Did you know there’s a shrine to Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin?
She’s the patron saint of Mexico and likely an Aztec goddess. I was surprised to hear of the shrine and further surprised it’s a basilica-sized church with a friary, gardens, votive chapel, pilgrim center, cafe, and wooded trails.
How did this arrive in Wisconsin?
I first visited with Vodou priests in June; we laid down flowers and cigars in the dusk. I went again with my mother, loyal all her days to the Church that brought her up. It’s a special place, whatever your thoughts on God.
It took my fancy that I might spend a night there. The Adventure took me within a mile and I made a plan to do just that.
Mice make plans, too, they say.
It would be simple: arrive in the afternoon; scout the woods by foot; find a discrete spot for my hammock. Tall, straight and red-barked pines, and the sound of chipmunks at the Rosary Walk below. Serenity, you are a cock tease.
The monastery’s inhabited by Franciscan friars and that altered the plan. I took it in my head that I could knock on the door and ask for their hospitality, and maybe I’d have a roof for the night. If it failed I could still go to the woods: would Saint Francis do any different?
Plans change when sunlight fades. I did not huff my weighty bike up that final cathedral hill until twenty-two minutes to the sunset.
I compose myself. The eve is chilly: will these monks understand?
The doorbell rings. I wait. Shuffling. A gray-robed and full-bearded young man appears, about the age I was when I first became a priest. I understand now how people judged me: I was sure he was some lesser novice who would refer me to an aged and wizened abbot.
He introduced himself as the Father of the monastery.
“Father,” I said, “I’m a traveler, biking toward Mexico. You can see it’s almost sunset. Respectfully, I wonder if there’s a place here I can spend the night.”
He was no caricature of a Catholic priest, but the sort of man I’d talk philosophy with for hours. I liked him, and he gave a warm smile and racked his brain.
It comes down to: they’re not set up for visitors. I have my gear; may I spend the night in the woods? Well, he’ll go talk to the brothers. He returns. The brothers have collectively remembered two campgrounds, one that might not have campsites at all and another some two miles away by bike in the dark.
“They may charge a fee,” he said.
“I can handle that if needed,” I said.
Perhaps I should have expressed that I really have little money to spare; my answer seemed to put him at ease with his decision. He expressed a wish that we could talk more, and he promised ardently that they would all pray for me: for my safety, and for the fulfillment of my spiritual purpose in undertaking this journey. Briefly it warmed my heart.
The door closed.
I walked the bike around the church and promptly shoved it off road into neglected scrub woods. It was not the masts of pines I remembered, but that was far away, uphill, and the most likely spot for me to be discovered.
In darkness I fumbled with my gear. No setting up the hammock now. I was tired; hardly slept the night before. Didn’t even wash my teeth. I put on sweater, rain jacket, long underwear, two blankets. I leaned against a shapely tree, and I slept.
There I am, the hermit of a bygone faith, a faith of the world, a faith of five senses; I extinguished them for the night alone in a wood, chewing a banana, while monks with a vow of poverty fell asleep in a stone palace.
I thought on this.
It doesn’t bother me, exactly. To be clear: no one has an obligation to help me. Least of all these monks. But I thought of three things:
- In the politest way possible, the priest lied to me. They surely are “set up” for guests; they’re a monastery that’s not full, and they have space for visiting priests and monks.
- He was uncomfortable even letting me sleep outside, out of sight. I suspect he feels beholden to a broader administrative structure and their rules, whatever his convictions.
- He was reluctant to see me go. He too could sense we’d get on. He wanted to know all about my trip, and tell me about his work, but he had to let me go. I have a profound certainty that hours later, when the rain started, he regretted his choice.
It is too easy, too angry to say his choice was un-Christian. Would Christ have welcomed me in? If his reputation is accurate, sure, but you can’t just throw that in people’s faces. We’re human.
And his choice was profoundly human. It was practical, and uncertain. I meditated: when I was a temple priest, would I have welcomed someone in? I always thought I would, but my wife would have been angry. And what if I distrusted the person at the door?
Father, if you’re reading this it means you know how to google. And if you feel bad, don’t: I forgive you. There’s nothing to forgive. The woods were my sacred roof, the rain my gentle lullaby, the rodents said good-night to me and I fed them from my hand. Any man can survive in a bed of needles and leaves, with the right tree and a simple mind.
I slept in fits, and in the morning, I laid offerings at your shrine. I chanted pagan prayers to the sun and to my god, and when the mist cleared I was gone.
How I wish I could talk to that priest again.