Last week we ended by considering the humility of approaching what the Lord brings into our experience, as revealed through our experience of being on pilgrimage. In this same vein, humility also allows us to wisely see that there are dangers to our journey as well. It’s to this end that Hilaire Belloc, in his essay “The Idea of a Pilgrimage,” encourages us to pass by those things which would derail us from our objective but to cling to and revel in those things of beauty we meet upon the way, rejoicing in God’s glory revealed through them.
As we encounter beauty along the way, we may find ourselves so focused on capturing the moment that we can actually be derailed from our objective. I had a striking experience of this when I was on pilgrimage to Assisi as a student. We were at San Damiano, and it had begun to rain. A certain nun that had joined our journey stood in a doorway to watch as the rain fell upon the landscape of that beautiful place. I had pulled out my camera to capture that moment, but I quickly realized that it was too beautiful a moment to even try to do it justice with a picture. This beautiful bride of Christ marveled in the wonder of her divine Spouse feeding the land with rain. Though I never took that picture, I will never forget the wonder of the scene. That nun in Assisi was a moment for me to live what Belloc means by loving the beauty we find. “This is what children do,” he says, “and to get the heart of a child is the end surely of any act of religion.”
Another danger of the journey is the temptation to be primarily concerned with something or someone else rather than engaging and experiencing the beauty along our pilgrimage. We cannot be overly concerned for other than what is taking place. In fact, it is a certain pride to think that while upon pilgrimage other concerns are of much more importance than what is placed before us by Divine Providence.
We must allow ourselves, as Belloc explains, to “go into everything with curiosity and pleasure.” We must allow ourselves, in humility, to experience the good things wrought by God and his people. Now we are not referring to mere curiosity for personal satisfaction alone, but curiosity driven by the expectancy of what has arrived and what is to come next along the way. Lest we think that we are talking about a mere wandering, we must understand that what Belloc is getting at is the idea that we ought to live self-aware in this world, but not live of this world. The pilgrimage reminds us Christians, particularly, of the virtue of detachment from this life. We may love this life, this city, this Church, this wine, this shrine, this plate of spaghetti carbonara, or this Sovereign Pontiff, as if it or he or they were our own, yet we should be quite clear in knowing they are not. All belongs to Christ, our Lord—including ourselves.
We then are to enjoy and take pleasure along the journey, but always with prudence, always rendering unto God what is God’s. Our pleasure and curiosity are fulfilled as an accident of the pilgrimage, but we must be prudent not to let those two appetites overtake us.
It may also be a danger for some to let one’s work responsibilities get in the way of experiencing the culture that we are journeying within. What do I mean? Prudence often demands that we care for our work before we leave on pilgrimage, or perhaps even while we are on the journey. Nevertheless, it is of equal importance to also take time while journeying to experience, explore, and enjoy that place which we find ourselves experiencing. Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” As an allegory, we could say, “Don’t let your work responsibilities interfere with your living.”
For Belloc, then, a pilgrimage is this nobler kind of travel. I challenge you to let this be your mentality as we continue our lives and choose where to journey during this summer and into the autumn. St. Alphonsus of Ligouri said it best, “Do whatever you want, but do not sin.” In this way, you will find the formation you have received from your own studies of the Catholic faith, from your upbringing, or even from your choices during these next months as a time to flourish in the grace offered to you.
Be haunted by our mission to live and proclaim the Gospel, yet falling into every ordinary levity. I could tell you my story of Budapest, where things fell apart, and twenty years later friends are still talking about the disaster that took place. It was a cold night in February, when we missed a transfer to a train in Vienna, Austria. Once we finally made it to Budapest, we began an hour-long hike in freezing temperatures to our chosen hotel that was cheap enough for students studying abroad, but not so cheap as to be unsafe. We were quite shocked to complete our journey to discover that there was a neo-Nazi skinhead convention taking place a few blocks away! As we quickly ducked into the hotel while police and an opposing band of young men were clashing just down the street, some of our cohort were deeply troubled by this development. Nevertheless, as we settled into the experience, we did find much beauty—seeing the Royal Crown of Hungary and the Basilica of St. Stephen of Hungary, some wonderful culinary experiences, and exquisite sights. Those memories are full of the fear and the awe we experienced as a group of friends expectant for the Lord’s blessing on our journeys. We laughed about it then—even though freaked out—and we still laugh today for what the Lord allowed us to experience.
Similarly, the Christian pilgrim must manifest his personage, and become more himself and by doing so he makes those moral choices that form who he is to be in Christ’s grace. Yet, says Belloc, “the Church has a hundred gates.” So we ought not to think we must be a certain way, as a pilgrim, or that everyone will have the same experience of the same thing. Everyone has real experiences which they bring to the journey. If someone is unknown to you, or you have certain prejudices, a pilgrimage is a great time to overcome those limits and to allow others to share your life with you. Enjoy yourself, but most importantly, as Belloc exhorts, “loose the mind and purge it in the ultimate contemplation of something divine.”
Make every journey a way to encounter the Lord Jesus in the midst of your lives. For in this way, we engage the graces and experiences in which the Lord continues to form us along the way. Happy Pilgrimaging!