Journeys of a Religious Misfit, Part 1: Wayside Shrines

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'Road through the Burren' photo (c) 2009, Eoin Gardiner - license:

“When I’m asked about the situation—
Of where it is I’ve been and where I’m bound—
I’ve got no home....but I’ve got a destination.”
Thad Cockrell, “A Country of My Own

My inner voice is a royal pain in the ass. 

It’s an obstreperous child impatient with questions and eager for attention. It shouts to me from the future (the next prayer, the next hour, the next blog post, the next book), thereby commanding my present like a spoiled little dictator with a crooked crown. 

I spent a lot of time with my inner voice during my “week of silence,” and believe it or not, I’m glad. For I think I may finally know it well enough to hear a difference between its incessant chatter and the quiet voice of Something else, Something bigger, trying to break through.

Monks in Alabama

The week began at St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama.  It was strange driving down Highway 278, past dozens of Baptist churches and farm supply stores to find an austere Benedictine monastery sitting on 180 acres of wooded land.

I stayed in a simple, comfortable room complete with a giant crucifix I could see from just about every spot.  It made me nervous to glance in the bathroom mirror and see Jesus watching me brush my teeth.  

I joined the monks for prayer four times a day—Martins & Lauds (6 a.m.), Sext (11:55 a.m.), Vespers (5:30 p.m.), and Compline (7 p.m.).  I accidentally laughed out loud when I thought about how I was “sexting with the monks.”  We ate breakfast in silence (which I think is a good enough idea to be turned into law), chatted at lunch, and then ate dinner in silence as well. In between prayers and meals, I wandered the grounds, read by the lake, meditated in my room, worked a little on the book, and prayed and lit candles in the beautiful sanctuary.  It was an introvert’s Disneyland, and a precious time of silence in which I rested and reflected. 

Yet no matter how much time I spent in contemplation and prayer, my inner voice kept interrupting,  throwing a hissy fit every time things got a little too Catholic for this Protestant’s sensitive constitution: 

“Holy water wards off evil? Sounds a little superstitious if you ask me.” 

“We’re chanting in monotone voices through a Psalm about praising God with a timbrel and dance, and I appear to be the only one who senses the irony.”  

“AHHHH!!! They’re praying to Mary! This is weird! Get me out of here!”

“Don’t they know there is absolutely no New Testament precedent for using Mary or the saints as mediators between man and God.  1 Timothy 2:5, people! 1 Timothy 2:5!”

“Wait. Do they think I’m going to purgatory?” 

During mass one afternoon I watched as a young family with three little girls went to the priest to receive the Eucharist. I was sitting it out in deference to the church’s position that only confirmed Catholics receive communion, diligently praying for the unity of the Church as I was instructed, when all of a sudden I started to cry. 

“That beautiful family has a home for their faith,” my inner voice said. “You don’t have a home for yours. You don’t fit in anywhere. You never will” 

My inner voice was right. Sure I tell the news media I’m an evangelical, but the truth is, I don’t know what I am. I’m a religious misfit. I don’t have a home

There’s a lot I love about the Catholic tradition—the connection to history, the liturgy and ritual, the time for contemplation, the sense that the “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us is very much alive and active and a part of our lives. But I’m not Catholic. I don't quite fit.

At lunch I confessed to one of the monks, Brother Brenden,  “I know it doesn’t work this way, but I wish I could take the pieces I love from each tradition—Catholic, Orthodox, Mennonite, Methodist, Evangelical, Anglican—and cobble them together into a home church.” He smiled sympathetically, but in a way that said, “Yeah,it doesn’t work that way.”  

The passage I had chosen for my lectio divina that night came from Psalm 39, where David says to God, “I dwell with you as a foreigner, a stranger, as all my ancestors were.” 

Wayside Shrines

After two nights, it was time to leave St. Bernard’s.  

At the last minute, on my way out, I decided to check out the monastery’s famous Ave Maria Grotto. Built by Brother Joseph Zoetl over a period of nearly seventy years, the grotto consists of a landscaped hillside of 125 stone and cement miniatures, ranging from a sprawling little Holy Land, to a charming Temple of the Fairies, to a Tower of Babel, to an Alamo.

Brother Joseph, who completed most of his work during the 30s, 40s, and 50s, was a master cobbler. He used glass, seashells, costume jewelry, broken plates, ceramic tiles, marbles, fishing net floats, jars, ink bottles, you name it, to embellish his creations. The result is a chichi yet charming display of sacred folk art that reminded me a lot of my own pieced-together faith.

This and that. A little here, a little there.  


At strategic intervals along the wooded path through the grotto were posts identified as “wayside shrines.” I’d never heard of wayside shrines before, so I turned to my brochure. “Typical of European and Latin American countries,” it said, “wayside shrines are located along roads and pathways, where travelers stop and offer prayers, turning heart and mind to God.” 

Where travelers stop.

 All at once I realized that, for me, St. Bernard's was a wayside shrine on my long and uncertain journey of faith. There had been many shrines before it, and there would be many shrines after it. They didn’t have to be my permanent home, but they could be safe places of rest for a time, confirmation that I was on the right path. 

No one else was at the grotto that day, so I kneeled awkwardly at one of the last wayside shrines on the path to pray.

A ceramic Jesus that Brother Joseph probably picked up from a gas station somewhere offered a goofy smile in return, as if to say, “Relax a little Rachel. Don’t be in such a hurry. You’ll get there eventually. Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” 

And for the first time in my week of silence, my inner voice grew totally quiet and a Psalm rushed over me: 

Surely I have composed and quieted my soul,
like a child rests against its mother. 
My soul is like a child within me. 

I wouldn’t find such peace in the silence until I happened upon my next wayside shrine—a Quaker meetinghouse in Knoxville. (Look for Part 2 on Wednesday!


Do you ever feel like a religious misfit, unable to settle into one faith tradition? Where are you in your journey, and what sort of “wayside shrines” have given you rest along the way?

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