The power of this place
Why do people go to shrines and make pilgrimages? What happens to them while in the presence of a saint or sacred person? When I have asked several people why they came — why come to this shrine of Saint Mother Theodore? — I could sense an underlying parallel in their responses. Yet, there was also a wide variety of reasons as to why they came, and why they continue to come.
As we may know, in ancient times, a major pilgrimage site that people traveled to was to the temple of Delphi, Greece, to get answers to questions about life. Perhaps in these modern times our reasons for coming to shrines are not all that different. Richard R. Niebuhr once said: “Pilgrims are persons in motion — passing through territories not their own — seeking something we might call completion, a goal to which only the spirit’s compass points the way.” We become like Melville’s Ishmael who is called an islander. We are living beings continually searching for passages that promise a way to another shore — a shore that will complete us and make us whole. Similarly, when one comes through the gates of The Avenue at the Woods, the pilgrim inside us begins to awaken.
People come to see the place where something happened. Something significant took place on this holy ground and continues to take place this very day. We know people go to the Holy Land because it is filled with places made extraordinary by some event in sacred history. The same thing happens in most major religious traditions, notably in the hajj to Mecca in Islam, or to Medina where the Prophet Mohammed himself began his own Farewell Pilgrimage.
The most visited of Buddhism’s holy sites is the small town of Bodh Gaya in India, where Buddha received illumination. There some people believe that the pilgrim who stands at the place and takes appropriate vows will never be reborn in lesser states, just because of the power of the place. In India one can also visit the sites of mythic events of the life of Krishna: his birthplace, a tree by the river where he hung clothes, a grove where he danced in the middle of the night. Such places are said to bear the inklings or intimations of Krishna. The power of the pilgrimage lies in being on that land itself.
This desire to go where something momentous happened is also found in many other instances of life. The concentration camps of the holocaust are powerful for those who go to the place where those horrors transpired. Places of martyrdom are remembered by pilgrims, who draw near the place where people gave their lives for a greater cause. The place where something happened or where someone lived or encountered God in a special way all become very exceptional and distinct places. It has always been so.
As we well know, this is not limited to the world of the sacred. On John Lennon’s birthday visitors come to the Strawberry Fields in Central Park in New York City, set aside with a donation of a million dollars by Yoko Ono. Visitors will drive by the place where the most recent urban violence happened, or the latest earthquake or flood or tornado. They will visit or revisit battlefields or even places where movies were made. There seems to be something which lures people to the actual site of some event or person that has meaning for them.
And so, why do people come to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, to visit the shrine of Saint Mother Theodore? To draw near to something sacred seems to be a very real reason people come here. Will being close to the shrine make one more holy? Is there a sense in which holiness rubs off on those drawing near? People have told me yes when I asked them similar questions after visiting Mother Theodore’s shrine. Some come to seek forgiveness; some come to hope for a miracle. Some come for healing — the healing of body, mind, heart, soul and spirit. Some come to give thanks — thanks for healings, for saving a business, for protecting a child, for giving birth to a daughter or son, for victory, for peace, for deliverance from an addiction, for wealth. The list is endless.
The most frequently expressed reason that people visit the shrine of Mother Theodore is to express their love of God, albeit in a variety of ways. A woman shared her story with me in these vivid images. She said when her feet touched the floor near the shrine, she felt her body was dissolving into tenderness and love and that she was being transformed into a lightness of being. She said her eyes were bathed with tears that helped relieve the anxiety in her heart and she could feel the warmth of Mother Theodore’s love and belief. She continued to consume the place with acquisitive, probing eyes: the walls, the huge picture above her, the ceiling, the marble pillars, lights, pulpit and most of all the wooden coffin of this holy woman, Mother Theodore. How often she had longed to visit this site, as though yearning for a dream that could never be achieved on this earth, or so she thought. Finally, here she was, standing in front of the shrine. Indeed, she was actually touching the beautiful wood itself, wishing to linger and savor this place of happiness and deep joy. It was so difficult to leave because she wanted more of this intimacy of feeling the power of this place.
The desire to be a pilgrim is deeply rooted in human nature; in a sense, it is archetypal. To stand where those that we admire and reverence once stood, to see the very sites where they walked and lived and worked and died, gives us a feeling of mystical connection with them and is an everyday expression of our tribute. It has the power to change a life for it is the power to answer a sense of inner call to go — to go into the world and spread our own holiness to those around us.