Pilgrimage: On the path toward God

It’s easy to turn the idea of a pilgrimage into something larger than life. We imagine Lourdes, the Holy Land, Rome, Assisi, and file our pilgrimage plans away on some sort of spiritual bucket list, thinking we have to wait until we’ve saved enough money or vacation time to make it happen.  

But the truth is that pilgrimage doesn’t require a passport, or even a long-distance drive. There are plenty of opportunities to become pilgrims without leaving the confines of our own diocese, state or country. In fact, true pilgrimage doesn’t require any travel at all; it is as much an interior journey as a geographical one. If we approach our entire lives with a pilgrim mindset, we can find places that feed our hearts and spirits at just about every turn — from the little shrine in the next town to the cathedral in our diocese to that historic church near our favorite vacation spot. 

“Every diocese in the United States has special sites, usually related to the history of Catholicism in that area, and sometimes connected to unique, holy individuals who are modern-day saints for us to model,” said María de Lourdes Ruiz Scaperlanda, author — with her husband, Michael Scaperlanda — of “The Journey: A Guide for the Modern Pilgrim” (Loyola Press, $14.95). 

“Make it a family activity to read about, then visit, the first church built in the diocese, for example. Or go to a Sunday Mass at your cathedral. Find out if local Catholic ethnic groups have festivals or celebrate unique holy days, and join in. Visit your diocesan museum or exhibit describing how the faith came to your part of the country,” she told OSV. “Perhaps you’re even lucky enough to live where American saints lived out their faith, like St. Katharine Drexel or St. John Neumann. Find out what’s in your area. Or visit original sites of a holy woman such as Dorothy Day or your local Catholic Worker House. Get to know your local Catholic history.” 

Once you do that, the sky is really the limit. For eight years I lived within a 40-minute drive of the National Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, N.Y., where Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha was born and where Jesuit missionaries St. Isaac Jogues and St. René Goupil and lay missioner St. John Lalande were martyred. It took my son’s Boy Scout retreat to get me to make the short trek to the grounds of this beautiful and sacred place overlooking the Mohawk Valley. As I walked on holy ground, praying with other pilgrims, sleeping in a tent not far from the ravine where René Goupil died for the faith, I realized that pilgrimage has the power to take our spiritual journey to a new level, but without some advance planning, it can quickly turn into one more vacation or tourist trap. 

Scaperlanda explains that pilgrimage is “first and foremost a metaphor for our life.” She suggests Catholics look at the deliberate choices we already make in our daily spiritual lives that provide a framework for pilgrimage. “Our ‘maps’ include the Mass, daily Scripture readings, daily prayer, the sacraments (especially the Eucharist and reconciliation), a spiritual director, retreats — all giving us directions to point us in the way of Truth. So, it makes sense that when we go on a pilgrimage we be deliberate about making choices that remind us constantly that this is not just a tourist trip.”  

To infuse your pilgrim journey with the spiritual, Scaperlanda recommends trying to get to daily Mass as often as possible. If you’re on a tour or with other people who are not pilgrims, take a moment when you visit a church or holy site to sit quietly and say a simple prayer. Bring spiritual reading with you. Keep a journal, especially noting how you experienced God in your day. Approach each day with the request: “Here I am, Lord. Show me what message you have for me in whatever happens today,” she suggested.

A pilgrim people 

Although the tradition of pilgrimage dates back to our Jewish ancestors and even to the ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Aztecs, the Christian version of this tradition starts with the Holy Family. Mary, Joseph and Jesus made an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and Jesus was crucified during a time of pilgrimage. As with so many aspects of our faith, the Jewish tradition has shaped our own. Early Christians made pilgrim journeys to the tombs of martyrs, and later Christians went back to the Holy Land. We are a pilgrim people. 

“To go on pilgrimage is not simply to visit a place to admire its treasures of nature, art or history,” said Pope Benedict XVI late last year during a trip to the famed Santiago de Compostela, the Way of St. James, in Spain. “To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself, where his grace has shone with particular splendor and produced rich fruits of conversion and holiness among those who believe.” 

Even the great saints — the ones who inspire us to put on our pilgrim shoes and travel — were no strangers to the tradition. St. Ignatius of Loyola called himself “the pilgrim” and required a one-month pilgrimage of Jesuit novices, a tradition that continues to this day. Novices are sent out for weeks at a time with no more than $40 or so in their pockets and a one-way bus ticket, following the instruction of St. Ignatius, who wrote that those preparing to become Jesuits should spend a month “making a pilgrimage without money, but begging from door to door at times, for the love of God our Lord.” 

You may not be sent off with a one-way ticket and only $40, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have do a little creative thinking to make the most of your pilgrim experience, even if it’s close to home. Any place that’s popular with tourists is going to be a challenge. Talk to locals and find out when the church or shrine is less crowded. Ask when Masses or other special services will be celebrated. Try to enter into the local community’s celebrations rather than watching from the outside. It can make the difference between going home with nothing more than a few nice photos and going home with a sense of spiritual renewal.  

For families making a pilgrimage together, there can be added challenges. Mom wants to go to Mass, but the kids are clamoring for breakfast. Dad wants to pray in silence, but the little ones need naps and the big ones are rolling their teenage eyes. Is there a way to make it work? It may take a little extra effort and a lot of extra patience, but the rewards are worth it. 

“The joys often come in unexpected ways, when we are touched by and through our kids — hearing what they experienced or learning from their insight or point of view from what they heard at Mass. As you can see, I’m describing traveling — but, really, I’m describing everyday life. We’re back to that statement that I began with that a pilgrimage is a metaphor for life,” said Scaperlanda, stressing that it’s important for couples to take time to make pilgrim journeys together and as individuals, thereby modeling it for their children.  

Daily oasis of peace 

What if you’re unable to travel? Do you have to miss out on the pilgrim journey? Not at all. We are all called to be pilgrims; we are all walking a path toward God. Some of us may walk hundreds of miles along Santiago de Compostela or wade into the waters at Lourdes. But many more of us will make our pilgrim journeys much closer to home. 

Kathryn Jean Lopez, a writer, blogger and editor for National Review Online, told OSV that sometimes pilgrimage is as simple as looking within our daily routines for a hidden oasis of peace in a desert of chaos. 

“I am spoiled because I spend most of my time in New York and Washington, both of which have some terrific spots for disappearing from the noise, adoring Our Lord, asking him to help you with your priorities,” she said, giving as examples the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the grounds of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and the nearby Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America. She also suggested the Rosary Shrine in Summit, N.J., and in Manhattan, the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer on 65th Street and Lexington Avenue, Our Saviour Church in the shadow of Grand Central Station, and, of course, St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  

“When the side doors are open, you can actually see Saks Fifth Avenue from some of the pews. And yet, you can also go right behind the altar to the adoration chapel, not forgetting to say a prayer as you pass the opening to the crypt, where Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s and Cardinal O’Connor’s, among others’, earthly remains are,” Lopez said. “I bring these places up because sometimes we need to be reminded that it’s not just the getaway retreats that are crucial, but the daily ones, too — for the busy executive, for the blue-collar worker, for the busy mom.” 

Scaperlanda echoed that sentiment, saying that to live life as a pilgrim is to recognize God in our midst and to trust that God is in control and will provide. “It means to live with the awareness that our home is not in this world,” she said. “Going on a physical pilgrimage is meant to remind us of this reality so that we can come home and live it in our day-to-day lives. Ultimately, the goal is not to make a pilgrimage, but rather to learn to live as a pilgrim.”

Mary DeTurris Poust’s most recent book is “The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass.” 

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