I rarely go to the movies and almost never with Dennis, but last weekend I decided we were going to find the time — make the time — to see The Way with Martin Sheen. In recent years, pilgrimage has become an important part of my spiritual journey. And not just because I finally got the chance to go to Rome last year. Nope. In fact, my focus on pilgrimage began long before I’d ever renewed my passport, and that, as it turns out, is as it should be. We are all on a pilgrimage, whether we walk the 800 kilometers of the famed Camino de Santiago de Compostela, or never get past our neighborhood church.
Here’s how I put it in the pilgrimage section of my latest book, The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass:
“When we think of pilgrimage, it’s likely we imagine a journey to some far-off land. It’s true that a pilgrimage in the traditional sense is a long journey, but our entire lives are meant to be a pilgrimage — both physical and spiritual — leading us ever closer to God.
“…The goal of pilgrimage is not to reach a physical destination but rather a spiritual one. Without leaving home, we can make a pilgrimage of the heart, an interior journey where we hope to meet God. Through our various methods of prayer — vocal and silent, communal and private — we make this pilgrimage with countless others around the world. We simply have to look at our very lives as pilgrim journeys, guided by the Spirit, our destination being the heart of God. It’s a pilgrimage that often takes the better part of a lifetime.”
Where are you now on your pilgrim journey? Perhaps an actual, physical pilgrimage might jump start things. You don’t have to travel to France and Spain a la Martin Sheen’s character to begin. A pilgrimage can be as simple as a visit to a new or historic church in your area, a shrine you’ve always wanted to see, the birthplace of a saint, or any other sacred place that leads you deeper into prayer. For me, I felt the first strong stirrings of pilgrimage when I went to the Shrine of the North American Martyrs (which you can read about HERE and HERE) a few years ago. As I camped in a tent on the beautiful grounds with my son’s Boy Scout troop, I began to realize the significance of walking in sacred footsteps, of joining other believers in a literal journey toward holiness.
In the movie The Way, we get a wonderful up-close view of what the Camino is like. I certainly came away from it with a new appreciation for the courage and determination of those who undertake this level of pilgrimage. It is not for the faint of heart. And yet I know two people who have made this journey, and, in the back of my mind, I wonder if, perhaps, some day I will walk the Camino, either on my own or with Dennis or one of our children. Even seeing the rigorous terrain, the often-crowded sleeping conditions, and the many difficulties of the Way was not enough to make me cross the possibility off my list of potential pilgrim journeys. Quite the contrary. Seeing the film reminded me that pilgrimage is about leaving our comfort zones. Yes, physical comfort zones but also spiritual comfort zones. Pilgrimage — as we see through the central characters of The Way — is about looking at things we want to ignore, seeing in others what we’ve never seen before, exploring uncharted territory in our own hearts, healing our brokenness, finding our Truth.
Every time I go out on some spiritual adventure (my most recent being my private silent retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee), I experience the unexpected, explore new spiritual places, discover something about myself I didn’t know before, and feel a kinship with strangers that doesn’t seem as easy or comfortable when I’m just tooling around town racing from one appointment to another. On pilgrimage, when we step outside our routine, outside our “normal” life, we get to experience what life can be like when we drop some of our barriers and let God and other people into our hearts in new and sometimes scary ways.
One of the most distinct moments of my recent silent retreat was when I was sitting on the deck of the retreat house, reading a book on prayer and writing in a spiritual journal as I watched the sun go down. An older man sat at the other end of the picnic table, sobbing desperately. I didn’t know him. I wasn’t supposed to talk to him, and yet I ached for him. And I felt love for him, a stranger whose only connection to me was the fact that he’d picked the same retreat center on the same weekend. So I did the only thing I could do in that moment, I prayed for him. I poured out all my love through prayer and asked God to hear this man’s desperate cries, for Mary to hold him in her spiritual arms and give him the comfort he needed. I’d like to say I’d have that same reaction to any other stranger who passed my way back in my “normal” life, but I know I am too busy, too guarded, too cynical to react that way all the time.
Pilgrimage takes us out of that guarded place, and when it drops us back into normal life, we are changed forever. Even if it’s only a little bit at first. We come home and, without even realizing it, something has shifted. We may feel we’ve lost our pilgrim mojo as we navigate the busyness of daily life, but it’s in the background, coloring how we react, how we speak, how we pray. Little by little, as we venture into more pilgrim experiences — near and far — we bring that pilgrim spirit to the everyday, and, before you know it, even a trip to the store can be a pilgrim moment, one where we experience others with love in our hearts and joy in our souls.
Am I there yet? No way. But I keep trying. I take a few steps forward on my pilgrim journey and then get sidetracked by work and responsibilities and life-as-usual. But then the Spirit prods me back onto the path in obvious and subtle ways, and I’m moving forward again.
All of life is a pilgrimage. And as one of the characters explains in the film, no one walks The Way by accident. That’s true of our interior journey as well. So, wherever your pilgrimage takes you next, Buen Camino.