Why do we travel from place to place? Is it just curiosity? Perhaps there is something mysterious that we are searching for. Something we lack. The seeking and the yearning seems to be part of it. It amounts to a hunger. But for what? What are we missing that will cause us to make great sacrifices by going into the unknown?
These questions become even more pressing when we talk about going on Pilgrimage. What is happening when we do this?
On the surface, we can say that we are looking for God or at least a deeper experience of Him. So we go through all the discomforts of travel and staying in strange places, sleeping on uncomfortable mattresses, so that we can feel God’s presence in a new and more tangible way.
When I went to the Holy Land, for instance, I walked where Jesus walked, but essentially it is just another place. I remember visiting Naim where Jesus raised the young man back to life and gave him back to his grieving mother. It was a little village with homes having satellite dishes and where a loud speaker proclaimed verses from the Koran. It was just another place.
When I go to Chapel or Church here at Immac, it is very familiar, but my faith teaches me that something amazing is happening. I am in the presence of God. I didn’t even have to get into a plane!
But there is still something to be said for a Pilgrimage. Perhaps it is in the effort necessary to do a Pilgrimage or perhaps to the interchange with other pilgrims that new forms of religiosity are born.
I think of the classic poem “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer. So many things happen to the pilgrims as each tells his story, for travel gives us time we usually do not have to be able to converse and share with one another. This is a seedbed of possibilities that would not be realized in the humdrum of daily life where we tend to settle into routines.
Plus, there is the experience of expectation and hope that a pilgrimage engenders. We are putting ourselves consciously in the hands of God and asking Him to accomplish in us His Holy Will, whatever it is. This break with the ordinary makes us even more perceptive to the ordinary as not ordinary. It alerts us to the mystery of the moment that the atmosphere of strangeness gives.
As I write this, I am in Lourdes on Pilgrimage myself. I bring to Our Lady, whose presence here is so palpable, all my hopes and fears as well as those of every member of our Parish. It is an act of faith and one of love. I am not sure it may have been possible to do this outside of a Pilgrimage. The effort and sacrifices are so necessary to it that it seems like it would be impossible when we are surrounded by our daily cares. Going outside of our comfort zones seems to be key to this experience of Pilgrimage. All the things you put up with: the bed that is not yours, the new kinds of food (American coffee!), the tiredness and the waiting, the prayer in new places that remind you of what you already know but have lost sight of etc.
This is magnified in a place like Lourdes where you see so many sick people, so many in wheel chairs, so many broken limbs and missing body parts. All these are blessed by God and make special efforts that are almost heroic to be here. They hope for cures and healing and know that the Lord will bless them for their efforts no matter what may happen.
Their needs are terribly obvious. Many others come with carefully hidden needs: a loss of faith, addictions, broken family bonds, etc. They also need healing. They also cry out with that hidden scream that only the heavens knows. We all need Lourdes, just as those on the Camino of St. James walk for weeks and months even though they feel that they have no faith.
We all need to stop and come out of our usual lives into a new and sometimes uncomfortable stance so that we can begin to see spiritually, to see as God sees.
For in the end, our whole earthly life is one big Pilgrimage to our heavenly home. We are all broken and needy. We all seek the healing of God’s presence, sick of this world’s false cures and seeking that peace and wholeness that only God can give us. In the end, Lourdes teaches us that what we seek is in Astoria, but we have been to blind to notice it.