May 31, 2019

Music teacher discovers her true voice in soaring cathedrals and God’s whispers

Jennifer Brandon poses in front of fog-enshrouded Chartres Cathedral in France. The music teacher at St. Matthew the Apostle School in Indianapolis visited the cathedral as part of her travels for a book she is co-authoring, Places of Light: The Gift of Cathedrals to the World. (Submitted photo)

Jennifer Brandon poses in front of fog-enshrouded Chartres Cathedral in France. The music teacher at St. Matthew the Apostle School in Indianapolis visited the cathedral as part of her travels for a book she is co-authoring, Places of Light: The Gift of Cathedrals to the World. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

On one level, Jennifer Brandon’s faith journey is connected to her travels around the world, visiting and writing about the great cathedrals that people have created to honor God.

On another level, her path to a deeper relationship with God has come in far less grand settings—in quiet moments when this Indianapolis singer, music teacher and mother of two believes God is whispering to her.

One of her most memorable “God whispers” moments occurred on the first pilgrimage she made to the Chartres Cathedral in northern France in 2015.

Starting in Paris with her fellow pilgrims, Brandon walked and carried her backpack for three days through the fields and forests of France on the way to the town of Chartres.

“One of the most special musical experiences of my life happened on the road, on the third day of walking,” recalls Brandon, the music teacher at St. Matthew the Apostle School in Indianapolis. “We had walked into a small country church, and as soon as we got inside, the heavens opened up with rain. We sat in silence for a while, and then I felt moved to sing. I sang ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness.’

“I felt a sense of aliveness. It comes from the freedom to inhabit the moment. Singing is the gift I’ve been given. It is my joy to share that. To sing in a worshipful place is such a privilege.

“In many ways, I started to find my true voice there. I was learning to trust that spirit within me. I was finally learning to trust that ‘God whisper’ in me.”

That feeling grew even stronger for her when their group of 20 reached the Chartres Cathedral, considered one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world and one that is dedicated to the Blessed Mother.

‘Completely surrounded by God’s presence’

Brandon was in awe when she first saw and entered the cathedral, which is the home of the relic known as Sancta Camisia, believed to be the cloak worn by Mary when she gave birth to Jesus.

She marveled at the beauty of the soaring structure that had been built in the 1200s after a fire destroyed the previous cathedral. She also was overwhelmed by the extensive details of the sculptures. Yet what struck her most of all was being bathed in the “glorious” light from the sun shining through the stained-glass windows that dated to more than 800 years ago.

“I looked up at the light streaming through and just felt God’s presence in a unique way,” she recalls. “I asked for forgiveness for all the times in my life when I had turned away from God or hadn’t paid attention to him. I felt so completely surrounded by God’s presence. That was a comforting moment, a moment of strength.

“I’ve discovered that it’s not God who withholds forgiveness from us. We withhold it from us. We get in our own way. I’ve learned self-forgiveness, so I can stand in God’s presence. I’m more available. That’s been my journey.”

She spent three days visiting Chartres Cathedral during her first pilgrimage there, an experience that left her so overwhelmed that she has returned each of the past three years to help lead pilgrimages to Chartres and its cathedral.

That initial journey also led her to take a break from teaching to commit to an 11-month family trip during the 2016-17 school year—a trip she describes as “a dream come true.”

Hope and heartbreak

During those 11 months, the family traveled through England, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Greece, Morocco and Israel, visiting places of worship from small churches to great cathedrals.

They walked on the Hill of Crosses in Lithuania where more than 100,000 crosses—of all sizes—seem to rise from the ground and toward the heavens, all part of a tradition connected to the efforts of local Catholics to stand up for their faith and defy their oppression by the Soviet Union through the years.

Among many places of worship, their faith was also especially enhanced by visits to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Basilica of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona dedicated to the Holy Family, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which is located on the site where it’s believed Christ was crucified and where he was buried and resurrected from the tomb.

Before their return to Indianapolis, the last house of worship they visited during that nearly yearlong journey was Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

So Brandon was devastated as she watched footage of the cathedral consumed in fire on April 15.

“It was the starting point for the walking pilgrimages I have taken to Chartres,” she says. “In many ways, Notre Dame has been the starting and closing points of all of my pilgrimages. It became so obvious that millions around the world consider Notre Dame to be a home of sorts.

“I join many in being relieved that so much of Notre Dame was able to escape total devastation, most notably the precious relics and the exquisite stained- glass windows. I can hardly fathom how the rose windows withstood the heat and pressure. I am hopeful that the world will come together to rebuild her.”

Homes for Our Souls

That hope is buoyed by the histories of the churches she has visited, by the people through the centuries whose talents, persistence and faith have created them.

Even the challenges of the 11-month trip increased Brandon’s faith.

“My trust in myself and in the Holy Spirit just grew,” she says. “When there was a need, something occurred to help us out.”

She kept that attitude during her school’s fall break of 2018 when she visited worship sites in New York, St. Louis, San Francisco, Washington and Mexico City for the book she is co-authoring with Austrian writer Gernot Candolini.

“We traveled to the American sites in an effort to experience these places and gain insight into the heart of what they stand for and the people who worship within them,” she says regarding the research for the book that is scheduled to be released late this year, Places of Light: The Gift of Cathedrals to the World.

“That is actually our focus—to try to tell the ‘heart stories’ of these massive structures.”

One of her favorite worship sites is the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

“It wasn’t just a story for Mexico and Latin America. I feel like she belongs to me. She belongs to all of us,” Brandon says as she sits in her classroom where the walls are lined with large photos of worship sites from her travels.

“My students will ask me about my experiences. I love to share my experiences with them. I did that on the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

‘A pure gift’

Her travels this summer will once again take her back to the place she considers her “soul home.” She will lead another pilgrimage to the Chartres Cathedral in July.

“It’s a pure gift to me,” she says. “The simple act of walking alongside someone in their pilgrim experience and helping their transformation doesn’t get any better for me. There’s such a sense of connectedness. You’re connected with other pilgrims and the world around you, and there’s such a wonderful presence of the community of saints in that place. You feel you belong to ‘the body of Christ.’

“There’s a piece of my heart in that cathedral.”

While she acknowledges that people don’t have to go on a pilgrimage to have a “God experience,” she has learned that such a journey helps her in her life and her faith.

“I have found that being on a pilgrimage is a great time to practice being present in each moment, to be listening and watching for the movement of the Holy Spirit. It allows you to see and hear in ways you’re not always able to see and hear in your regular life.

“So when you come home, you’re able to walk through the daily grind in a new way. You’re more in tune listening for that ‘God whisper’ inside you. You’re able to hear that voice more clearly.” †

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