“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray/from the straight road and woke to find myself/alone in a dark wood.” ~Dante, The Inferno
“The world is thy ship and not thy home.” ~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul
“To be a ‘viator’ means to be ‘on the way’. The status viatoris is, then, the ‘condition or state of being on the way.'” ~ Josef Pieper, treatise on Hope.
The above are words of pilgrimage. Pieper’s words truly capture what it means to be a pilgrim. A pilgrim is one who is on the way. A destination is in the mind of the pilgrim. The way there, however, may not always be so clear. Nor is the pilgrim assured of reaching his destination. The pilgrim is simply on the way, trying to reach the destination his heart yearns for.
I am a pilgrim on the way to several different destinations. I have already reached several of my pilgrimage-sites in this life. The primary place my pilgrim’s heart seeks will take a lifetime to reach, God willing. I am, first and foremost, a pilgrim on the way to the home Dante, St. Thérèse, and Josef Pieper more explicitly address in their works – Heaven. My life is a journey to return to God, to join the Church Triumphant. I live in hope that I will reach this destination.
In the meantime, there are somewhat shorter pilgrimages I have embarked on.
This semester I have made the pilgrimage through Hell with Dante (twice!), as well as journeying along the way with the pilgrims of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I have read the pilgrim songs of the recurring pilgrim people, the ancient Israelites. The Songs of Ascents found from Psalm 120 to Psalm 134 are the ‘on the way’ songs of a people constantly ‘on the way.’ My classes themselves have been a pilgrimage from the first day to the upcoming final exams.
I have been on an interior pilgrimage since Pentecost Sunday. This interior pilgrimage has been somewhat of a ‘journey of self-discovery’ you could say. The pilgrimage ends on December 8 – the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Though I didn’t reach the destination I originally had in mind, I realize now that I have arrived at the destination that I needed to reach.
World Youth Day. Krakow, Poland in 2016. This is a destination near and dear to my heart. In the summer of 2016, I will journey with a group of young adults from the U.S. to Poland to participate in pilgrimage with millions of God’s children. This event gathers together the faithful from all over the globe to celebrate the universality and joy of the Church. This pilgrimage will not begin in July of 2016. Rather, the pilgrimage began the moment I said ‘yes’ to the journey. Before participating in the World Youth Day events, my pilgrimage group will see and experience the vast religious richness Poland has to offer. We will see St. Faustina’s original Divine Mercy painting. We will visit Auschwitz. We will visit the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. Together, we will experience a beautiful journey, a spectacular pilgrimage on the way to World Youth Day and the celebration of the pope and the saint who began World Youth Day in the 80’s: Pope St. John Paul II. If you are able, please help me make this pilgrimage here: www.gofundme.com/kenzietopoland.
Today, the universal Church begins the pilgrimage of Advent. We journey together towards the day that we celebrate the birth of our Savior. During the next 24 days, the faithful are called to prepare their hearts for the coming day of joy. Along the way there will be songs, feasts, prayers, and breathless anticipation. Although I have celebrated 19 Christmases, each year I still experience the anxious anticipation of what we are about to fully celebrate. Did the Savior really come to earth? Is He really the one my soul yearns for? Could it be that so great a King humbled himself for me? Earnest reflections upon the Incarnation and birth of Christ are quite mind-boggling.
When going on a pilgrimage, the pilgrim usually takes supplies for the way. Fold out maps have been replaced for the most part by smart phones and electronic GPSes, but paper maps give a more all-encompassing view of the surroundings. Maps offer myriads of paths and roads and stopping places. They provide different options for reaching the same destination. Some routes are more scenic and others are more straightforward. When lost, a map can be used to get back to the road you want to be on, or to find a better route. Keys are also good to carry on the way. Keys unlock treasure chests, castles, and prison doors. Possession of a key could be the difference between indefinite confusion and turmoil or mysteries answered. Maps and keys ought to be taken by the pilgrim on the journey.
Along the way, the pilgrim will very likely experience uncertainty, indecision, roadblocks, forks in the road, dangerous beasts, and dead ends. Journeys are frequently fraught with dangers. Like Dante in the Inferno, the pilgrim can become lost in a dark wood despairing and far from the true way. But this can NOT be how the pilgrim continues the pilgrimage! Virgil was sent to Dante to be his guide away from the dark wood and through the horrors of Hell. Virgil gave Dante advice, encouraged or chastised Dante’s reactions, and directed him along the path.
Jesus Christ came to be the ultimate Guide for every human person. He came to give his pilgrim people hope for the journey. He gives us advice, encourages and chastises us when needed, and directs us along the path. For Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is our Way to the ultimate pilgrimage destination: Heaven. As I said above, the pilgrim is not certain that he will reach his destination, but he yearns for and strains towards it. St. Paul says to in his epistle to the Philippians:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
We have not yet attained the prize! We are still on the way, as Josef Pieper pointed out. But be not afraid of what lies ahead! Jesus Christ has provided us with supplies for the journey. By map and key, Jesus Christ provided the Church the supplies to make the pilgrimage. These blessed maps are the Holy Scriptures, the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the wisdom shared by the people of God throughout the ages. These keys are the keys of St. Peter and the Sacraments. By map and key, the pilgrim will journey with hope towards the home his whole being cries out for.
Brothers and sisters, I am praying for you as you experience the many and various pilgrimages that the world has to offer. I ask that you pray for me, too. Do not lose sight of the ultimate pilgrimage destination. In this season of Advent, may the hopeful pilgrim spirit be on your mind and in your heart. May God bless you on your way!