There is a palace on a mountain that beckons from time to time. All are welcome, and tourists, many from outside the Church, move quietly through the peace and beauty without having to be shushed. I am speaking of Holy Hill, home of the über-Germanic basilica and giant Carmelite monastery.
It’s a treasure, and it’s right in our backyard.
On the feast of the Annunciation, I went up the mountain. It wasn’t part of my plan for the day. Holy woman that I am, I overslept and missed the early morning Masses. My family and I packed ourselves into the family van and aimed it north, hoping to make 10:15 confessions at Holy Hill before the 11am Mass. Two sacraments and a solemnity at a basilica, on a weekday? Yes, and in Milwaukee, folks.
We drove through woods white with frozen rain and coasted up to the Saint Therese chapel, low on the hill. The sanctuary has been refitted with vivid windows depicting the life of the beloved Carmelite. I stood in one of two long lines of penitents and noticed a third priest taking in more sinners in a room off of the front altar. You could almost smell smoke drifting up to heaven from the sins burning out of so many souls. As Abraham would tell you, an altar on a hilltop is a good place to make a sacrifice.
I heard the bells calling us to Mass as I slipped into the confessional.
Then I picked my way up icy stone steps to the great upper church, with the heavy romanesque arches. Bracing myself against the wind on the open walkway, I skittered with my children through to the oak doors. Warmth and light awaited us.
Five priests concelebrated in festive white robes. “Today is not Lent,” one explained, “it’s a solemnity”. The homily was rich. His preaching, urging us as the angel Gabriel urged Mary to “be not afraid,” brought me to tears. Later, an assisting priest — a big bearded man — smiled sweetly at my baby as I received the host, and blessed her with a twinkle in his eye. There are good people in God’s Church.
When we go up Holy Hill here in the prosaic Midwest, we delve deep. Because, as every schoolchild knows, the Carmelites are named not for sticky toffee but for Mount Carmel, a hill south of Haifa. They are still there today:
The Carmelites started as a group of hermits living on this mountain, the mountain where Elijah defied the prophets of Baal and the Lord rained fire upon his holy sacrifice. “And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God” (1 Kings 18:39).
It is so human, so natural, to go to the mountaintop to meet the Creator. And this ancient experience is made real in the Wisconsin woods as it is in few places outside the Holy Land.
We headed back healed and hopeful. The overhanging trees rained melting ice on our van as we drove home. “Harmony is as refreshing as the dew from Mount Hermon that falls on the mountains of Zion” (Ps 133). I basked in gratitude that this was how we had been able to spend this feast: celebrating in beauty, receiving grace together as a family, and coming away strengthened for the final days of Lent.
Our local church has its problems. There are many issues to tackle, monsters to conquer. But the Lord is stronger than any monster, and any Baal, and His people are all over this land. I am happy there are bastions of beauty in the cold and drear. And I am thankful for the tender blessing of a burly priest on a melty day in March.