Your mother is calling

Guest Commentary  by Joseph Phelps

I thought I could make the drive from Louisville to Dayton without a stop, but Mother Nature was calling.
Unfortunately, I’d chosen an exit outside Cincinnati without a gas station at the intersection. So I rode at least a mile into the old, working-class section of Covington, Ky., with one unsatisfactory stop at a convenience store, before finally finding some help.

Much relieved, as I walked back to my car I was surprised to see a beautiful cathedral across the street from where I had parked. I’ve been blessed to see many of Europe’s exquisite cathedrals. It is subjective, but none of them are more beautiful than this cathedral. Amidst boarded-up, river-town shotgun houses, the Basilica Church of the Assumption is magnificent.

Like an ant to honey, I found an open door on the side, and slipped in undetected. I was quickly swallowed up by the Gothic design, soaring ceilings, one of the largest stained glass windows in the world, marble floors that reflect like mirrors, and an echo unique to old churches.

But mostly what the Cathedral possessed was a deep sense of the sacred. Cathedrals can’t compete with nature’s effortless ability to point to something beyond itself. They are, however, human-made expressions of faith, more specific in their direction-pointing. Perhaps an atheist could walk in and remain unaffected. But even a person whose only affirmation of a “God as we understand God” is “love” or “beauty” would have to pause to say, “Glory,” or maybe just “wow.”

Alone, I wandered through the space, forgetting my appointments in Dayton. I was in another world, right there in downtown Covington.

I found a volunteer guide working at a desk near the main entrance. Madeleine was a former nun who grew up in the neighborhood. Her love for the Cathedral had not diminished over time. She continues to see the wonder in her church as easily as a first-time visitor, probably more.

She pointed to the many unique and wonderful aspects of her church, without an ounce of pride. That’s another wonderful attribute of a cathedral — they belong to the community, to the local community, but also to the larger community of God. Ultimately, cathedrals belong to God. Surely this is true of all places of worship, but a cathedral’s magnificence makes this truth indisputable.

We walked and talked about the sacred space. She told a bit of her life. She has a first cousin who did a little horse riding in Louisville — jockey Eddie Arcaro, five-time Derby winner and two-time Triple Crown winner. Not bad.

She asked why I was headed to Dayton. “To see my 86-year-old mother,” I answered, “and to try to find my nephew who is strung out on crack cocaine.”

She stood silent for a moment. “I also have a nephew who is homeless and lost. What is your nephew’s name? I’ll pray for him and ask St. Joseph, the father of Jesus, to pray for him. His feast day is coming up soon.”
I don’t know much about praying to saints or feast days, but I know a sacred moment when it comes so vividly.
“His name is Greg, and my name is Joseph,” I offered.

So the Baptist pastor and the former Catholic nun joined hands in the color-drenched aisle and prayed for our nephews.

“I’m so glad you stopped in,” she said, and I almost ruined it by admitting that Mother Nature had prompted this unexpected encounter. Fortunately, before I could open my mouth, she said, “I consider these kinds of moments to be God’s kisses on my cheek.”

Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church. Contact him at [email protected]