December is a month for reflection, even during an ordinary year, but I think 2012 nudges us more than most. The massacre of innocents in Connecticut hits the heart hundreds of miles away, regardless of our ethnicity, politics, education or income bracket.
Add the stress of family dynamics during the holidays, and the uncertainty that accompanies the beginning of a new year. Although 2013 is an opportunity to start fresh, not everybody sees it that way.
Some of us will find answers, peace, connection or solace in whatever we define as holy – that which is morally and spiritually exceptional. Maybe this means “church,” but think beyond a definition of four walls and a steeple.
Inside Kickapoo Indian Caverns, two miles west of Wauzeka in Crawford County, is a glistening and 60-foot-tall chamber of onyx, called the Cathedral Room. The beautiful grotto used to host weddings, but not anymore. It remains open for tours, late May to October. kickapooindiancaverns.com, 608-875-7723
Inside Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, near Lakewood in Oconto County, is an 1,874-acre grove of old-growth hemlock and pine trees known as Cathedral Pines State Natural Area. The virgin timbers tower up to 100 feet, and many decades of dropped needles cushion the Earth’s floor. dnr.wi.gov
Winter is not the time to venture into either natural treasure, but these five man-made beauties welcome the pilgrim, the seeker, the thoughtful and the weary-hearted all year. Your own walk of faith, or lack of it, need not match the denominations that make these tranquil spaces possible. Good will and mutual respect are what matter most.
St. Anthony Spirituality Center, 300 E. Fourth St., Marathon: Along the Rib River, west of Wausau, is a 45-acre wooded area that in 1919 became home to Capuchin Franciscan friars and men studying to become priests.
Now the property is an ecumenical retreat center with quiet paths to roam and simple accommodations in a big and beautiful, red brick building that provides overnight retreats, private or guided (and emphasizing Christian principles).
Silent retreat weekends are Jan. 18-20 and Jan. 25-27. The annual New Year’s Eve retreat begins at 7 p.m. Dec. 31 and ends at 2 p.m. the next day. Prayer shawl knitting or crocheting accompany the “From Contemplation to Consolation” retreat on Feb. 15-16.
St. Josaphat’s, 2333 S. Sixth St., Milwaukee: Wisconsin’s first Catholic basilica is a magnificent Polish cathedral built in 1901 in a Renaissance style whose opulence includes stained glass windows from Austria and several murals, including one above and behind the altar.
The church dome, bigger than the Taj Mahal, is among of the world’s largest that is made of copper. Some of the other building materials – including six granite columns, wooden doors and bronze railings – were salvaged from the dismantled Chicago Custom House and a U.S. Post Office.
The basilica is open to visitors from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays, and guided tours happen after the 10 a.m. Mass on Sundays.
Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, 4047 Chapel Dr., New Franken: This rural Brown County church officially became a point of global pilgrimage two years ago, after the Vatican agreed it was the site of Virgin Mary apparitions. It is the first U.S. location to gain this level of distinction.
A Belgian immigrant reported the sightings three times in 1859. Twelve years later, a fire destroyed the surrounding area, but not the chapel, its school or convent.
The shrine’s location is rural and unremarkable, between two farms in the town of Champion, but a collection of canes and crutches that are kept behind glass in the shrine’s crypt suggest miracle healings.
Walk the grounds, light a prayer candle or linger in the chapel from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The site is open every day and Mass happens at least once daily.
Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, 5250 Justin Road, La Crosse: Open since 2008 on 70 acres is a Catholic shrine with a paved walking trail that heads uphill to a chapel and church that overlook coulee country hills and valleys.
Inside the limestone Votive Candle Chapel, at least 550 cobalt blue candleholders are arranged as an indoor pyramid, surrounded by stained glass windows.
At the hilltop is the much-larger Shrine Church, open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Mass is conducted at least once daily. Tours begin at 2:30 p.m. Sundays and 1:30 p.m. on other days.
Also on the grounds is Culina Mariana (Mary’s Kitchen), a cafe open daily for breakfast and lunch. The menu includes from-scratch soups, flatbread pizzas and bakery/breads made on the premises.
Sinsinawa Mound, 585 Hwy. Z, Sinsinawa: Southeast of Platteville, off Highway 11, are 450 acres of orchards to vineyards that are operated by Dominican women who encourage self-evaluation through spiritual reflection and study.
Walk the indoor and outdoor labyrinths, then browse the gift shop, where the “Mound Bread” and cinnamon rolls – baked on the premises – are about as heavenly as you can get.
Visitors can pay to spend the day, which includes food and a room for solitude, or arrange for a longer stay, with or without spiritual counseling. Guided retreat topics include “Kitchen Table Spirituality,” Feb. 8-10.
The 2001 book Sacred Sites of Wisconsin ($11.95, Trails Books) by John-Brian Paprock and Teresa Peneguy Paprock does a terrific job of describing about 350 Christian and other sites – chapels to effigy mounds – that touch the spirit.