Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come. —Revelation 12:10
I didn’t expect to visit the National Shrine this past weekend. But we were lunching with a friend, who mentioned he’d visited the basilica, and there were hours to kill before our evening concert. So why not drive the extra twenty minutes to the largest Catholic Church in America?
I’ve spent much time at St. Patrick’s in New York, and visited three of the four major basilicas in Rome. I’ve seen more sacred art and stained glass than I can remember. So the National Shrine is almost deceptive, at first. It’s big, but it’s not flashy. It’s not overly ornate. But as we walked around, I noticed all the details—statues of saints and small side chapels. Mosaics that look like painted artwork. We sat for a while beneath a ceiling mosaic of Creation, of Adam and Eve surrounded by the oceans and the animals, protected by the hand of God.
I was told the basilica is “impressive.” I’ve seen impressive, but this one isn’t about the seeing. It’s a feeling, like God Himself is walking around with you. There’s no “wow” factor, until you really start to notice the details. And then it’s positively striking.
The most central mosaic sits behind the altar, and the one I kept circling back to—not just during my visit, but in reflection in the days since. I couldn’t figure it out, at first. It had to be Jesus, but didn’t look like the Jesus we’ve come to recognize. I thought it to be his Risen form, since his appearance changed after the Resurrection. That was an impressive enough interpretation, but the truth was even better.
Dominating the North Apse is Christ in Majesty, the Apocalyptic Christ. Perhaps the largest mosaic of Jesus in the world, the span from wounded hand to wounded hand measures 34 feet.
(National Shrine Interactive Map)
It’s almost uncomfortable to look at. It’s not Jesus as we know him, and he’s kind of mean-looking and judgmental. But that’s just what it is: the literal, ultimate judgment. There’s a whole great list of the mosaic’s details compared to scripture, which brings even more awe-inspired wonder to this 34-foot artwork.
We did some more wandering, including down into the crypt and the obligatory gift shop. But even as we left for the concert, “Christ in Majesty” lingered. Jesus is so often depicted as gentle and loving, which isn’t wrong. But the “Judgmental God” part gets overlooked. Maybe we conveniently forget, because death and judgement aren’t things we want to think about. But there it is—the largest mosaic of Jesus in the world.
I wish we’d had time to see more. The couple hours weren’t enough, and I don’t know the next time I’ll be in D.C. The National Shrine needs all day. I didn’t want to sit and pray, because I wanted to see all I could. But even walking around the nave is a type of prayer. Studying the artwork, and explaining what’s going on in each. Staring up at Creation, or at the majestic figure of the Risen Christ. It is… impressive.
Last week was a hectic one. I accepted a new job, to start in a couple weeks, and had to give notice everywhere that I was leaving both my current job and apartment. I had a music gig on Thursday in the city, one that I couldn’t practice for during the week due to a miserable cold. I was too tired to be excited for anything.
But I got into the city early, knowing there was a place I could rest before the bustle of the gig. I’d been to the same place a year prior, when I was still learning that it’s okay to go into churches on days that are not Sunday. I was still figuring out this whole “Catholic” thing, often forgetting that I wasn’t a foreigner, and that these holy places were now a type of home for me.
The Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is a small chapel. In the few times I’ve been there, it’s sparsely occupied. You can hardly believe it’s in the midst of a bustling city, because you can hardly hear the traffic once inside. There’s music as you enter the space, and a place to rest, and the presence of God.
St. Elizabeth lived next door to the building for a few years before moving to Italy. It’s had several iterations since then, but ultimately found a home as a shrine to the first American-born saint. It’s a cozy chapel. I still remember stumbling upon it a year ago, amazed by the peace I felt when stepping through the doors. Now, as I sat in the same pew a year later, I remembered that first visit: It was pouring. The rain had lashed against the door outside, and the few people inside glanced at one another. Glad I’m not out there, we all seemed to say, as we waited out the storm.
I remember the sound of the rain more than the music. I remember standing by an intricately-designed window, barely able to see outside due to the decorated glass and pounding rain. I’ve always liked rainstorms, and that corner by St. Elizabeth’s statue seemed a fine place to witness it.
There was no such rain this time. In fact, it was the perfect evening for the event to come, where people would socialize on the patio with drinks and listen to my flute as they looked out on the water. But I still looked forward to a break at the shrine. It was some mid-week time to calm my mind and organize all the things that had happened that week. I was still sick, too, and I like to think it cleared my sinuses as well.
I don’t often find myself in that area of Manhattan. In fact, I seem to only be there once a year, for this same event. But I’m adding St. Elizabeth’s shrine to that annual ritual. A calm in the storm, so to speak. And maybe literally, too.
Planning for Mass while traveling is tricky business. Where’s the nearest church? Will I have a rental car? Can I even get there, with my flight schedule? As I was figuring out my Sunday plans while visiting a friend this weekend, she turned to me and said, “Or, you can go to the minor basilica downtown.”
Wikipedia tells me the church was built in 1905, and was elevated to a minor basilica in 1993. It’s on the national register of historic places and is the only basilica in western North Carolina.
I arrived super-early, since I was in a rental car (bigger than my standard Corolla) and unsure about downtown parking. But I was so early that I got a space in the small lot behind the basilica. I’d planned to play tourist in my free time, walking around to check out all the details I missed on my first visit there (in my pre-Catholic days). Instead, I took a seat. I was in the midst of a long weekend surrounded by friends, who I adore, but needed some down time. I took out my St. Francis de Sales book to do some reading.
I wasn’t alone in my early arrival, and soon understood why—a half-hour before Mass began, the prayers of the rosary echoed in the nave. I tucked a bookmark into my book, dug through my purse, and pulled out my rosary beads.
We’re often rushing around to get to church. People sneak in the back during the procession, or walk in during the readings. I try to arrive early, but it doesn’t always happen. But that quiet before Mass… it’s nice. As I prayed with those around me, I understood that that is what Sunday is for. Not for speeding down the highway desperately trying to be on time. Not for reluctantly pulling yourself out of bed. Mass is an invitation from God to be with Him. It should be respected as such.
There was a good ten minutes of quiet after the rosary, before Mass began. I tried to go back to my book, but I couldn’t. It wasn’t the time for reading; it was the time for quiet, and to listen to God. During Mass, the pews were packed. I didn’t think there could be so many people in those first several rows. This wasn’t just a “thing to do” on a Sunday morning. It was a preparation for the day to come. It was starting the week off right.