This next one is not, strictly speaking, part of my sacramental life. This is the door of St. Vincent Pallotti parish in Wauwatosa, WI. In 1991 it was called St. Anthony of Padua (the name change apparently came after a parish merger). This was the parish where at a Christmas Eve midnight Mass I experienced Jesus in the Eucharist so profoundly that I ended up becoming a Catholic.
I wish I could say these were out of order, but this is at Gesu Parish in Milwaukee where I made my first confession the day after I was confirmed. Yeah, that's not the way it was supposed to be, but the priest who did my RCIA formation told me confession was optional, so I decided to opt out. The Holy Spirit had other ideas, and the following day at work He picked me up by the scruff of my neck and suddenly I could find no rest at all without going to confession. Off I went to Gesu, where I had been attending daily Mass for over a year, and where confessions were heard every afternoon. I crashed into the confessional chair, startling the blind priest who apparently was not used to loud water buffalos seeking the sacrament, and I explained that this was my first confession and that I had just been confirmed. "Ah, the Holy Spirit is stirring up the embers," he said. What struck me was that after I made my confession, the priest proclaimed that God forgave me all my sins. I was stunned at this. All my sins? Not just what I managed to blurt out? What a deal!
Oh, and I'm standing near this statue of St. Katherine Drexel because the confessionals I used have been replaced by rooms.
This is the altar in the lower church at Gesu. I attended daily Mass here for about two and a half years, where my former spiritual director Fr. John Campbell, SJ presided. This was the first parish I actually joined, because Fr. John was for me the heart of the sense of community I knew. Fr. Confession-is-Optional made no particular impression on me...
This last picture captures for me the heart of this sacramental pilgrimage. It is a very plain chapel there in the Lower Church, and yet it was the site where deeply profound changes began to transform my heart. Many days I stumbled through the doors for Mass after work, weary and stressed, and a flood of peace enveloped me the second I came into the presence of that tabernacle that holds Jesus inside. When Fr. John (may he rest in peace) stood behind that altar and prayed he formed me in what liturgy means. Jesus spoke to my heart and I learned the first steps in becoming a Catholic. All those priceless moments stay with me to this day.
Interiors and exteriors of the churches looked old and worn, or conversely were so newly repaired that they were foreign to me. This speaks to me of the humility and the transience of the things God uses. They are just material things, and even the most grand of them will crumble and be gone one day (as was the apartment building where I lived!) Even the people get old and die. But the graces remain.
When I moved to Japan I cried at the thought of leaving Fr. John and my new parish behind. Being homesick meant wanting to be at that 5:30 Mass again. Eight years ago, Fr. John passed away at 60 years young, and when I learned of it I felt completely alone in the world. But the beauty of what I have experienced in the sacraments is learning the reality that God's power really does come to us through humble signs, through people, through created matter, and it is within God's power that we actually find our home. In fact, God Himself is our home. He gives us all of these means to call us home. Even though human love would make us want to attach to the means, we have to have the eyes of a mystic to become attached to the One who calls us through them.
The thing that always makes me slack-jawed is that He really does use created things to communicate Himself. The eternal Word of God really and truly did become man in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Deepest reality is sacramental.
And this is where all that first happened to me.