I was thinking about wayside shrines the other day. You know, those small shrines or religious markers that dot the roadsides—especially throughout Europe. I saw some while I was visiting the Czech Republic with my parents and sister in 1995. Some of the shrines consisted of a simple crucifix within a box-like structure to help shield it from bad weather. Others were small chapels big enough for a few people to step inside and say a little prayer before continuing on their way. Some shrines were dedicated to Mary or to some other saint. St. John Nepomucene was by far the most popular in Bohemia. Most of the shrines were very old. And here was the surprising part: Some were adorned with fresh flowers. These little off-the-beaten-track shrines had fresh flowers. That means someone had put them there recently.
The flowers surprised me. Why? Because during the Communist occupation of Czechoslovakia (1948-1989), the Russians worked hard to stamp out religion. And, to a large extent, they succeeded–or so it seemed. They closed seminaries and many churches. When we attended Sunday Mass in one town in ’95, the presider was not a Czech priest. They were rare. Our priest was from Poland. The congregation consisted mostly of elderly people—predominantly women. And yet those wayside shrines had somehow managed to survive the Soviet crack-down on religion, and today anonymous believers still continue to adorn them with flowers.
(Footnote: Throughout the country, we saw many huge, garish monuments that the Russians erected to commemorate their “liberation” of Czechoslovakia in 1948. I saw no fresh flowers on those “shrines.” But our relatives took us to a small monument in honor of the American troops who liberated parts of the Czech Republic in the final days of the war in 1945. My father’s cousin, who was a teenager at that time, said, “We still remember with great respect and gratitude the American soldiers who really liberated us from the Germans.” And sure enough, in front of this “shrine,” there were several large bouquets of fresh flowers.)
We don’t have many wayside shrines in the United States today. Our belief in the separation of Church and State probably prevents people from putting up crosses or statues of saints along the expressway or roadside. Yet, I have seen many make-shift shrines along our roads and highways usually put there to mark the spot where someone’s loved one was killed in a car accident. I suspect such “shrines” are tolerated by the “authorities” for a certain amount of time before they are gently removed. I don’t know about you, but I always say a prayer for the deceased person(s) and their loved ones as I drive by one of these shrines.
Wayside shrines serve several important purposes. Making pilgrimages to holy places was a popular religious practice during the Middle Ages and later. Sometimes these wayside shrines told pilgrims they were on the right road. The shrines also provided a place for wayfarers to stop and rest and to offer a little prayer to Jesus or to the saint who was being honored. But for me, wayside shrines are symbols of several important truths. First, life is a journey. We are all on the road. And we are all on our way “home.” These wayside shrines also tell us that we can encounter Divinity wherever we may be on our journey—in large cities, in small towns, in the rural countryside, or in the proverbial “middle of nowhere.” And God walks with us whether we are just starting out, or we’re somewhere in the middle of our journey, or we’re nearing our final destination. And finally wayside shrines remind us that every step along our life’s journey matters. Every step is holy.
Have you had any experience with wayside shrines–or with any shrines? I welcome you to share that experience with us.
Does the image of “life as a journey” speak to you in any way? If so, how?
When are you most aware of the fact that every step of your life is holy?
PS: Thank you for your prayers for last week’s retreat at the St. Cyril and Methodius Sisters’ beautiful place in Danville, PA. I also want to thank Sister Jean for inviting me to lead this retreat and for taking care that the retreat ran smoothly. And thanks to Chris, their “IT Guy,” who orchestrated all the technology for the week–no small task! And finally, a BIG thank you for all who participated in the retreat. It was a privilege for me to walk with you throughout the week!
Our video is “Every Mile Mattered” by Nichole Nordeman. For me, the most intriguing line is: “Mercy always finds a way to wrap your blisters up in grace…” I hope you enjoy this.
I welcome you to share a response to this reflection, the pictures, or the video! I love hearing from you!