I Went on a Catholic Pilgrimage for the Bourbon

Why go on a Catholic pilgrimage? My reason was these four rocks glasses, with different shades of bourbon, lined up horizontally on top of a wooden bourbon flight board.

Churchy people scare me.

I wouldn’t say that I feel insecure in my faith. I mean, I do have a quarter century behind me of church-going, homily daydreaming, and quickly-wiping-off-my-palms-before-the-Our-Father praying. So, there is that.

And I’m not deliberately running from my Catholic guilt when they comment on how profound Father’s homily was after Mass, and all I have to contribute is, “How rad is that flower arrangement today?? Switchin’ things up on us, Jesus.” [*insert finger guns at the altar to divert eye contact*]

Okay. I am avoiding an invitation to a praise-filled Christian music concert. All the plastered smiley faces and arms-raised pendulum swaying. That whole scene scares me more than nonchalant Catholic conversations about rosaries.

But I recently realized that the fact that I’m afraid of Super Catholics is probably a bigger problem than the fear itself.

So when my boss assigned me to go on a Catholic pilgrimage and write about it, I accepted the challenge.

Bourbon was promised on said pilgrimage, so that helped.

Pilgrims walk up the green covered hill toward the Abbey of Gethsemani in the distance

A pilgrimage sounds like a big deal. You go away on this quest, carrying your Bible, wearing your Jesus sandals, donning 10 WWJD bracelets…and you’re expecting to have some surreal encounter with God, right?

At least that’s what I’d cooked up before heading out on the Bourbon Trail.

Yes, you read that right. The Bourbon Freakin’ Trail. How can a sacred journey be taken among sites of such profane guzzling? you ask.

Take it from me — it’s a confusing venture.

I was seat-belt-strapped into a car with four other strangers within five minutes of meeting and, I’m relieved to report, they never uttered the word “blessed” or quoted Church teaching the entire five-hour ride to Louisville.

About an hour in, my fellow pilgrim Allison did initiate a prayer for our safe venture and God’s guidance.

But if she hadn’t, I honestly might have, as we were commuting through a massive storm. Two cars in the ditch later, I had gone quiet (not the norm, my colleagues will tell you) and was silently reciting the Hail Mary, a rather ironic habit I’d held on to from childhood when confronted with burglars, bears, or storms, oh my.

I obviously lived to tell the tale, but I won’t joke about my earnest hope that God had more than four vacancies in heaven. But, seriously.

Five hours in a confined space with my extroverted self gets real real quick — I like questions, but I was struck by my peers’ honesty.

I wasn’t grilling them about their faith — just every, single other aspect of their lives. And they shared their hopes, struggles, and journeys with me without much prodding. That kind of sheer trust in a stranger was nothing short of remarkable.

Many of them, being active in the young adult Catholic communities of South Bend, Indiana, spoke to those experiences, too, just as any other part of their daily lives.

My finger guns were ready, but I didn’t have to turn down an invitation to join in an intense hour of prayer or name my favorite saint. They didn’t turn the tables on me, and best of all, no one laughed when I asked, “What’s Theology on Tap?” (Yes, there is beer involved!)

With all of the 20 other people on this pilgrimage, I experienced the same thing: forthright honesty and raw, genuine interest in my story. Even the leader, John Paul, co-founder of Verso Ministries, was authentic.

We 21 pilgrims were Catholic, but truly human — i.e. sometimes-appendix-bursting, starting-diets-on-Mondays, guilty-of-binge-watching, beautifully-flawed Homo sapiens. And the lack of judgment for one another’s imperfections was palpable.

Please note, I am hyper-aware of never having read The Catholic Terms To Be Used Aloud in Prayer: The Guaranteed Way to Heaven Edition. And over the weekend the thought did cross my mind to store away certain words for future use — what those words were, of course, escapes me.

But again and again, my literal journey down to Louisville, Kentucky, revealed small moments of growth that I’m only now able to put to screen after some temporal distance.

No, I wasn’t converted to a bourbon lover (though Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream is the bomb, and you need to buy it right this instant, but drink it responsibly, obvi).

And yes, I was confined to a Christian-music-playing car for a solid 45 minutes (talk about sweaty palms and fully flexed jaw muscles). “Open the eyes of my heart,” and please, Jesus, sew my ear holes shut.

But I was also introduced to peaceful silence.

Between observing (and my peer pilgrims praying) the Liturgy of the Hours with the monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani, visiting the hermitage of Thomas Merton, and finishing every sample of bourbon available, I also experienced the available space for discernment.

That space wasn’t demanding. It was merely available. And that availability, like that of my peers’ honesty, was enough.

A water glass sits on a wooden picnic table populated with pilgrims under the shade of two white and black striped umbrellas.

Comfort zones are a funny thing. I’d never talked to a monk — because, what? They’re allowed to talk?

And this pilgrimage in itself was a big ole leap out of my casual Catholic identity. The sign of the cross — I can do that in my sleep. Sharing my intentions? Nah, I’m good.

But here comes the cliché (because, every cliché is 96% true, and 99% of people make up their own statistics): it was the place between those spaces where I grew.

The time between Christian songs when the pilgrims paused Pandora to share a story, or the voicing of realizations that we’d each made some assumptions — those moments were so small and probably insignificant to everyone else. But they meant something to me.

For me, the journey from distillery to holy place and back again was less about finding something remarkable as it was about listening to my tap-shoe-dancing, still-learning inner voice.

That self has been on a roller coaster the past 25 years, and I got to check back in with her — taking full account of the motion sickness and barf bags, as well as the laughs, screams, and free-fall butterflies. And my suspicions were correct in that she still has a lot of healing and growing to do.

In preparation for this pilgrimage, we were prompted with the definition of pilgrim, or peregrinus: “Someone who places himself or herself in a new place to be transformed.”

Without having consciously taken note of it before, that was the initial draw for me.

And I’m by no means “There,” nor do I have intentions of eventually transforming into a reg in Christian concert mosh pits.

But Superhero Catholic Cathy isn’t There either. And that’s okay.

You can find great reward by pushing those comfort zone limits, people. Especially in exploring your faith.

Just make sure to check in with your quirky self every now and then, in all its finger-guns glory.

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