Nashville, Tennessee is appropriately known as Music City, USA. It is the well-established home of country music (the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman Auditorium, record label headquarters, etc.) and live music pulses from at least a few stages around town every night of the year. A visitor could spend days taking in the historic sites of Music Row, and many nights imbibing the creative flare of aspiring musicians on Second Avenue.
Still, Nashville bears another nickname that is even more interesting. The city is known as the “Athens of the South,” specifically because of its long and rich history of higher education. Readers would easily recognize the names of several universities in the city. Because universities grew out of the Catholic patrimony, we ought to appreciate the search for philosophical and scientific truth that has taken place at these institutions over many years.
Nashville also bears this nickname because of the city’s primary artistic and architectural landmark. The Nashville Parthenon is a full-scale replica of the original structure that stood atop the Acropolis in Athens, Greece as a temple to the goddess Athena. Pilgrims who visit the Parthenon have rich opportunities, both inside and outside, for education and meditation as they learn about Greek architecture and mythology.
This replica Parthenon has interesting and deep connections to our Christian faith. One interesting connection is the stone gryphons perched at each corner of the structure’s roof. In ancient mythology, gryphons had the body and tail of a lion and the wings of an eagle. The lion and the eagle are two of the common symbols for two of the authors of the Gospels (St. Mark and St. John). How fascinating it is that Greek culture (mythology and philosophy) was significant in preparing the world for Jesus Christ; and one of its common symbols points us to two of the Gospels that help us to know Jesus more fully.
The sculptures of the Parthenon are devoted to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and her story. The pediments on the east and west ends of the structure tell the story of Athena coming to influence and power in the Greek and Athenian pantheons. Inside the structure resides a 42-foot statue of Athena, a replica of the one that stood in the original temple. On the statue, a pilgrim notices eleven snakes, the serpent being a primary symbol of ancient Athens.
Each of these details of Athena’s life, and the statue, provides a significant moment to meditate on the place of Our Blessed Mother, Mary, in God’s plan of salvation. Christians understand, from the Old Testament forward, that wisdom has always been the handmaiden of the Lord. For example, in the ninth chapter of the Book of Wisdom, Solomon prays for “the wisdom that sits by your throne,” because he is “the son of your maidservant” (Wis. 9:4-5). Further, as Christians we know and believe that God’s thoughts and ways are higher than we could ever understand, unfathomable to our finite minds (see Isaiah 55:8-9, for example). The real seat of wisdom was not in ancient Greece or Athena, but in the handmaid of the Lord. Beyond this, pilgrims have the opportunity to call on the intercession of Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, whose humility crushes the pride of the serpent, and who can help us crush pride, age after age.
In the lower level of the Nashville structure (the original only had one level), there is also a quaint little art gallery. Most of the paintings in the collection are still-life images or generic nature scenes. These offer an opportunity to ponder the beauty of God’s creation. Yet, perhaps the most enthralling painting in the collection is The Rose of Shiraz by Hovsep Pushman, an Armenian refugee to America in the late-nineteenth century. Whether Pushman was a Christian refugee is not well established, but his painting points us to Our Blessed Mother. The woman in the painting is draped in blue with noticeable identifiers of Middle Eastern culture, where Mary lived.
Just moments away from Centennial Park and the Parthenon, pilgrims will find Nashville’s Cathedral of the Incarnation. The exterior of the church is in the style of high medieval Florentine churches, such as Santa Maria Novella. The interior is a classic basilica-style, with a large nave sectioned roughly into thirds by columns. The beauty of this cathedral lies in its simplicity. The Stations of the Cross are basically the only art on the walls, with the exception of four unique plaster reliefs of the Gospel authors, including St. Mark with his lion and St. John with his eagle. Looking up to the ceiling, a pilgrim quickly notices the Angelus prayer, written in Latin, circling the nave. This is a reminder that the Incarnation of the Word marks the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation. We ought to kneel in humble adoration and, if we are able, to receive the sacramental Presence of Jesus into our bodies and souls. That is the culmination of any pilgrimage.
Nashville is also home to Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, a consecrated religious community known all over the world. A visit to the community’s motherhouse is a real treat. Pilgrims are welcome to join the sisters for daily Mass and communal prayer (simply call the motherhouse to confirm times). If a visit to the motherhouse isn’t possible, the community has developed a wonderful online tour that will help anyone get at least a small taste of this anointed place. Beyond the motherhouse, the community operates Aquinas College in Nashville, making their own contribution to the rich culture of higher education in the city.
At some point while traveling, every pilgrim will need to eat, and part of any good pilgrimage is sampling the local food culture. In Nashville, that means hot chicken. Hattie B’s Hot Chicken offers a lively atmosphere, and some of the best fried chicken and sides that a pilgrim ever could find. It simply makes a great stop to rest, refuel, and connect with travel partners. (Note: the original location is packed from open to close. It might be helpful to try one of the other locations nearby.)
Finally, Nashville has a great opportunity for pilgrims to immerse themselves in another biblical motif. Throughout the scriptures, wine is a multivalent sign for God’s gifts to His people. Just a half-hour south of Nashville sits Arrington Vineyards, a small but scenic vineyard with some fantastic wine. Pilgrims should take a quick glance at Jesus’ use of vineyard imagery (Matthew 20 or 21 and Mark 12, in particular) in His teaching, and then ponder those teachings while walking through the rows of vines. In particular, we all ought to ask the Lord for the grace to be capable and faithful workers and stewards in the vineyard of the world.
In short, Nashville is a lively and rapidly growing southern city. Travelers come for a variety of reasons: music, business, professional sports, education, and more. Yet, as Catholics, we see quite a few rich opportunities for travelers to be transformed into pilgrims because of Nashville’s unique and memorable connection to important aspects of our faith.