The day after the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage this summer, I was in line for the Ferris Wheel with my three year old daughter. An insufficiently directive ride attendant left me confused as to which car to enter. Do we get our own? Do we pile in with strangers? Whatever our options might have been, my daughter and I are soon knee to knee with a man and a woman in their late thirties, visiting Chicago from Georgia. Up together we went.
I weigh the option of silence, but instead make small talk, explaining that the Ferris Wheel was Chicago’s answer to the Eiffel Tower in the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. They are unmoved. “Frank Lloyd Wright said that Chicago will one day be the most beautiful city of the modern world,” I tell them. “Paris on the Prairie!” I add with a Realtor’s grin. They remain uninterested, but he is smiling. “You’ll have to excuse us, but there’s something I’ve got to do” he asserts, and as we reach the crest of the ride he gets down on one knee and proposes to his girlfriend then and there.
I fulfill my duty as witness, and try to convey to my daughter the significance of the occasion. I feel intrusive, but at least spare them the indignity of having to capture the moment with a selfie-stick. I bid them congratulations and wish them well. She seems slightly tense that we were part of the moment, but her satisfaction is nevertheless apparent. I’m just impressed that he went for it—company or not. He has secured his bride.
Two weeks later, I’m back in the city searching for Virgins myself—but I won’t be satisfied with one. Specifically, I’m after Our Lady of Perpetual Help, an originally Byzantine icon that can be found in a string of Chicago churches that ring the city, as if forming a protective band. I need photographs of the churches for research, and unable to reach them on weekdays, I am hoping for some Saturday success.
The first church, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side, has its doors open wide. A multi-domed specimen of the American Baroque that once presided over a neighborhood of Polish immigrants. Two potted palm plants on the steps lend a domestic touch. I splash my head with baptismal water, acknowledge to the tabernacle that I’m not alone, and scan for the icon. There she is, ensconced in an altar on the church’s north end. Mary looks to the viewer, and her son looks to the cross being borne by angels above.
The second church dedicated to this icon is the most famous—Holy Family parish right at the center of the city. It’s one of the few that survived the great Chicago fire, and the rescue is attributed to the image. Holy Family offers some of the most boisterously beautiful inter-racial worship in the city, all under watch of this ancient icon. But today the church is locked, so I push north to my second target, St. Michael’s in Old Town in Cubs territory. Approaching the door, I realize I hadn’t considered the possibility of a Saturday wedding. I am prepared to sheepishly ask if I can slip in and take a photograph or two before the ceremony begins, but before I can ask, I’m handed a program. The bridal party has yet to arrive, and people are still filing in. I move to the front, and find the icon. This too is a mosaic version of the same woman—looking to the viewer, with her son facing his fate—a pool of silence in a sea of pre-wedding chatter. I get my photograph, with some interior shots as well, and slip out the door just as a trolley arrives with gray-suited groomsmen.
Moving further north to the Lakeview neighborhood, my next church, St. Alphonus, rises in the distance. The Gothic tower of this onetime German immigrant parish looms high, named after the founder of the Redemptorist order, Alphonsus Ligouri. The well-dressed people shuffling outside indicate another wedding. Once again, I slip in undetected, scan for the Virgin, and shoot. I can’t tell if I am there before or after the wedding, but I figure I best move on before I’m noticed.
Finally, I push further north for a bonus church—the art deco masterpiece of Madonna della Strada on the campus of Loyola University. Once again, a bridal party is just departing. I am quieted by the white interior peppered with golden stations of the cross, and a shrine to Jesuit martyrs. I move to the rear and see the horizon of Lake Michigan, visible just beyond the doorway, merge with the baptismal font. Above it is an icon of Christ, just emerged from baptism and wet with the waters of the Jordan, but maybe Lake Michigan too.
I step out on the veranda to look out at the ocean-like horizon as the remaining wedding guests make their way across the campus to the reception. I had witnessed three weddings, but the Virgin I was chasing did as well, adding an unnoticed measure of realism to each occasion. But my thoughts wonder further back to the reason I had come to the city in the first place, and the reason I am in the coat and tie that enabled me to discreetly crash three weddings. Back in Bridgeport, before I made my way to the first church, I had seen a different kind of vow, at a ceremony to which I had actually been invited—a profession of solemn monastic vows at Holy Cross Benedictine Monastery.
If reality is muted in most American weddings, it was unavoidable at this service. Brother Timothy’s head was tonsured, a narrow rivulet of flesh cut into his hair, resembling the crown of martyrdom. For much of the service, he lay prostrate on marble before the Abbot and a shimmering Deësis icon. He was then enshrouded by his brothers in a black cloth. His mother stood in the front row weeping as Mary does in the icon, for her boy has figuratively died. I had figured the blanket was some kind of liturgical cloth with which I was unfamiliar, but as the service proceeds, the purpose of the black blanket became clear. It becomes his habit. He will be wearing the clothes in which he was buried until he is buried again.
“If you die before you die you will not die when you die,” reads the old saying at the entrance to many an Orthodox monastery. To be a Christian is to beat death to the punch. We meet that death first in baptism, and we meet it again in the daily death of discipleship—which diverge into the separate high roads of marriage and—higher still—celibacy. Death is constituent of both. When, in Orthodox weddings the bride and groom crown each other, it is not romantic cosplay, but the crown of martyrdom. There is no marriage without daily death to self. And when a monk chooses to wear his own burial shroud, he testifies to this daily death as well, that he might radiate resurrected life. My children will choose what they choose—but it seems an unnecessary impoverishment for them to not have both pathways, real marriage and real monasticism, clearly laid before them. For most, however, the monastic option stands as quietly as the icon does in the churches I visited, waiting and overlooked.
Mysteriously, both pathways, marriage and celibacy, meet in that same image. Faithfully wed to Joseph, Mary is also the Virgin handmaiden of the Lord—model for both mothers and nuns. The cross that hovers above her divine son, accounting for her sober expression, is the heart of both vocations. I think on these things as I zip down Lake Shore Drive on the way home, watching the fireworks burst above the Ferris Wheel. A lovely sight, to be sure, but so much of it goes unnoticed. Amidst the horde of summer onlookers, “marrying and giving in marriage” (Mt. 24:8), how many know that Lake Michigan is covertly baptismal; or that the refrain of the most famous Byzantine hymn to Mary is “Hail, bride unwedded”; or that the Virgin quietly rings this city just as she once did Constantinople of old?
Matthew Milliner (@millinerd) is assistant professor of art history at Wheaton College.