A week ago we visited the Basilica of National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians, which is otherwise known simply as Holy Hill. It is operated by Carmelite Friars whose monastery is located on the grounds.
View from the rear of the Basilica
It isn't so much the physical beauty of the place that stirs me, though it is nice. There is something very powerful that moves me when I am here, and even to an extent when I remember being here.
The first time I heard of this place was in a conversation with my friend Keith who had just returned to the Church, while I was still an anti-Catholic pentecostal. I had encountered one brief glimmer of light coming from the Catholic Church while I was in college, and that was in the writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. I remember then dropping whatever book I was reading onto the table in the library out of sheer awe and saying to God, "Lord, if there are any people left in the world who believe like this, those are the people I want to be among." Now, three years later, I was asking Keith in a dire attempt to be conciliatory to a man I was very fond of, "You know St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross? Are there any people like them around the Catholic Church these days?" I didn't even know what I was asking, I mean, I certainly didn't understand all about religious orders, nor did I understand that they were basically the founders of one, the Discalced Carmelites. And he told me yes there were, just in the next county north, at Holy Hill.
My Protestant friends took me there the first time, mostly for sightseeing, since in the fall everyone comes to see the beautiful leaves from atop the high church tower. But I returned many, many times. More often than not, my feeling there was one of desperate and tremulous quest. I knew and believed that the Church was God's profound beauty, but I also knew I was encountering other stuff, both in the Church and in myself, that was ugly. I was often confused and scared, and amidst these new and foreign surroundings I tried to beg God to show me what He was doing.
Holy Hill has a monthly healing Mass, and at one of these I took the offer to go in the prayer line afterwards. This felt comfortingly familiar to my pentecostal experience. And yet, I wasn't entirely sure if these women who were going to pray with me were trustworthy or not. I don't remember anything I said to them or what we prayed for, though I have a feeling I started to cry. But I do remember vividly what the one woman told me as I got ready to leave. She told me to go and pray to Jesus, and she asked me if I knew where to find Him. I blurted out, with a bit of a question mark in my voice, "In my heart?" And she smiled and said yes, in my heart.
I had no idea at the time what a Carmelite-flavored exchange that was. I don't know for sure, but I have a feeling she was a member of the local OCDS community, just like the one I am in formation with.
Last week's trip might have been my 20th trip there. This time was different, because I'm actually an aspirant of the order. Secular Carmelites are not addenda to the "real" order. I am actually going to be part of the exact same order that St. John and St. Teresa were. To think -- God answered that extremely earnest cry of my 20-year-old heart that I didn't even understand at the time!
During the whole visit last week, I was vibrating inside . It is hard to describe, but as I took the picture above I was thinking "I wish I could eat this place." It's that sort of experience of grace where you just want everything of you to be part of everything of it. This is Carmel. This isn't just my home, it is the room within my home where I encounter Jesus, where He encounters me. Where I am His and He is mine.
If I had that same book from my college days in my hands now, I'd drop it in sheer awe again.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel