began on the day of my baptism….