“OK, we’ll pick you up at the terminal in a few minutes,” Bethany told me. “Oh, and by the way, our rental car is bright pink. So you can’t miss us.”
She was right. A shiny, fuschia-colored compact car pulled up outside the barely-bigger-than-a-studio-apartment Omaha airport. Dan, Bethany’s husband, stepped out from the driver’s side and helped me put my luggage in the trunk. Our friend Megan was getting married that weekend, and Bethany and Dan and I decided to drive together.
“Sure,” I said. I’d gone with them a few years before to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and although I’m not Catholic, I enjoyed the beautiful architecture and iconography of such an awe-inspiring place of worship. I imagined wandering through a quiet stone chapel, gazing at nativity scenes painted in medieval style.
We drove through acres of corn fields and cow pastures, stopping at a gargantuan shopping mall, flanked by more corn fields, for lunch. While munching on grilled sandwiches at The Big Cheese, Bethany and Dan related the details of their visit to Omaha thus far.
“We have a friend who’s from Nebraska, and when we told him that we would be coming here, he said, ‘Why?'” Dan told me, grinning. “He told us that while we were in Omaha, we should visit a shrine to Our Lady.
“And I said, ‘Oh, does it have a statue of the Blessed Mother holding a corn cob?’
“‘Actually…it does,’ he said.”
Somehow this picture of Nebraska seemed to fit with a comment Megan had once made about a landmark in Nebraska called Carhenge. It’s a replica of Stonehenge made from old cars stood on end in the middle of a field. A major tourist attraction, apparently.
After lunch we returned to Pinky, as Dan had christened our vehicle. He had noticed some funny looks from other drivers when they saw a dude in the driver’s seat, so he claimed to us that he was championing breast cancer awareness. Bethany and I said Pinky was a little too purple-y for that.
We followed the signs on the highway pointing to the shrine. Then we reached a sign that pointed us down a gravel road. Dan hesitated. Bethany whipped out her map to make sure there wasn’t some mistake. No, this was indeed the right way.
The road took us up and down some steep hills with barely a house in sight. Just fences, grassy fields, power lines.
“Oooh, look at that cow over there!” Dan said, slowing down. “It looks really picturesque standing on that hill. Bethany, you should take a picture!”
Bethany rolled down the window and stuck her camera out to get a good shot.
A car drove up behind us, then passed us. And Dan thought he was getting funny looks before.
We continued our travels up and down the hills, keeping an eye out for the shrine. More cow pastures and corn fields, laced with highways in the distance.
At last we saw a large structure on a hill.
“What is that?” Dan wondered. “It looks like an unfinished barn.”
“I don’t think it’s unfinished…Those look like glass walls,” I said.
“Could that be the shrine?” Bethany asked.
“It’s either a really fancy barn, or a really po-dunk shrine,” I joked.
We drove closer.
“Wait, this is it!” Bethany said suddenly. “Dan, turn here.”
“See, there’s a sign,” Bethany said, pointing to a small stone plaque marking the unassuming driveway we had just passed.
“Are you sure, dear?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“I don’t think that’s–“
“Dan,” Bethany said, with quiet severity. “I’m sure this is right. Please just turn the car around.”
We got out in front of a hill with a door cut into it and went inside. It was no Gothic chapel, but it was a cool stone cave designed to look like an empty tomb carved into the landscape. Signs introduced us to the meaning embedded in each aspect of the shrine’s design. A swirling sculpture hung from the ceiling–an image of just-cast-off grave clothes.
Water dripped from the sculpture into a pool below, which then flowed out of the cave’s exit, leading us toward the barn-like chapel we had seen. Curved beams supported the roof–a picture of wheat bending in the wind, ready for harvesting and transformation into sacramental bread.
The music of trickling water filled the chapel. To enter the pews, we had to step over small openings in the stone floor that revealed the spring flowing underneath–the waters of baptism. The glass walls bore an image of the Holy Family and provided a vast view of the landscape from a tranquil island.
Heavenly Father, through the intercession of the Holy Family, help us treasure the gift of marriage that reflects the love of Christ for the Church, where the self-giving love of husband and wife unites them more perfectly and cooperates in your plan for new life created in your image.
Help us support men and women in their vocation of marriage, especially in difficult times when they join their sufferings to the Cross. Help us uphold the institution of marriage in our society as the place where love is nurtured and family life begins.
Help us acknowledge that our future depends on this love and on your providential care for us. Amen.
With the sound of flowing water in our ears and the caress of the cool chapel air on our faces, we reluctantly left our oasis and headed for the car.
“Man,” Dan lamented, shaking his head with earnest penitence. “This ought to teach me not to judge by appearances.”