Sacred pilgrimages are one of the most popular trends in destination travel today, the most recent iteration evidenced by the DaVinci Code tours—trips like these in the spotlight as Westerners prove eager to cleanse their souls and find deeper meaning obscured by modernity’s rushed pace.
My spiritual journeying began at the age of eight. After finishing a bologna sandwich one day, I picked up the phone and received an invitation from our Spanish-speaking neighbors to join them on a trip to Mexico. This would involve a 3-hour drive from our southern California home. I’d be returned safely home in four days. And the neighbors would be coming by to pick me up pronto.
My mother ferreted out her little-used Samsonite from behind her metal shoe rack. I packed with a sense of panicked determination for I knew going to Mexico was somehow akin to flying to the moon. Such spontaneous adventure in our household was unprecedented. We chiseled our way through Los Angeles up to the local mountains once a year with my father nervously puffing on his cigarette. My mother must have figured Mexico would be good for my soul. It was.
Crossing the border, I left behind the husk of life as I once knew it. In Mexico, everything was new, strange, and marvelous. I noticed as we ventured further south how statues of Jesus and Mary dotted the landscape. In California, Jesus and Mary found home inside churches, but in Mexico they manifested an equal opportunity religion. We sailed by Jesuses and Marys located in open fields. Jesus and Mary in carnerias. Jesus and Mary in hotels and gas stations.
All my Catholic life I’d conceptualized their vantage point to be 12.5 miles vertical, a right angle to the sun. Here, they were out in the open, more like your neighbor, ready to lend a hand.
On that trip I realized Catholicism wasn’t solely a California phenomenon, as we knew Disneyland and Hollywood to be. And not something necessarily constrained by Latin, its nuances echoing from those early school days: Anno Domini, ad maiorem Dei gloriam, Codex Juris Canonici. Oh how these utterances squeezed my tongue in ancient gravity. Our purpose in learning Latin was to wed ourselves to historic time. In journeying to Mexico, I was wedded to a new place. And to each new soulful place, my body wished to follow!
When I returned from Mexico, I began noticing my teachers’ voices. Just the previous year their vocal risings and fallings were part of a much-feared linguistic blur. Now it dawned how Sister Mary and Sister Augustine spoke in Irish brogues. Ah, Ireland, a new place to visit. Jesus and Mary must exist there, just as they do in California and Mexico. How else could the nuns lure us into spelling bee trances if not for their spray of beguiling sea voices? From this Celtic-derived education, I intuited that God’s tentacles bestowed divinity upon nature. Day after day, I’d come home from school, and check on the apricot tree in our backyard as if it were our sleeping child. When in spring I finally found sitings of bulbous green buds, I’d holler in religious ecstasy: “The leprechauns are coming! The leprechauns are coming!” God indeed was in Ireland.
As my spiritual journeying evolved, I realized I had a long haul ahead and that I’d better locate a suitcase larger than my mother’s Samsonite. Jesus and Mary were popping up in places much past the reaches of California, Mexico, and Ireland. They had made their way clear across the globe, to places like Biafra, the Phillipines, and other countries. This is what I learned on those Sundays when a “visiting” priest would appear on the altar, discussing the progress of spreading the Good Word. I’d never seen these priests before, and I’d never know if I’d see them again. These pondering soldiers of Christ carried a gypsy air, much different from our regular, parish priest who you could count on to finish saying Mass in 45-minutes-flat. Still, I’d put in my well-earned dollar for the special collection, and wonder about the gypsy priests. I’d wonder if their spiritual pilgrimage was similar to my own.
Growing up Catholic has always been about traveling many different roads.The urge to grab the suitcase is always there, reflecting the need to blend the old with the new, the visible with the mysterious, the rush of new discoveries with the repose of back home. This is how being Catholic connected me to the world. It began in 1968, with a surprise trip to Mexico. A sacred pilgrimage. Jesus and Mary. Everywhere.
by Maura Conlon-McIvor, author of FBI Girl: How I Learned to Crack My Father's Code
Author Maura Conlon-McIvor graduated from The University of Iowa and has worked as a journalist, editor, and producer on both coasts. She holds a doctorate in Depth Psychology and lives with her husband in Portland, Oregon.
Maura Conlon-McIvor's memoir, FBI Girl: How I Learned to Crack My Father's Code, is available from Warner books at all major booksellers in August 2004. For more information, please visit www.fbigirl.com, or www.writtenvoices.com.