This past weekend Lisa and I traveled south to Addison, Alabama to spend a couple of days with her younger brother and his family. It was good to get away for even a brief vacation (of sorts) as Lisa prepares for surgery on June 26th and the radiation treatments to follow as part of her breast cancer treatment. We both are looking forward to the day this nightmare ends and have confidence we will be back on the road soon.
While in Alabama we traveled to Hanceville, Alabama and visited the “Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament”. This 400 acre Catholic Monastery and religious center is located nine miles from Cullman, Alabama and features ornate sanctuaries, a near life sized nativity, a prayer “grotto” and the adjacent “Monastery of Poor Clare Nuns of Perpetual Adoration”. These cloistered nuns spend their lives in prayer and worship with no contact with the outside world. The “Shrine” is also affiliated with the EWT television network and its foundress, Mother Mary Angelica of the Anuniciation, would be a familiar face if you ever watched that Catholic television network.
On the day we arrived it was pushing one hundred degrees and the humidity coupled with the heat coming from the massive brick portico made it almost unbearable. We entered the welcome center and I was told that the shorts I was wearing were not allowed and was given a pair of rather large sweat pants to borrow. As I slipped them over the top of my pants, I noticed a box on a desk that invited prayer requests be written down and submitted for the nuns to pray over. I grabbed a pencil and piece of paper and wrote Lisa’s name and her upcoming breast cancer surgery and treatment. Might as well get these nuns praying for us – we need all the prayer we can get. We were then invited to walk in and through the various buildings, shrines and sanctuaries. The ornate gold gilding of each room was quite impressive and the quiet, peaceful atmosphere created one of the most reverential moments in my life. I understood how the place would attract those needing a restful retreat.
We moved through to the large sanctuary and sat in awe of the statues and golden shimmer of the spires that backdropped the altar. People were scattered around the pews sitting in meditation or in prayer. I paused and prayed for Lisa and her upcoming surgery.
One of our stops was in a small building that housed a near life sized nativity scene. On each wall one could wash in “holy water” and at the front light a candle for someone in need of prayer. A twenty-five cent donation was requested and I dug through my sweatpants to find a quarter and light a candle for Lisa.
Our tour took about an hour and after a stop off at the gift shop, I returned my borrowed sweat pants, walked back across the huge, paved portico and we drove away.
I appreciate much about the Catholic faith. I love the traditions and the reverence of their worship. I am also intrigued with the saints of the church and the whole-life sacrifices of the men and women called into the ministry as nuns or priests. And this had to be the most amazing religious place I had ever seen. Even more amazing is that it is located in rural Alabama.
One of the most interesting experiences for me was regarding prayer. I found myself so distracted by the ornate setting that prayer in that moment was almost impossible. Perhaps on my second or third visit I would find praying at “The Shrine” easier, if not amazing. But, this first experience was overly distracting. It was almost too quiet and too majestic for me to shut out of my mind. The place overwhelmed me.
I know a lot of people are praying for Lisa and knowing there are now a group of cloistered nuns in Alabama praying around the clock is remarkable. But, as for me, I probably pray better on my front porch swing than in a golden sanctuary. Growing up a baptist, I am not accustomed to praying at an altar or before a crucifix. Perhaps I am missing out on something very special that my brethren of the Catholic faith experience on a regular basis. I have said that the altar of most protestant churches is the most unwelcoming place in the building. “Going forward” for prayer in a baptist church is so unusual it can result in rumor and innuendo spreading about what could possibly be wrong. “What is wrong with McFarland? He just went down front to pray.”
So, for now, I will continue praying in the way I am most comfortable. I can tell you there won’t be other people around and nothing golden will be involved – not that there is anything wrong with that.
Love, Steve and Lisa