Walking on Holy Ground

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There are many holy places on this earth. Jews, Christians and Muslims revere the Holy Temple Mount in Jerusalem as a significant place. The entire Middle East holds historical and spiritual importance to many people.

Even in my own country, my ancestors established holy places. To the east of where I grew up is an area that we refer to as "The Holy Lands." The area is scattered with shrines and churches that hold significance for the local people.

One particular pilgrimage church is called "Vierzehnheiligen" in honor of the fourteen saints: Christopher, Vitus, Giles, Pantaleon, Denis, Margaret, Barbara, Catherine, Erasmus, Achatius, Blaise, Eustace, Cyriacus, George. The fourteen saints have been revered since about the Ninth Century. Most of these saints date back to the beginning of Christendom and some of them were martyrs of the Roman prosecution. Their origin is so rooted in the beginning of Christianity that the reverence of these fourteen saints reached a flourishing peak during the Middle Ages and became the main sources for intercession during the deadly plague and the Thirty Year War.

The legend that started this pilgrimage church says that in 1446 a shepherd boy from the local convent saw a young child crying in the meadows on his way back home. The child disappeared the moment the shepherd tried to pick him up. A few days later the child reappeared with two candles on each side.

A year later the child reappeared with a red cross on his chest and fourteen smaller children. The young child told the shepherd that these are the fourteen helpers and they would like to be honored by resting in a chapel. If he could be of help to them, then they would certainly serve him. Days later he and a passing woman saw two burning candles being lowered on that spot. Miraculously a woman was healed after intercession to the helpers. So a small chapel was erected by the local convent in honor of the fourteen saints.

Balthasar Neumann built a beautiful basilica in its place during the mid 18th Century which has become a pilgrimage spot for many people throughout the land. Many attribute their healing and miracles to the intercession of the fourteen saints.

My father who took us there on many Sunday afternoons. The trip was always very scenic. The land stretches out with rolling hills and fields passing through villages and small towns.

Entering a church is still a very sacred experience. We stopped talking, or at least lowered our voices to a whisper upon entering. A pin could fall and it would echo throughout the church. When my dad walked around with us, we would light a candle in front of the Blessed Virgin. Although I really did not understand at that time who these saints were and what they did, I kept looking at their life-like images and winced when I saw an arrow stuck in someone’s chest.

The sandstone floor sounded hollow under my dad’s Sunday shoes as we walked through the main part of the church. He often walked ahead of us; his hands folded behind his back as he looked around and pointed out some interesting sights he remembered. My brother and I, and sometimes my little sister, would kind of lag behind him, staring at relics and ornaments, while I tried to make my brother trip.

Churches still have that mysterious hush. The smell of the candles and incense mingling with scent of aged wood and stone just accentuated the atmosphere of the place. The stories and legends of people and history seem to be captured in the frozen images of the statues. It speaks of man’s desire to return to divine immortality and to give him a place of rest from earthly life.

At the time, I was too young to really be philosophical about it. But I did sense the holiness of such a place. My father also took us to another pilgrimage church located in the Franconian Holy Lands called Goessweinstein. There was a room set off by itself that was filled with handwritten notes of praises and thanks. For centuries people have put their stories of miracles in writing and these are showcased in this room, along with items that represent the testimony of their healing. Sometimes people suffered so much that their only hope was turning to someone other than man for intercession, since human leaders are generally much more self-serving.

The evidence was right in front of my eyes. Fireman and miners, women and children, sick and bed-ridden people…they all found relief, safety and healing in their daily request for intercession. The last time I saw this room I was in my twenties. As I read the notes with a different mindset than I had ten years earlier, it dawned on me that the lives of real people filled this room. Their presence was reflected in their written testimonies.

A pilgrimage takes place once a year. Even my grandparents’ parish community walked to a nearby pilgrimage church. The procession starts early in the morning. With flags and singing, the congregation sets out to hike through the fields to the chapel. I once went with my grandmother on one of these pilgrimages. We said prayer requests and praises many times over as we walked up the mountain to the chapel of the Blessed Virgin. Holding onto my grandmother’s hand, I knew that the hike was not just a pleasure hike. Each person carried his or her invisible cross. There were many moments of silence when one’s thoughts could not be ignored. It was as much a personal pilgrimage as it was a collective one.

When I was a teenager I sort of laughed about the idea of building churches or shrines because of appearances of saints, Mary or Jesus. The thought was sort of absurd. Now I understand that these places often represent a last refuge of hope for many people. It becomes a visible destination for a personal pilgrimage that can change a heart of stone into a heart of flesh. Pain and suffering seem to be the main catalyst that drives man back to his spiritual roots.

I experienced my own personal pilgrimage when I went back to visit my grandparent’s farm a few years ago. I had lived there for several years during my childhood. My life there with my family and grandparents has impacted me greatly. That humble existence fed my imagination and left me with strong memories of well-being that connect to a different rhythm of life. It was a simple life that very soon only storybooks will tell about. I consider myself blessed now to have lived that way. It served a purpose in my life.

The property now belongs to my uncle. The old farmhouse, which was built in 1745, has been rented out to a bachelor who takes care of it pretty well. I hadn’t been inside of it since I came to America in 1980. As it is with most farms in Europe, the property is walled off in the front with sandstone walls, wooden gates to open for vehicles, and an entrance door. Behind it are the barns, sheds and home of the farmer.

My uncle has made several repairs, but overall it still looks the same as it did over 30 years ago. He still uses the wine cellar and stores all of his equipment in the shed. One summer afternoon everyone in my family was invited to come out for the wine bottle fill-up. I couldn’t wait to take my kids out there. My brothers and sister and their families came with us. We were a total of 22 people heading back into a past that all of us remember so well.

