5 Things I Learned from our Pilgrimage to the Holy Door

Holy Doors are massive bronze works of art located in selected cathedrals and basilicas around the world. They are only opened during Jubilee Years which typically occur once every 25 years. Not surprisingly, the traditional Holy Door is in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but on December 8, 2015, Pope Francis announced the Jubilee Year of Mercy and designated 8 Holy Doors around the world. The only one in North America is located at Notre-Dame Basilica in Quebec City. He chose the Basilica to coincide with its 350th anniversary.

Since this door is physically sealed with bricks and mortar once the Jubilee Year ends (which will be in November of this year), we thought we could make our own pilgrimage with Ben to visit Notre-Dame’s Holy Door. It would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You see, we were planning to take some much needed vacation and visit family in Ottawa. Quebec City, about a 7-hour drive, is directly on the way to Ottawa, which made this idea seemed do-able even though we had never taken a two-week road trip with Ben.

Imagining being away from home for that long, from the daily routine, from the comfort of familiar surroundings was both exciting and terrifying for me. Anything could happen, and it usually does in our world. But our journey was not only do-able but also has taught me 5 powerful lessons.


Ben is very adaptable and very capable if you just give him a chance

This was something I learned long ago. Apparently, it was something I needed to re-learn. Even though I talk a good story about him becoming the person he is meant to be, I realized I had slowly fallen into the trap of putting limits on what I thought he could do. I saw in glaring detail my stifling tendency to get way too fixated on things and micromanage too many areas of his life.

The week leading up to our trip was, in a word, awful. Almost overnight, Ben went from a happy person to someone stricken with some sort of unexplained illness which led to multiple seizures, and very little sleep for everyone. The fear and stress that was generated left me completely vulnerable and unprepared for our trip.

Perhaps that was the reason I was able to see so much more. I didn’t have the energy to micromanage anything. I just let life happen and hoped (and prayed) that I wasn’t being reckless by taking Ben on such a long journey to unfamiliar places.

Ben is fun to travel with

You have to understand (maybe you already do) the weeks of planning necessary to get ready for a trip like this. All the meds, prepared meals, hygiene supplies and the technical gear Ben requires is enormous. For example, we needed to take his walker since he couldn't be stuck in his wheelchair for two weeks straight. And, we needed his backup (manual) wheelchair – picture securing two wheelchairs in a van – which can be lifted by a few strong individuals into places that are not accessible.

Getting all this organized and packed is real work and exhausting work. There is no carefreeness about simply packing a suitcase and you’re done. Admittedly, the size of this task drained me of much of the anticipation of this trip.

But none of that matter as I witnessed the pure enjoyment in Ben’s eyes and the curiosity in his expressions. His general happiness of having the opportunity to stay in some new hotels and to finally visit his brother’s house was contagious.

For once, we didn’t have to check on Ben back at home to see how his day was going, to scramble when one of his caregivers cancels a shift with little notice, because, of course, he was with us!

It was a glimpse, perhaps, of what life might look like in future years. And it wasn’t the scary place I have envisioned. Honestly, it was just plain fun!

The world is truly abundant

If you’ve never been to Quebec City, you need to visit. It was the Canada Day weekend when we arrived, and the narrow streets of Old Quebec were overflowing with excitement and jammed with people. So jammed, in fact, that it took us an hour just to find an accessible parking spot.

With our travel schedule completely upside down, we decided to stop for lunch at the famous Chateau Frontenac hotel. What an experience! The exceptional personal service we received and the warm and accepting people we met eagerly looked after the little things to help us and Ben feel welcomed and at ease.

It’s so easy to be fearful of our world when you listen to the 24-hour news cycle but that’s not an accurate picture of what the world has to offer. I rediscovered that there are so many things to see if you just get out there and open yourself up. So much fun we can all have. It’s all just waiting for you.

We haven't taken 2 weeks off back-to-back in a long, long time but I can tell you it has changed how I see my life, and Ben’s life. I feel closer to him, not that I wasn’t close before. Somehow enduring the awful week before our trip and being with him for 16 days has strengthened my bond and connection with him.

And stepping out of the world at home, and the routines we created, into a different place has brought much needed clarity.

God is here with me, now, and all the time

My heart and soul know this to be true but, honestly, some days, my mind finds it tough to believe. The stress-filled week leading up to our trip was one of those times. I felt abandoned and worn out.

But I was reminded of the permanence of God’s presence during a lunch stop on the first leg of our journey. As I got Ben ready to feed him his lunch, I noticed the customers at the table next to us were getting ready to leave. We often get curious stares from people when they see Ben, especially when he’s trying to eat and is messy doing so. One stare we got this time was very different.

A woman came up beside me, put her hand on my shoulder, and began thanking me for doing God’s work. She told me how she had done respite care for a person with disabilities for a dozen years and that she knows how difficult the journey can be. I was taken aback but told her that it’s really not “work” when it’s your own son.

She thanked me anyway and told me God would look after us. For some unexplained reason, tears began to fill my eyes and I was briefly overcome with emotion.

Maybe He was telling me, through this complete stranger, that He knows all the pain we all went through last week. That He was there with us, and that this trip was going to be a wonderful time for everyone.

The Holy Door is really a symbol of our lives

Getting prepared to make our way to the Holy Door required so much energy that we almost called the whole trip off. When we arrived in Old Quebec, we wasted over an hour looking for a place to park. Just before we gave up, everything fell into place.

  • We found the perfect parking spot to unload Ben.
  • We were spoiled by incredibly helpful people at the Chateau Frontenac.
  • We were graced with perfect weather to allow Ben to easily travel the streets in his wheelchair.
  • We discovered no lineup for the Holy Door compared to the mile long one of an hour ago.

When we opened the massive bronze Holy Door at the Notre-Dame Basilica, Ben eagerly drove his wheelchair over the threshold. At that moment, time stood still. The world inside the Chapel of the Sacred Heart was calm and peaceful in contrast to the frantic, noisy, and chaotic world outside. There were no thoughts of seizures or anxiety or pain. Only feelings of relief and comfort.

We had made our pilgrimage. The three of us.

The symbolism of a door is obvious: it represents a passage, a transition, from one place to another. The Holy Door represents our earthly journey towards eternity. On this day, it represented the transition to new life with Ben. It was like closing the door on the last 24 years of our lives with Ben and opening a new path towards the next 24.