Making the Lenten pilgrimage

Be careful — the one who finishes the journey is a different person from the one who began it.

By Molly T. Marshall

Lent always sneaks up on me even when the season after Epiphany is a bit longer, like this year. I am seeking to be more deliberate as I enter the most dislocating of the liturgical seasons in the Christian year. Emptying ourselves of pretensions, we seek to learn of our temptations and our fear of following Jesus.

In two short weeks we will receive the imposition of ashes — or copier toner as we did one year at our school. (We debated whether to make the sign of the cross or a big X across the foreheads of students and faculty). An interesting phenomenon in our day is making the sacred ritual available to persons in the streets, as Sara Miles recounts in her fine book, City of God: Faith in the Streets.

Ash Wednesday speaks to the human condition with clear-eyed realism. Even for those not conversant with Christian symbolism, receiving the ashy smudge is, according to Miles, “an invitation to acknowledge limits. To bow down in public and say, I’m not in charge; I’m not going to live forever.” This is a journey to humility, and what could be better than dusty residue — from whence we come and toward which we inexorably go — to remind us. Humans, after all, are humus in origin.

I think of this season as pilgrimage, a holy pursuit clothed in spiritual practices that prepare us to encounter God in a new way. A pilgrimage is a spiritual and physical journey that seeks to experience God more deeply through traversing holy places and engaging graced persons.

Early Christian pilgrims visited the sites associated with the ministry of Jesus and his earliest followers. Many of these places, some of questionable historical connection, nevertheless became meaningful pilgrimage destinations. Origen had the dubious distinction of being shown the actual location of the Gadarene swine in the mid-third century while “in search of the traces of Jesus, the disciples and the prophets ….”

Place became a “spatial expression of a life, a teaching, and a theology,” in the words of Philip Sheldrake in Spaces for the Sacred. What matters is not the exact location but what happened in them and how the believer may be brought into deeper acquaintance with saving events.

Many Christians are recovering this ancient practice in our day, and places like Jerusalem, Rome, Iona and Assisi do not lack for spiritual seekers. Eager to draw closer to the lives of the founder of our faith and the saints, pilgrims explore not only the holy site, but also undergo a very personal interior exploration. The one who finishes the journey is a different person than the one who began.

And this may be the more important form of pilgrimage, the internal journey that acknowledges how parched our lives are and that our real thirst is for God. The late Michel de Certeau, a French Jesuit, spoke to the postmodern restlessness. He suggested that we are on a kind of perpetual pilgrimage. Because we experience dissatisfaction with final definitions or completed places, we are in the mode of continuous departure. He wrote in The Mystic Fable that each of us “with certainty of what is lacking, knows of every place and object that it is not that, one cannot stay there or be content with that.”

Akin to the mystical tradition, this kind of perception acknowledges that we were meant for more than the fleeting gratifications of the present, life-enhancing though they may be. Nothing stays put, as we are always on the way, departing from known places in search of the mysterious Other who beckons us onward. As in St. Augustine’s City of God, there is a rejection of any claim to ultimacy in the contingent world of particular times and places.

Visiting holy places can be constructive, but engaging graced persons matters even more. One of the earliest Christian pilgrimages to Palestine was specifically to visit the monks as much as the holy places, so late fourth-century pilgrim Egeria recorded. From their palpably dedicated witness, she learned better the pathway to holy living.

When my students reflect on their time at Conception Abbey, they remark about the beauty of the place, but their deepest appreciation is for the monks who open their lives to be with them. Time with the abbot or guest master leaves a lasting imprint of grace.

So much awaits us as we prepare for Lenten pilgrimage. There will be the whispered wilderness questions about self-aggrandizement or submission, new lessons learned about forgiveness and new opportunity to cultivate discernment by confronting complicated choices.

When we undertake this journey in the company of graced persons, we are more likely to catch a glimpse of the one who walks ahead of us. As we keep company with the Christ and our fellow pilgrims, we learn to be at home.

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