As I’ve worked with our youth group over the last couple years, one of the most memorable and lively conversations we’ve had was around an anecdote in Fr. James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything; some of you may be familiar with the book. Our discussion that Sunday evening was to be about loving ourselves as God created and intends us to be. In an act of less-than-my-best judgment, I proceeded to recount to our sensibly reformed youth the story that Fr. Martin told of his Jesuit friend, Rick.
Rick was the founder of the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped, and he himself had been born without a right arm. When Rick was a child in Catholic school, he had been encouraged to make a pilgrimage to Philadelphia to see the preserved arm of St. Francis Xavier. Rick ends up getting to go and is accompanied by the wishes and prayers of his classmates for the healing of his arm. Upon praying before and kissing the reliquary, Rick begins to realize that he doesn’t really want the kind of healing his friends wish for him. He keeps feeling his arm on the way home. No change; no miracle. Upon returning home, Rick’s sister remarks upon seeing him unchanged, “Oh Great!…I’m so happy that nothing happened. Because I like you the way you are!” Rick was happy too. At the end of the pilgrimage something had changed, of course; something had happened. Rick had begun to love who he is.
James Martin’s takeaway in telling the story, and my reason for recounting it to the youth, was this: God loves us as we are, even when we struggle to know and believe that. What the youth actually took away–all the way home to their parents, in fact–was totally different. The youth couldn’t get past this pilgrimage to kiss St. Francis Xavier’s preserved arm. We ended up talking about all sorts of strange stories of pilgrims and pilgrimage sites: about Thecla, who baptized herself in a pool of ravenous seals; about St. Stephen’s mummified right hand, which is annually carried around Budapest in the aptly named Holy Right Hand celebration. We had stumbled into this fascinating and ancient Christian practice of pilgrimage, one which seems so foreign to us today, even for those of us who have gone on a modern day pilgrimage of sorts.
Pinning down a good, comprehensive definition of pilgrimage is not a simple task. Maybe we pilgrim to pray for a miracle or for healing, like Rick set out to do initially. Or maybe, we focus on how visiting a holy site, like Iona or Jerusalem, might strengthen our faith in and knowledge of God, like a sort of religious tourism.
As I’ve been been preparing to leave Richmond, the seminary, and GPPC––places and people I’ve really grown fond of––to begin my new work at a church in Ann Arbor, another image of pilgrimage has stuck with me, one that focuses more on the travel itself and traveling companions. This understanding of pilgrimage is more a way of being in the world than it is about going somewhere else in the world.
Pilgrim comes from the latin word, peregrinus, which denotes one who is a wanderer, an alien, an exile, a stranger, or a newcomer. It is such a fitting image for the church today, I think. Many of us come from different places, but as we follow Jesus Christ––our sacred destination––we find ourselves in the remarkable and often quirky company of other pilgrims, other pilgrims who offer hospitality to us, who pray for us, who feed us, and remind us that God loves us, even when it’s hard to believe that for ourselves. And just as often, we have the chance to welcome the newcomer to be with us––even if only for a short while––in our band of traveling companions.
In the old days of pilgrimage, networks of monasteries were established all over the place that welcomed in pilgrims to rest on their way. The Rule of St. Benedict guided such orders. The Rule states (53:1), “All guests who present themselves themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt 25:35).” Later, it goes on, “great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received.”
May we all be so welcomed, and be so welcoming as the Christ whom we together worship and serve. As The Servant Song in our new hymnal calls us to sing:
We are pilgrims on a journey, we are travelers on the road, we are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.