Wayside Shrines: Every Step Matters
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!
Good early morning, Sr. Melannie…
In July of 2016, I got the chance to fulfill a spiritual urging: I walked a portion of El Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain. Let me stress the word “portion” because the whole Camino is about 500 miles and takes at least a month of walking. My portion was about 124 miles, and I, along with my nephew, walked it in seven days, our end point being the massive and beautiful Cathedral of Saint James. Along the way, we encountered numerous shrines and small chapels. We did not stop for all of them, but when we did — usually the chapels — we found them to be an oasis of cooling peace. We met people from all over the world during our walk. One woman from South Korea was walking it (all of it) for the third time. To echo the title of your blog, Sr. Melannie, she told us that every step she took was a prayer! Till this day, I consider my Camino walk to be one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life. A shrine unto itself!
Dear John, What an spiritual experience your pilgrimage along El Camino must have been for you! What a grace! A good movie about Camino is “The Way,” made in 2010 and stars Martin Sheen. It’s directed by his real son, Emilio Estevez. (Martin Sheen changed his last name as a young actor because he thought a Hispanic family name would not get him many acting jobs. His other son, Charlie, kept Sheen. And yes, Sheen chose the name in honor of Bishop Sheen of TV fame…) “The Way” tells the story of a father at odds with his son who is killed while walking el Camino. His father, carrying his son’s ashes, decides to go there–trying to get to know his son better. It’s a good movie–and available on Youtube. Thanks, John, for sharing your experience with us! Sr. Melannie
I walked the last 100 miles. I agree. It certainly was a profound experience meeting others from all over the world. I have never felt more connected. Happy feast of St James. Yesterday was his day. 🕊🌷🕊
My home is Kewaunee County, WI. We have many way side shrines beautifully maintained in our Belgian heritage community. Information can be obtained from the Belgian Heritage Society in Wisconsin. I am of Czech descent and at the end of our road in a wooded area, is a crucifix, with hostas growing at the base. My son and a local resident maintain this crucifix. The Czech’s had these in several directions from the church and had prayful processions to them.
This past weekend, I hosted 4 girls from Bishop Watterson HS class of ‘76, Columbus, OH in my home here in Texas. Life is indeed a journey. We are in our 60’s, yet laughed as though we were still in Sr. Michaelene’s 3rd grade class at Our Lady of Peace! Our life journeys have taken different paths, yet we have this incredible bond that we will forever have! Just sharing my joy! Would love to share a pic but don’t know how. Blessings to all!
Good morning, Sister and all. I love the shrines along the journey images. I am a spiritual director and have found many such shrines in the hearts and souls of those whose journey I have been privileged and blessed to witness and walk with. Blessings to all! Enjoy this day!
I also love the shrines and like John experienced many of them doing the Camino. But your words moved me to actually want to be a shrine for others …a place where they experience the Lord as they rest and refresh. Thank you for this inspiration!
Hello Sister Melanie,
Thanks for your blog, I enjoy them all, but don’t comment often.
I have been on a tour hosted by the Belgian Heritage Society in Kewaunee County WI. There as a great number of shrines there, both small box-like structures as well as small chapels. Further up in Door County the is the Shrine to Our Lady of Good Help. It is well worth the drive to see these sites which show the spirituality of the Belgian people.
Have a blessed day everyone!
Many years ago, I was a young mother living in the Indianapolis, Indiana area. Every couple of years our parish sponsored a pilgrimage to Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Illinois but I was never able to go. Three or four years ago, while my husband and I were visiting my sister, Ruth, we took a trip to Branson, MO. On our drive there, I noticed a small sign with a directional arrow that read, Our Lady of the Snows. I told my sister that I really needed to visit that shrine. On the way home, we stopped and spent an entire afternoon touring the chapel and taking a diving tour around the grounds to visit the various shrines along the route. We stopped and prayed at each. I particularly remember the shrines to Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Guadeloupe. It was a prayerful experience made even more so by my long ago yearning to visit. I will definitely circle Illinois on my map.
Dear Sr. Melannie,
On a trip to Germany I was intrigued by the wayside shrines and those located in vineyards. I took note that while the grand altar pieces in churches spanned the life of Christ from his Annunciation to his Resurrection, the shrines typically depicted Christ Crucified. I suspect that this offered the greatest consolation to the faithful during times of sorry and oppression.
Personally, I grew up with the Shrine of Our Lady of the Highway at the old Assumption Church on Brookpark Rd. The statue of Mary holding Jesus had glass eyes which appeared to be fondly gazing directly at me. The St. Vincent DePaul Society, to which my father belonged, maintained the shrine for many years. I know that countless persons visited the shrine over the years, some as the last refuge for their weary souls: the deep faith of God’s people.
Some years ago, three students from the college at which I worked were killed in a terrible winter accident while they were on their way to make a trip to a sporting tournament. They skidded and a semi-truck hit them on the side of the car. It was awful for our college community as well as the community in which the college is located. Not long after, three crosses went up at that intersection and actually remained there for many years, with flowers being placed on them regularly. I said a prayer for the students, their families AND the truck driver every time I went by. Definitely a shrine for our time. Reminders are good.
I love the whole idea of wayside shrines. Spontaneous, “unofficial” (I intend a positive connotation) devotion made visible, tangible, concrete. There are marvellous photos I’ve seen of a wee hut in Colorado where folks leave statues, rosaries, holy cards, pictures of loved ones. And of course, the ad-hoc makeshift “shrines” at the scene of an accident speak to the instinct that we as humans have toward holy commemoration of the departed. There are corners of my apartment that I have turned into wee shrines: with holy cards in a kind of collage, or a rosary hanging from a thumbtack. Thank you so much, Sr Melannie, for this characteristically cheerful exploration of one of my favourite topics! (I might be back later to listen to Ms Nordemann’s song: I’ve heard a song by her before, I forget the title, but I remember thinking that the words spoke powerfully.)
Peace and light.
To Sister Melannie, I had the privilege of attending your retreat virtually last week. Thank you for all your positive insights and your joyful manner of presenting simple truths that impact our relationship with God.
I have had several opportunities to travel in Italy. Speaking of shrines, every town in Italy, big or small has wayside shrines. Every town has at least one shrine dedicated to Our Lady, and titled for our Lady such as “Madonna del Monte.” Some of these shrines were located on the summits of mountains. The journey to get there, which could be treacherous (no guard rails), spoke to me of our spiritual journey with its twists and turns. But by staying on the path, and ascending the mountain, one will eventually come to the summit where spiritual delights await! It’s worth the climb!
Whenever my husband and I travel to Colorado, there is a town called Trinidad, Colorado.
There is a beautiful Ave Maria Shine on the mountain right outside of town. We always stop for a visit to Our Lady, and pray for our safe travels ….. It always brings me so much peace.
You can read about it online.
I loved this song! Your song selection always speaks to the heart. Thank you.
I too have walked a portion of the El Camino. I was 83 at the time (now 86) and it was a trek and one of the hardest things I have done physically, but I am grateful to God that he gave me not only the health and ability to do the walk, but to do it with one of my sons. It was a special time. If I were younger, I would definitely do it again. The shrines along the way directing us and giving us pause to reflect were beautiful and meaningful. A reminder of pilgrims of the past.