The Pilgrim Experience

September 4, 2011

A few weeks ago, I was able to enjoy a pilgrimage in Spain for World Youth Day. As I reflected on my experience these last few weeks (If I were a computer I’d have a slow processor) I realize that my pilgrimage didn’t necessarily begin when I got to Spain, nor when I stepped on the plane, nor even when I left my house. It began with a certain kind of “yes.” All pilgrimages begin with that child-like desire for adventure; the pure excitement over experiencing something for the first time. Just the prospect of not having the slightest inkling of what was to come was where my pilgrimage began. For me pilgrimage begins the moment you turn toward a time for which you have no recourse to calculation or reasonable imagining. It is as simple as hearing a call and coming.

Five days before we left I remember my mind being flooded with fears and stresses. “There’s no time for such a thing I have so much to do here,” I remember thinking. “I don’t know Spanish that well, what if I get lost?” or “what if I’m really not supposed to go, I could mess things up for everyone?” If canceling were an easy enough process, I think I really would have cancelled. Thank God I didn’t.

As I began to trade my fears for excitement I really began to experience God’s grace comforting me and and telling me, “Just come and see.” After all, if God calls you to something nothing will be safer. Pilgrimage in its most essential sense is an exercise of faith. I had to trust God in order to even go. What I learned is the whole of the pilgrim experience is not really directed toward its end or goal. It is finding just how trustworthy God is while right in the middle of the going– discovering the meaning of a statement of fact: Deus providebit, or “God will provide” (Dominican’s have all the best mottos).

Those more experienced in pilgrimage often told us newbies that moments of difficulty are POPE moments, moments that are Part Of the Pilgrim Experience. If one wants bigger biceps, you lift weights in such a way that uses your biceps (Ryan definitely knows what I’m talking about). When one exercises trust, there must be moments for trust to be exercised, and I think our crew got a cross-fit style work out in this case. Analogously, one’s trust has to be exercised against a backdrop that warrants our trust, a weight that has to be lifted– trust exercised against the backdrop of suffering.

Suffering can be a very vague and broad term and to discern its meaning requires one to have really lived through it. If defined only by its extreme, then I’d say very few of us really suffer, but it would be difficult to describe a slew of “thorny” moments otherwise. Collectively, the group of 18 I was with probably had 36 blisters, 36 sore feet at the end of each day, about as much sleep that would have been healthy for only half of us, and probably sweat the weight of an average full grown man. If that is not suffering at least in some small measure then I don’t know what to call it. Yet this only lends itself to the physical suffering. The struggles to make decisions, living with bad decisions or living with the bad decisions that others had made from outside of the group that we had to live with all have a share in the suffering we endured during that trip is but a taste of some of the emotional struggle we faced. Through it all I can say three things. God brought us to it, God brought us through it and now we are collectively and individually a stronger people because of it.

I once heard it said that the shortest distance between two people is laughter. I am still on the fence about the truth of this phrase but another strong contender has to be conjoined suffering, and if its not the shortest distance it is the most certain. I can’t even articulate how much more enriching this pilgrimage was going with such a great group of (very) diverse people. Ranging from a short, dark and ghetto seminarian to tall, white and funny Minnesotans, it’s hard to imagine what else aside from the One Lord, Jesus, could bring us all together in a bond that I for one will always look back on and treasure. When suffering becomes a team effort, it hardly seems like suffering at all. Even if you seem to be alone, uniting your suffering with Jesus’ makes it bearable because you know that it is God who counts it as valuable, when in the eyes of the world it has no kind of utility and thus no value. It takes grace for anyone to say that they slept on a playground for a week with a smile on their face. The same for the several others who understand the smile because they share it.

The pilgrim experience reached its pinnacle for me during the vigil to the closing mass. Had it been any other sort of gathering I would have considered it a miserable affair. After waiting hours in the hot sun, drinking warm water and dust and dirt flying about only to be followed by a torrent of wind rain, lightning and thunder I couldn’t help but wonder why was I out here? During all this I was not frightened but I was a little vexed. But all of a sudden a silence filled me then this scripture from 1 Kings (19: 11-13a) began ringing in my mind’s ear, “And he said to him: Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord: and behold the Lord passes, and a great and strong wind before the Lord, overthrowing the mountains, and breaking the rocks in pieces: but the Lord is not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake: but the Lord is not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, a fire: but the Lord is not in the fire. And after the fire, a whistling of a gentle air. And when Elias heard it, he covered his face with his mantle.” So, I began to pray as I’m sure many others did and after a time the elements were stilled and the pope went ahead with the prayer. Two-million pilgrims gathered together in one place in unfavorable heat and sun followed abruptly by lightning, thunder, wind and rain, and yet there was still a moment of silent adoration, adoring the reason we were all there: the risen, present and living Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. It would have been difficult for me to imagine before but having lived through it, two-million people silent before God, our God, is a miracle to behold.

God concluded the whole experience for me by sending me home with a flag someone left behind that we had scavenged at the airfield. It’s a little red translucent flag that has the WYD symbol of a crown and cross next to the words, “ven y veras,” Spanish for come and see.

How does God provide? By being there. God was always there. He was there in the Eucharist here before we even left, there with us in the airfield amidst the storm and all parts in between. Even with the unfortunate incident of a stolen purse containing a passport, one of our group was facing another two exhausting days in Spain, only to make it back on the plane she was supposed to be on in the first place. I believe the words “airline magic” were used to describe God’s grace in this case. The hand of providence has always been subtle, it takes a stressing experience to see just how strong that hand really is. It’s the strength of the same hand that transforms a “stressing experience” into a “‘let’s do that again!… in a short while’ experience.”

Where do we go from here? John Paul the Great and the second Vatican council reminded the Church that She is a pilgrim. The concept of the pilgrim experience is something that all those returning from World Youth day must share to help those who have yet to experience pilgrimage to really understand such an integral part of Catholic spirituality. We are a pilgrim people who are just passing through, on our way home. In life there will be cause to trust and to trust together in God who beckons us to ven y veras, Come and see.

lyrics for “In Exile” :
I am in exile, a sojourner
A citizen of some other place
All I’ve seen is just a glimmer in a shadowy mirror
But I know, one day well see face to face

I am a nomad, a wanderer
I have nowhere to lay my head down
There’s no point in putting roots too deep when I’m moving on
Not settling for this unsettling town

My heart is filled with songs of forever
The city that endures when all is made new
I know I don’t belong here, I’ll never
Call this place my home, I’m just passing through

I am a pilgrim, a voyager
I wont rest until my lips touch the shore
Of the land that I’ve been longing for as long as I’ve lived
Where they’ll be no pain or tears anymore

My heart is filled with songs of forever
The city that endures when all is made new
I know I don’t belong here, I’ll never
Call this place my home, I’m just passing through

3 Responses to “The Pilgrim Experience”

  1. Carolyn said

    “POPE moments, moments that are Part Of the Pilgrim Experience”
    Love the acronym. There were definitely many POPE moments. Beautiful reflection. Glad I was there to share in the experience with you. Many Blessings.

  2. Ceci said

    AWESOME! “When suffering becomes a team effort, it hardly seems like suffering at all.”

    That’s what I’m talkin bout Jeremy!

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