The Stages of Pilgrimage

The Discovery

The Encounter

The Return

The Discovery

Blessed is he whose heart he hath disposed to ascend by steps. (Psalm 83)

The first moment of the pilgrimage experience is the decision to depart, a true inspiration of the heart, but also a vocation, a calling, or rather a “con-vocation,” an invitation to become a part of the pilgrim humanity, which has always set off on the path towards the chosen holy lands.  Along with the decision comes waiting and expectations: every pilgrim, who has decided to depart, cannot wait to set off on the road, to reach the destination, to contemplate, to listen, to physically and spiritually rest.  In a certain sense, the items a pilgrim packs reveals the kind of experience that he/she wishes to have! The luggage of a pilgrim should contain the essentials, be sober, appropriate and include the items necessary to wash and dress, but also those that help to learn and pray.  Precisely for this reason, a guide book for the destination and, most importantly, the Bible, a rosary and – if it is customary to use one – the Liturgy of the Hours are necessary.

And finally the journey begins: What will I find? Who will travel with me? What is God preparing me for? These and many other questions accompany the pilgrim as he closes his front door, moving towards the station, the airport or the bus location.  If for man “to leave is to die a little,” for the pilgrim leaving is life, joy, waiting, hope.  The duration of the journey, whether short or long, is not lost or wasted time. Instead it is in itself a time of grace, a precious occasion, and little by little as the minutes and miles pass the desire for the destination grows.

Before the pilgrimage

Blessed is the man whose help is from thee. (Psalm 83)

We prepare ourselves for the journey, beginning to taste the experience we are about to have. We imagine the shrines we will visit,  places to discover, reinvigorate and fortify our Christian faith.  To participate in a pilgrimage means to discover these signs and to meet His face.

Before departing we can dedicate time to reading texts, such as the Bible or the writings of the Doctors and Fathers of the Church; we can gather in prayer and open our hearts to the Word of God allowing our docile, vigil spirit  to welcome His splendor. We can participate in the celebration of the Holy Mass and begin to ask what it means to “come back to ourselves” and reenter the plan of Creation.

Arrival at the destination

 I rejoiced when they said unto me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord. '
(Psalm 122, 1-2)

Yet again it is a psalm that expresses the richness of this phase of the pilgrimage: “I rejoiced when they said unto me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’” (the departure and journey). And now our feet stand at your gates, Jerusalem” (the arrival and stay).

A mix of satisfaction, surprise, stupor, emotion; a sensation of completion and fullness; the prayer that is spontaneously sung from the heart.  All of this and much more are part of the experience upon arrival. The pilgrim has often dreamed of the house of Nazareth, the walls of Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee; he or she has waited – sometimes with curiosity, sometimes with trepidation - to enter the doors of the Shrine of Lourdes or that of Fatima; he or she has experienced the desire to pray on Peter’s tomb and in the places replete with the spirituality of saints…and here, it is to see, feel, touch, it is all within arm’s (and heart’s) reach. The desire to freeze time begins, to “make three tents” like the disciples on Mount Tabor, to rest in calmness and serenity, to receive and to give, to tap into Grace and to ask for grace, for oneself, for others, for the many joyous and painful situations that each pilgrim carries in his heart as an integral part of his or her personal luggage.

Arriving and staying at the destination, cronos becomes kairos, as the ancients said, chronological time actually becomes the time of salvation, a time full of God, of Spirit, of salvation and peace. If there was even a hint of doubt or uncertainty in the decision to depart, it dissipates; it was really worth it to undertake the “holy journey”! You now see a kneeling pilgrim, one who looks around and writes a personal note, another who takes pictures - different ways to immortalize the moment so that, one day in the future, the memory might not only occupy the mind, but also warm the heart.

During the Pilgrimage

All that he does is apt for its time; but although he has given us an awareness of the passage of time, we can grasp neither the beginning nor the end of what God does. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

During the pilgrimage, we immerse ourselves day after day in all of the grace that we encounter, so that the journey might become, for us, the path towards the Truth revealed by the Holy Scriptures.  We rid ourselves of our habits and our “reasons,” we remove our sandals, to travel to the holy places that we will encounter.  We don’t bring  bags or shoes, and we enter each sanctuary with our bodies, ready to kneel, our gaze fixed upon Jesus, our thoughts revolving around the Knowledge of God and our spirit ready to welcome the grace of the evangelical message.

We expose ourselves to the light of God; we “take advantage” of every moment, we let none of the grace that the Church offers during the pilgrimage escape us. For example, the moments of reflection with our spiritual assistant, who understands and speaks to us about the journey we have undertaken and the liturgy, in which the mystery of the Eucharist comes and dissolve our doubts and any confusion - “I am the way, the truth, and the life”.  We welcome those who walk with us in the pilgrimage: “I give you a new commandment: love one another just as I have loved you.”

The Return

Going they went casting their seeds.  (Psalm 125)

A psalm expresses the joy of returning home to enjoy the fruits of the entire experience.  When you watch the place that was so close to you slowly disappear into the distance from the window of an airplane, a train or a bus,, the first feeling is of nostalgia and the desire to return arises almost spontaneously. During the return trip, maybe, the pilgrim rereads his or her notes, scrolls through the pictures taken to immediately reconstruct the stops along the journey in an effort to identify the sensations, the feelings, the big and small discoveries: a fragment of the Word of God, testimony, moments of prayer, the daily life of the local people… and other pieces that make up the great mosaic that is the pilgrimage experience.

And then, looking forward to seeing the people you left at home so that you can tell, show, transmit the beauty and the richness of destinations you visited. How to evaluate the experience of the pilgrimage? If it had just been a simple organized trip, no matter how nice, it could be defined in terms of the service and organizational efficiency.  However the pilgrim ask the following questions: Have I grown through the love of God and the people around me? What do I need to change in my life in order to bring myself closer to the Word of God? What commitment must I make regarding prayer, gestures of solidarity, in my daily life?  How to communicate to others the gifts received during the journey? In order to improve the situation that I left behind, what must I do now to live differently, with more hope, serenity and strength?

And ultimately, returning home, means opening the door, turning on the lights,  setting  the luggage aside … and setting off on the real pilgrimage, the true itinerary of a life towards God in communion with the family of the church.

After the pilgrimage

Remain in my love. (John 15:9)

Even when we return from the pilgrimage, we remain in the House of God, welcoming the invitation that comes to us from the word of God to remain in His love. To be on the path … and to remain in His love, to return to our homes … and remain in His love. Upon returning we realize that we are different, something in us has changed.

But how can we continue our journey towards the Truth in the Christian message every day?  Every day can be an occasion to relive the pilgrimage experience. Each place, illuminated by His Word, can represent the Holy Land, every person met in our everyday can represent the Holy Land.

As a result, is it essential to give continuity to the experience by:

•   participating in the celebration of the Holy Mass;

•   exploring grace through Confession;

•   living in prayer; with the Bible, with the Rosary;

•   living the great evangelical message in a communal dimension;

•   becoming active in gestures of solidarity.

And so even we put ourselves at the service of joy, the joy of God that wants to make its entrance into the world (Benedict XVI), hoping that our prayers are answered:

One thing I ask of the Lord, one thing I seek: to dwell in the Lord’s house all the days of my life, to enjoy the sweetness of the Lord, to seek out his temple. (Psalms 27:4)