This article was originally published in The Catholic News Herald of the diocese of Charlotte.
Last year, I was blessed to go on a pilgrimage that took me to Munich and the Bavarian forests. We also visited sites in Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, but it was in Bavaria that I felt a sense of coming home; my great-great-grandparents met on the ship coming over to America from different parts of Bavaria, both of them striking out on their own with hopes of miracles and the promises of the New World.
Walking the streets of Munich, I was aware that my great-great-grandmother had most likely walked those very same streets at one time or another, perhaps visited and attended Mass at those very same churches. It’s a strange emotion to have such a feeling of familiarity in a place that you have never been before.
However, it was in the small town of Altötting in the midst of that country, quiet and fog-shrouded on the day of our visit, where I felt the strong power of God’s grace touch my heart and affect me so strongly that I was moved to tears. The shrine there has been a place of pilgrimage for the past 500 years, ever since a drowned boy was brought back to life when his mother placed him in front of an image of Our Lady. However, I had not heard of the shrine before seeing it on the itinerary for our trip, I did not go with any particular prayer or need of my own, and I was not expecting more than from any of the other sites we would be visiting while abroad. Yet I felt God’s grace as an overwhelming presence, and it was perhaps all the sweeter for being unexpected.
The town of Altötting dates as far back as the 8th century, and was the capital of Bavaria for a time. The original church and monastery were founded by the grandson of King Charlemagne. Even before the Christians came, the site was considered to be a spiritual place by the Celts, and that sacredness is still felt strongly when you visit there.
The shrine itself is known as the Chapel of Grace, and stands in a large square in the center of town. Wrapping around the small building of the main chapel there is a broad covered walkway, and on every inch of the walls and ceiling are images that pilgrims have sent back in thanksgiving after having their prayers and petitions answered. Miraculous healings, babies conceived, peace granted in difficult times. Old crutches, prosthetic limbs, and countless rosaries can also be found there as physical testimonies to God’s mercy working in the world.
Before leaving for the pilgrimage, I had collected a great many written prayers to take with me from members of my parish and other friends and family, and it was into the cracks and crevices of the walls outside the chapel that I placed these slips of paper, entrusting them to Our Lady. Nearly a year later, I know of at least a few of those prayers that have been answered.
The concept of miracles is perhaps not something that our modern minds hold on to readily. Even though we might pray for the miraculous, we may still try to rationalize or explain away why those requests may or may not happen. To see such willful rationalizing, one has only to look up statements by those who try to explain away the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima as a mass hallucination or the ill effect of staring directly at the sun for too long. But whether miracles can be explained “scientifically” is often beside the point, for God is the one who made nature in the first place and is certainly capable of working within it. Love can also be explained, to a certain degree, by science as merely the release of hormones in the body, but that doesn’t change the life-altering effect of that feeling. It’s the grace that imbues such events and feelings that give them their power.
As part of our trip, we visited magnificent palaces, grand cities such as Vienna and Budapest, glorious churches that practically dripped gold in the Baroque style, yet none of these grand sites affected my fellow pilgrims and me as much as that small chapel in the heart of Bavaria.
When we celebrated the sacred liturgy inside of the chapel, where there was barely room to accommodate our group of 17, unexplainable tears flowed from me all during the readings and homily. As I received the Body of Our Lord in the Eucharist, I have rarely been so aware of His Presence, of the gift that He gives us over and over, unworthy as we are. I don’t believe that any psychologist could satisfactorily explain why my emotions were so overwhelmed in that place, because it wasn’t my emotions or thoughts that overwhelmed me – it was the feeling of God’s grace, present in this world. His Presence and that grace is an everyday miracle that we take for granted far too often.
For me, the most powerful emotions are those that I can’t explain; it’s an indication that they came from outside myself. Just as I felt a sense of homecoming as I walked the streets of Munich or looked out on the Bavarian woods, when I first discovered my faith and came to the Catholic Church there was a sense of familiarity and “rightness” that I couldn’t explain. It wasn’t something that I was actively seeking out; it was God calling me home.
In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”
May our faith and lives always contain the mysterious and unexplainable, as well as those moments of grace that remind us of what is truly valuable.