Traveling with your now-adult son while helping him drive the official pace car of the State of California, a U-Haul truck packed with all earthly belongings, and heading east, was a whole new experience for me.
I have flown over the continental United States and beyond many times, but I had never driven further than the eastern border of Arizona. Because our son was moving 2,000 miles away and needed to get to his new home in Nashville, Tennessee, on a tight schedule, I volunteered to co-pilot.
Now, driving across the middle part of the North American continent in the midst of winter was not my idea of a fun road trip, and was the cause of some sleepless nights leading up to our departure, as well as every night of the journey itself. The Weather Channel was must-see TV every night and the number of Hail Marys said was dictated by the predicted precipitation and wind velocity for the next day’s journey. We were lucky or blessed — the worst we could complain about was leaving Dallas, Texas, in the early morning hours on our next leg of the journey and being met with 29-degree weather and 50 mph winds.
God does some of his best work on a road trip like this. We saw so much beautiful country and incredible bounty in the 2,000 miles we traveled, not to mention the majestic Mississippi River. And we were blessed again with more overt God moments, like the one on our first day: We had reached Tucson, Arizona, my son had pre-booked hotels for the entire trip and on this leg, he had chosen a casino. (The God moment wasn’t me drawing to an inside straight and breaking the bank.)
It was Saturday and I was already worrying about where to find a Mass and still keep to our tight schedule. Then, off in the distance, I saw the setting sun shining on a large white structure in the middle of a desert. It was almost glowing, and I could not make out what it was for a time until I saw the sign — not from above, but from the Arizona Highway Department. It read “San Xavier Del Bac Mission, Next Right.”
We followed the sign, which was also the same off ramp for our hotel. We found a beautiful, white-washed colonial mission church basically in the middle of nowhere. According to the tourist information signage, it was the oldest intact European structure in Arizona. It was founded in 1692 but modernized in 1792. My kind of place.
Our timing during the life of this road trip proved to be sometimes peccable, but on this day it could not have been more perfect. San Xavier had a vigil Mass, and we had time to check into our hotel and make it back in plenty of time to attend.
Like every mission church I have ever been in, the thick-as-an-elephant walls were painted in a variety of faded sacred motifs with Native influences, and there was that permanently dank and dusty smell. But the narrow church was packed with Massgoers and the Franciscan priest who celebrated seemed out of central casting.
Finding this diamond in the desert allowed my son and I to stay on schedule and get to Tennessee, but more importantly, it represented one of those moments of grace and pause when for a brief time I could forget I was traveling by land vehicle through a continent not always friendly to such means of conveyance during winter.
We managed to dodge snowstorms, dangerously high winds, and a tornado warning, and arrived at our destination in one piece. It was what I, living in the here and now of the 21st century, was praying for inside that church founded in the 17th century.
I was praying for something else upon arrival. I felt a little guilty to make my praying all about me during this trip, but seeing one of my children truly make a life of his own is difficult.
We got to Tennessee by moving van the same day my wife arrived by air. She and my son hit the ground running, going to the grocery store, furniture store, and home goods store over the next two days, turning his house into a home.
Probably a coping mechanism to deal with the fact my son has a home, and it is not under my roof, I started googling “Catholic churches near me.” With all the subtlety of a ball-peen hammer, I casually suggested to my son there seemed to be a church not too far from his house. He responded that the parish I mentioned was not the one he had already looked up. Another sign, but this one not from the Arizona Department of Highways.