We are nearing the end of our 40-day pilgrimage through Lent, but the truth is that we are on a pilgrimage that never ends. Our entire spiritual life is pilgrimage, and while our destination (eternal life with God) is crucial, it is on the road itself that we are forged into new beings, transformed in the fire of challenge and darkness, more so than by joy and light. It’s a hard reality to accept, but that is the heart of pilgrimage. The life-changing transformation doesn’t usually take place under blue skies but in the storms.
Think of those people who walk the Camino, mile upon mile, blister upon blister, rain and muck, along with gorgeous scenery and sunshine. Here, it’s easier to recognize that the destination is not the sole reason for the arduous journey. If that were the case, pilgrims would book a flight to Santiago de Compostela and go straight to the cathedral, rather than risk injury and exhaustion on the long and harrowing pilgrim path. But every pilgrim on the Camino knows that it is in the struggle of the journey that pilgrims find out who they are, that they grow closer to God, and learn to love complete strangers who share the road and meals along the way.
Most of us will never get to the Camino, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t on a pilgrimage of our own right where we are. I remember when I took my first trip to Rome a dozen years ago. I kept dreaming of the pilgrimage that would begin when my feet finally touched Italian soil. That morning, as I waited for the shuttle to take me to JFK airport while a hurricane was bearing down on New York, I learned the lesson of pilgrimage before I ever boarded my flight.
I talked to several strangers waiting for the same shuttle in Albany. They were headed to Lourdes on pilgrimage, one of them a priest I didn’t recognize at first but someone who already knew me through my writing. We talked. They comforted me as I worried about the impending hurricane, giving me a book of prayers with one specific page marked—Prayer in a Time of Storm. We talked and prayed on the three-hour ride, exchanging prayer intentions so that I could take their prayers to Rome and they could take mine to Lourdes. As they saw me off, ensuring that I had my suitcase and everything else I needed, it dawned on me that my pilgrimage had already begun. It started as soon as I opened myself up to God’s presence right where I was, when I allowed the Spirit to connect me to fellow pilgrims on the journey.
What if we look at this next stage of our liturgical and spiritual year as another leg on our collective and individual pilgrimage? As we head toward the celebration of resurrection, perhaps we can use the Easter season—those 50 days between Easter and Pentecost—as another opportunity to expand and explore, connect and commune with God, with each other, with every high and low point that comes our way. Knowing as we do that our transformation is happening with every step, every conversation, every prayer, every moment when we think we can’t take another step but somehow move forward anyway in faith and hope.
Life is not an easy proposition. At one point or another, we all suffer, we all doubt, we all wonder why things are the way they are. But we are not walking this path alone. We are surrounded by the Spirit of God’s love and by fellow pilgrims aching for company and comfort, sometimes right in front of us. We are all members of a beautiful tribe of pilgrims longing for a clear path. Together we can find our way home.
This column originally appeared in the April 7, 2022, issue of Catholic New York.