On his apostolic journey to Santiago de Compostela, Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI said, “To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself, where his grace has shone with particular splendor and produced rich fruits of conversion and holiness among those who believe.” When making some sort of physical journey to a holy place, we live out, in a metaphorical way, what we live out every day of our lives: seeking to encounter God as He comes to us, and (hopefully) getting closer and closer to the Home of our Heavenly Father. This same idea was reiterated by both Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Francis. That being said, it wasn’t till spending a few days walking the Camino to Santiago that I really began to understand that our lives are basically one big pilgrimage.
You’ve got choices about where you can go. During the course of this weeklong pilgrimage, we had lots of opportunities to see cool things along the way. Some were more tempting than others…for some, it would have been nice to spend another hour, for some another day and for some, another month! I’m not sure if it was that these places were always that enticing, or if, in comparison with the 100-mile journey ahead of us, this thing before us seemed more appealing. Either way, there was always something to distract us from continuing toward our destination. How true this is in our lives! We’re bombarded by temptations throughout our days and throughout our lives to turn aside from that pilgrimage toward Heaven. Sometimes it’s a little thing which keeps us from performing a work of charity; sometimes it’s a serious thing that threatens our vocation. The “adventure” of growing in charity and holiness can sometimes appear too much and the temptations of the flesh, the world, and the devil can present themselves in very appealing ways, but like the Lord, sometimes we just need to “resolutely determine to head to Jerusalem”!
Sometimes it’s sunny…sometimes it’s rainy, but you’ve got to just keep going. During the course of 7 days outside, walking between 4 and 8 hours per day, it’s inevitable: there will be sun and there will be rain. The journey is easy when the sun is shining (as long as its not baking you in the process); the rain, however, can be relatively unpleasant. There’s always the option to find some shelter and wait it out, but sometimes it’ll rain all day…or 2 days straight, so you just have to put that poncho on and keep going. Likewise, in life, the journey can be easy when the sun is proverbially shining. Sometimes, however, that sun is baking you or, perhaps worse, it’s pouring rain. As someone I know likes to say, Thank you, Jesus, for loving me in this way! …and you just keep moving forward one step at a time.
You need to trust others in order to get there. There are LOTS of guidebooks and plenty of GPS devices that can keep even the most directionally-challenged from getting lost, but sometimes Google Maps doesn’t know the dirt road or the forest trail or the old Roman road that you’re walking on actually does exist. For that reason, there’s yellow arrows and yellow shells EVERYWHERE. I’m not joking; every one put there by someone else, some of them in relatively remote places. There’s no certainty that these are guaranteed to be right, but you keep following the arrows because the shopkeepers and the locals and the guidebooks all say to just follow the arrows. Sometimes, you turn down a street because the arrow said to and then you walk a mile before realizing that you haven’t seen an arrow for some time, and you begin to worry that you’ve gone off track, but you just keep going forward, trusting that you’ve been led in the right direction. While we don’t think about it all that often, there’s lots of people we have to trust in our lives and it’s not just God we’re talking about. We trust that the grocer is selling us quality food and the pump at the gas station is directing me to the correct type of gas and the people driving beside me on the road will follow traffic laws. Then there’s our trust in the good Lord, which is infinitely more important, especially since our eternal salvation depends upon it. Likewise, just like those who placed all those yellow arrows and shells along the way, there are those who have made this journey before and know the way: the saints. By their witness, they show us how to imitate Jesus Christ in our day-to-day lives, and we trust that, by imitating them, we too may have an eternal share in the joys of our Father’s house.
The good Lord is there all along the way. This pilgrimage route goes back to the Middle Ages. It’s no exaggeration to say that probably 100’s of millions of people have walked this route over the centuries. In the process, they have built churches, chapels, and shrines all along the way. This means that our Lord is present in a special way at these holy places, and most especially in His Eucharistic Presence. If I were to guess, I’d say that in 100 miles, we probably saw 75-80 of these places to stop and pray, some of them were nothing more than a stone cross while others were Medieval Cathedrals, but each one was a reminder that God was present with us all along this pilgrimage. Likewise, the good Lord is always with His faithful ones because He is the One who cannot fail to be faithful to Himself, even if we’re unfaithful to Him. Furthermore, we are His beloved children; whether we’re close to Him or far away, He’s never far from us. He will be there to receive our praise when we fittingly offer it to Him; He’s there to accept our joys when things are good and our tears when life is hard, but He remains ever-present to us, caring for us with His providential heart.
The end is worth the effort to get there. The city of Santiago, with foundations dating back to the middle of the first Christian millennium, is a magnificent city. The cathedral of St. James the Greater and the tomb of that holy Apostle and first Bishop of Jerusalem is a true source of grace. While traveling the various roads, sidewalks, trails, and paths through rural Portugal and Spain, we didn’t see many fellow pilgrims. As expected, when we drew nearer to Santiago, those numbers began to increase. Spending a day in town, we got to see just how many people had come on the Camino, some having journeyed from the local airport, others having walked hundreds of miles from other parts of Spain or Europe. They looked worn and ragged from the trials that they encountered, but there was joy among those in the city from having arrived at the goal and pilgrims traded stories about all the adventures along the way. Each one was, in some small way, bound to all the others by the simple fact that we made this journey and arrived at our goal. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote: You have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22-24) We are called as Christians to journey to the holy city, the Heavenly Jerusalem, the home of our Heavenly Father. It is far more magnificent than any earthly city, and for those who arrive there after their long sojourn in a foreign land, it will be the cause of eternal joys!
May we embark on the great adventure of this life with the grace of God, and by His grace, persevere in this journey so that we may come at last to our true Homeland!