(The Catholic Spirit | Liz Kelly for The Catholic Spirit | June 19, 2014) I once read that Minnesota has one of the highest numbers of perpetual Eucharistic adoration chapels in the country. Truly, God is with us.
If that’s the case, do I really need to haul myself at great effort and expense — enduring, God forbid, other pilgrims! — to some dusty foreign land to pay him homage, to make known my needs for healing, forgiveness, grace? The answer of course is, no — and perhaps, yes.
Consider: Jesus was a regular pilgrim. The Gospel of Luke tells us he would make the journey to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover every year with his parents.
The earliest pilgrimages were very much like we might imagine this journey was for Jesus: a caravan of company walking for days together along dusty mountain roads, no doubt their minds humming with the familiar prayer of the psalmist: “‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem. . . . To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, As was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord.”
Binding our hearts
To walk where Jesus walked, and pray where he prayed, and learn more intimately the heart of that healing carpenter from Nazareth, a pilgrimage, particularly to the Holy Land, does mark us in a unique way.
When we make a pilgrimage, we are binding our hearts to every pilgrim-saint who has journeyed before us and to every longing of the human soul to seek more deeply, more authentically the face of God.
As Father Murray Bodo writes in his excellent book, “The Place We Call Home: Spiritual Pilgrimage As a Path to God,” “Pilgrimages are not about one place being more holy than another, for God is everywhere. Making pilgrimages involves a response to something inside us that longs to move toward, that seeks the holy beyond.”
And, the good news is, this can happen even on a tour bus with Wi-Fi.
The pilgrim’s credo
I am not in control.
I am not in a hurry.
I walk in faith and hope.
I greet everyone with peace.
I bring back only what God gives me.
The Holy Land
As Christians, we would have no other pilgrimage — to Lourdes, to Ars, to Guadalupe, to the Station Churches of Rome during the Lenten season, to walk the Camino, to climb the Holy Steps on our knees — without the birthplace of our pilgrim souls: Jerusalem.
For such a tiny bit of geography, Israel in general and Jerusalem in particular, has a history fraught with every kind of tension — religious, political, economic. This in some ways is what makes it uniquely fitting to the pilgrim heart. For you will not awake at 4 a.m. in Jerusalem to the sound of church bells, but to the Muslim call to prayer, those low and moaning tones lifted to Allah drifting out over a sleeping city.
And, at the Wailing Wall — the place according to Jewish tradition where Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac — you will see that men and women are separated, the women only recently granted a small portion to approach this holiest of Jewish ground with their prayers. Jerusalem is a powerful clash of orthodoxies. It heightens in fresh ways the truly radical teaching of Christ.
And so we go, not to escape the travails of everyday life, but to give them perspective.
We go, not to take a vacation or recreate, but to allow God to re-create our deepest selves.
We take our broken hearts and broken bodies across oceans and over thousands of miles, sitting for hours in cramped airplanes and airports, to distant shrines and ancient ruins, to places where the language and culture may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable — not to remind God, but to remind ourselves that we are part of an eternal narrative, a glorious true story of hope, resurrection and redemptive victory.
We endure the jostle of crowds and the chatter of tour guides even in these, the holiest places on earth, because it helps us to remember the proper horizon of our lives is not health, wealth, comfort, success, being well loved or highly regarded — but a sweeping need for healing and grace and the eternal good news, all of which Jesus wants to provide in abundance.
The Church teaches that “pilgrimages evoke our earthly journey toward heaven and are . . . special occasions for renewal in prayer.” Indeed, central to any pilgrimage must be prayer — prayer that begins long before you decide which shoes to pack.
My preparation — one I highly recommend if possible — included completing the Ignatian Exercises over the nine months prior to my departure. The Exercises invite you to meditate in a very concentrated way on the life of Christ.
My spiritual director would tell me: “Look at what Jesus is doing in your meditation, dwell with him.” It is a fitting definition for any “pilgrimage” great or small: We go to dwell with him.
Kelly is the author of five books, including “Reasons I Love Being Catholic,” and recently returned from her first pilgrimage to the Holy Land.