Marion Amberg’s delightful “Monuments, Marvels, and Miracles: A Traveler’s Guide to Catholic America,” is just out from Our Sunday Visitor ($27.95).
The book is divided into seven sections: Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Midwest, Mountain West, Southwest and Pacific West. Each state, as well as the District of Columbia, has its own chapter.
“America’s got faith! It’s all around us,” the Introduction begins, and Amberg proceeds to prove it. The entries may be notable because of architecture, or Old World traditions, or history, or relics, or “astounding answers to prayer.”
Our cultural diversity is amply reflected: We American Catholics have roots in, among many other places, Vietnam, Cuba, the Philippines, Poland, Lithuania, Ireland, Sicily, Switzerland, Portugal, Lebanon, and France.
There are “fun facts,” trivia questions, and oddball “only-in-the-Church” one-offs. The entries are short and snappy, with addresses, phone numbers, and websites. The accompanying maps are bright and easy to read, and the whole book is beautifully accessible.
In fact, this is the kind of guide the kids could thumb through from the back seat of the van on a family road trip: “Hey Dad, let’s go to the Shrine of the Snowshoe Priest!” — a memorial to Ven. Frederick Baraga (1797-1868), beloved first bishop of today’s Diocese of Marquette, Michigan. “Mom, listen to this: Saint Patrick Catholic Church in Barrow, Alaska, is the northernmost church on planet Earth!” “Please, can we stop at Our Lady of the Pines?” — a chapel in Parsons, West Virginia, built in 1957-58 by Lithuanian immigrant Peter Milkint and his wife Elizabeth in memory of their parents.
Amberg takes us to shrines, retreat centers, cathedrals, cemeteries, museums, cathedrals, basilicas, convents, and abbeys. We learn of apparition sites, replicas of Holy Land sites, and exorcism sites.
With all that, most of the entries are churches. And as I riffed through the pages of “Monuments, Marvels and Miracles,” I couldn’t help but think of a cross-country road trip I took myself a decade or so ago.
At the time I was suffering a long-standing mental torment, a form of obsessive thinking that, like the thorn in the side of St. Paul, was resistant to all forms of prayer, confession, moral inventory, and outside help.
My one thought, my only hope, was to stay close to Jesus. I came under the sway of something akin to the force that tells birds to fly south in winter. I decided to get in my 1996 Celica convertible and drive cross-country from LA to the coast of New Hampshire, where I was born and raised and where my mother at the time still lived.
I would make it a pilgrimage, not by going to holy sites, but simply by going to Mass, wherever I was, every day.
Over the course of seven weeks, I went to Mass every day. In Silver City, New Mexico, just one other parishioner showed up besides me — a woman who handed me a breviary and invited me to join her in Morning Prayer while we waited for the priest to show up. In Hot Springs, Arkansas, we sat on folding chairs in a makeshift sanctuary for the memorial of St. Augustine, Aug. 28. In my hometown, I went to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, where all my now-lapsed Catholic friends had attended CCD and grade school.
I made my way back through Watsonville, Pennsylvania; Akron, Ohio; Madison, Wisconsin; Pipestone, Minnesota; Kearney, Nebraska; and Colorado Springs. My Blundstone boots, made to withstand the Australian outback, were in tatters.
My mind continued to run in the same obsessive rut for years afterward.
But something had happened to me on that pilgrimage. Catholic trivia is fine, but perhaps the one essential fact to memorize is this: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor: sick people do.”
To have everything stripped away is a great gift. To know that under our own steam — our own willpower, intelligence, drive, charm, good looks, money, or whatever else we think we might have going for us — we can never begin to get where we want to go, is the revelation of a lifetime. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Without me, you can do nothing.” Christ never exaggerated. Nothing.
I hadn’t been looking for the remarkable, the noteworthy, the quirky, or even the beautiful. I needed an altar, a priest, however outwardly ordinary, stumbling, broken. Ecclesia supplet — the Church supplies — is a term of art in Catholic canon law, but to my mind it applies to our whole lives in Christ.
The Church supplied. Christ poured himself out in the Eucharist, as he does each day, around the world, for all of us. So when you visit those monuments, marvels, and miracles, don’t forget to hang around for Mass: the biggest marvel and miracle of all.
As Catholic author Flannery O’Connor observed, Mass involves the same act if it’s said out of a suitcase in a boiler room as it is said at St. Peter’s in Rome.
“They think faith is a big electric blanket,” she also once said, “when of course it is the cross.”