I had been in the village many times to visit relatives and friends, but had not set foot behind those gates for over twenty years. I felt quite anxious inside and wondered how I would respond. This entire place has a deep meaning in my life. As soon as I walked through the gate I found myself in the small cobble-stone drive way leading up to the barn ahead. The rocks probably had lain there for centuries. I felt a pang in my heart. It was like coming home to a seven-year-old’s memory.

To my left was my grandmother’s garden in which I played and looked for Easter nests. On my right was the house with the back porch. It still looked the same. Even the stairs up to the porch have not changed. I felt another pang inside. I wasn’t expecting this emotional uproar inside me and hoped I could stay composed and not make a fool of myself in front of my kids.

My uncle and his family were already there filling up bottles with his wine. The scene reminded me of the days when my grandfather was out there tinkering. He helped wash the bottles and lovingly stored them, one at a time, in the old cellar deep down under the earth. The cellar itself dates back to the 16th century and was used by the local landlord to store the taxes of the serfs.

My younger sister and I explored the place on our own first. She and I sort of had the same nostalgic attachment to it. I walked back to the wood shed where I used to set up my tents and used my grandfather’s feed, pretending to cook. I once wanted to camp out in a teepee that I made. My grandmother had to lay down with me so I could go to sleep. I truly wanted to sleep outside in that tent. Eventually my grandmother decided she had enough of lying on the uncomfortable ground and told me that the weather report announced thunderstorms for the night. I was in my own bed in no time.

The same smell still lingered around. It was the smell of sawdust and wood. Some old tools still hung along the side that my grandfather used. His simple wooden tool box was still there. Further back was a yard that had apple trees and the chicken coop. Even there nothing changed. It just seemed to be smaller now. I have grown up since then, but objects just appear to be enormous to a child.

We walked up to the feed shed. The sound of pushing back the old bolt was still the same. We opened the door and walked into the place where my grandfather kept the feed for his pigs, shredded his beets and prepared the food for his animals. As soon as I smelled it, tears rolled down my face. I finally allowed myself to remember my care-free days. I felt their loss. I grabbed my sister’s hand holding on tightly.

I think we both knew our grandfather’s spirit was still there. He spent every morning and every evening there. I loved watching him prepare the food. All the weird things he put in the slop. Boiled potatoes, beets, grass, egg shells and feed. Then we both would carry it across the yard to the pig barn.

I often sat in front of the pig barn watching the pigs eat. They were really interesting to watch. Never did they dig into their food unless they sniffed out what my grandfather first served. It sort of always amazed me that pigs were such snobs.

We stood there a while. Each of us lost in our own memories. Half way up the room was the wooden floor that kept the shredder. He would shred sunflowers and corn stalks. Strange that objects can bring back so many memories. But I felt my grandfather right there in this room. My sister was overwhelmed, too. We just sort of looked at each other as we wiped our wet faces dry.

As we stepped back outside, we walked through the barn and the wine cellar. We barely touched things, not wanting to disturb what we both felt so deeply. It felt like walking through a church, just as we did with our dad many years before. We looked at the objects and buildings. They evoked personal memories and brought us back to another time and place.

This time we understood the meaning of them. The stories behind these objects are personal. They connect us to people we both loved dearly. The stories behind this place are not legends yet. But they are real to each one of us — to our generation.

Part of our lives were spent on this property. My parents raised their five children in this place. We always were in the embrace of our family. We experienced that old and young can live together. My grandparents always enjoyed us coming back. They gave us a sense that we belonged there. They passed on more than just a house and place.

In a way it did feel like I was walking on holy ground. It was not a shrine or a church. It was part of my life that I walked on. A life that without my grandparents, and my brothers and sister, and my mom and dad would not make this place so important to me.

Places become holy because of their significance to the people who experience life and relationships there. I came back to this place after I went through a major change in my own life — a divorce. Coming back to my past was healing. I came back to the strength that only family can provide. I came back to memories that hold a strong bond to my well-being.

I do not own the property of my ancestors. I know it is taken care of and its physical presence will undergo renovation and repairs over time. I won’t wage war over its right to exist under my rule. That would be a pointless effort, destroying the serenity it brings to all of us.

The relationship that I have with this place has already created a holy ground within me. I honor the love and the care that it has provided for me in my younger years. I now live in a new place with my own family. It is my desire to make my own home a holy place for my children. It is in the decent actions and pure hearts of people that a ground becomes holy. It furthers the betterment of new life and can change hardened hearts into a giving spirit.

If a society can learn to understand the significance of holy ground, mankind could walk this earth with less fear of conflict. They would have the wisdom to know that holiness is spiritual and the land gets blessed by how well a man will expresses his heart to his fellow man. Holy ground cannot be conquered. It has to be honored continually so that it will grow in blessedness.

I walked on holy ground the day I set foot into my past again. I respected the testimonies of each memory that an object brought forth. I did not worship the object, but I honored the spiritual significance that came from my personal fountain of life’s memories. It was my personal pilgrimage home. Many prayers were answered that day.

I knew that day that I can bring this back to my new country. Amazingly, the property I left behind gave me new pastures; a new land. It can neither be taxed nor can it be taken away by any man on earth. Its value is as strong as gold. It has purchase power that will last past a life-time. It is a living testimony that small miracles can happen by walking on holy ground.

Sabine Barnhart [send her mail] moved to the US in 1980 and lives in Fort Worth, TX with her three children. For the past 15 years she has been working for an international service company.

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