Saturday, September 28, 2013

Day 139 - Holy Hill

I have never been to Holy Hill. This massive complex and basilica nestled in the hills of Southeastern Wisconsin has served as a center of faith and healing for Christians over the past 150 years. The structure's beauty, grandeur, and storied past actually resulted in the church being classified as a national historical place several decades ago. Given the location's reputation, famed architecture, and deep religious roots, I have always wanted to make a trip to Holy Hill, but I have never acted on that desire up to this point in my life. Given the underlying theme of my "I have never..." idea and my ongoing effort to gain new religious experiences throughout yearlong journey, I knew making a trip to Holy Hill was in order.

Fortunately, our annual plans to attend Octoberfest in Germantown this weekend put us a short distance away from the basilica, which provided the perfect opportunity to make my first trip to the religious site. As a result, Rachael and I followed through on my intentions to visit Holy Hill after enjoying some music, beer, and some wiener dog race (yes, that's a thing) victories from our dogs Buddy and Baxter this afternoon (thanks for watching them, Dan). Accompanied by Rachael's Sister in-law, Audra, Rachael's mother, Linda, and Linda's significant other, Neil, we traveled the short distance to the structure this evening, and I prepared for yet another memorable experience in my journey.

Traveling down backroads rolling through small towns and stretches of forest, Audra, Rachael, and I kept our eyes peeled for the first sight of the basilica with the crown of each new hill. Shortly after we left the Octoberfest grounds, Rachael indicated we would be approaching the complex in a matter of minutes given its close proximity to the Octoberfest grounds. Within moments of the words escaping her mouth, Rachael lifted her hand toward the horizon in front of us and continued, "There it is," she said in a matter of fact tone. In response, I pulled my eyes from the road and craned my neck forward to take in more of the countryside view. At first failing to find the site, my eyes eventually caught a glimpse of two massive towers reaching through the canopy of a distant forest. Although the structure was still several miles away, its appearance among the shifting colors of the autumn trees made the size and scope of the basilica apparent. "Wow, that is big," I said in response to the distant sight of the building. The obvious remark was met with silence from Rachael and Audra, who both adjusted their position to track the basilica as we passed through continued stretches of forest.

The view from the foot of the hill

Eventually, our path brought us to the foot of Holy Hill, which offered a awesome view of the basilica resting at the tallest peak for miles around us. The sight was powerful enough to bring our pace to a crawl and to swing our heads around as we drove toward the entrance to the property. I felt my excitement for the new experience building as we came to an asphalt road obviously leading up the hill upon which the structure was positioned. Following the direction of wooden signs lining the road, I turned the car onto the road, which led into a densely wooded area spotted with patches of yellow, orange, and red among the green backdrop. As we wound through the woods it was clear we were climbing an incline of some significance, which eventually led us to a series of parking lots nestled into the few flat areas we encountered in our ascension. Then, with one final turn up the steepest part of the road our eyes met the sight of the Basilica of the National Shire of Mary towering over us. While I knew the building would be large, the first sight of the building's height was something that caught me off guard. The structure was massive, and undeniably beautiful.

Upon arriving at the basilica we met up with Linda and Neil before beginning the climb up one of the building's two towers. As we made our way up the tower's narrow stairway, the structure revealed massive open arches and circles tucked into the tower's walls, leaving no barrier between the open air and the interior of the tower. Through the open spaces the elements made their presence known as we continued climbing toward the tower's peak. With each step we took, the wind whipped at our feet, whistling over the edges of the building and pouring into the brick chamber. In the distance, the breathy sound of rustling leaves could be heard emerging from the forest below. It was the only sound that accompanied the shuffling of our feet against the steps before us as we moved up the last stretch of stairs. Our effort inevitably led us to the top of the basilica's tower, which offered panoramic views of the sprawling terrain surrounding us hundreds of feet below.

The view from a tower window

After spending some time looking from the basilica tower, the cool air and fading sunlight made us decide it was time to find our way back to the ground. After making short work of the climb down the tower, we took a few minutes to take in the structure's lower chapel before finding our way back to the front of the building. After a brief conversation, we decided we would take a quick stop in the basilica's cathedral before beginning the trip back home. As we entered the building, it quickly became obvious the church was holding Saturday evening mass. Although a bit hesitant at first, we decided to enter the service when presented the opportunity, which ended up being one of the best decisions of the day. I was stunned when we walked into what is easily one of the most beautiful cathedral's I have encountered in my life. The interior of the building was lined with beautifully crafted walls constructed of varying types of stone. Elaborate stained glass windows gave way to a sweeping arched ceiling ringed with portraits, symbols, and gold borders. As we walked to find a place to sit, I couldn't take my eyes off of the intricate details composing the building's interior. Adding to the experience, the singing voices of the people softly filled the space and the smell of incense hung in the air surrounding us. The experience can only be described as powerful and breathtaking. At least, those words are the best I can think of to try to describe the way I felt in that moment.

We stayed for a significant portion of the church service before finding our way back out of the cathedral and preparing to wrap up our evening at Holy Hill. As the evening drew to a close and Rachael, Buddy, Baxter, and I began making the trip home, I looked back on my first experience at Holy Hill. In the brief time I had at the basilica, it was clear why so many people view it as a place of particular significance. Every aspect of the building radiated warmth and beauty, and the wonder created by the experiences in the basilica made it easy to feel a spiritual connection to the location. There are few moments and few places that can create feelings powerful enough to strike that deep, and I know enough to hold something when it is capable of creating such a feeling. Although it took me 30 years to make my first trip to Holy Hill, it is safe to say I will visit the basilica again when I find myself in the area. It is simply a special place, and that definitely makes it worth revisiting plenty in the future.

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