What makes a pilgrim, and a pilgrimage?
By Sam Lyon
Understanding pilgrimage is, I believe, extremely important for one living out his or her faith. We do ourselves a great disservice by thinking that a pilgrim is some sort of holy adventurer the likes of which we can never become. A pilgrim, by definition, is “one who journeys to a sacred place.” The very fact of the matter is that we are all pilgrims journeying to a sacred place, our heavenly home. It’s important to recognize this truth so that we can analyze what makes a pilgrim, and do our best to emulate one — thus making our journey home a little less difficult.
Two summers ago, I and two other young people from the diocese, Matt Anderson and Bella Widner, set out to go on a pilgrimage of our own, the Camino de Santiago. The Camino is an extremely old pilgrimage in which one walks from France to the west coast of Spain, ending before the tomb of St. James in Santiago. On the Camino, it became clear to me that there are three things a pilgrim must do in order to finish his or her journey, and I believe they apply to our earthly pilgrimage as well.
The first thing a pilgrim must do is to keep the end goal in mind. As a very task-oriented person, I did a lot of thinking about “the end” on the road to Santiago. These thoughts certainly made the blisters a little less painful; and not only that, but they made me want to press on despite the pain. I couldn’t wait to hear those triumphant trumpets blast as I entered Santiago. (In reality what I heard were car horns and a street performer playing “Scotland the Brave” on bagpipes.) Similarly, thinking about our end goal of heaven not only makes our earthly sufferings more tolerable but also helps us to act in such a way as to someday attain our goal. While no one enjoys thinking about their own mortality, it’s critical to remember that this earth is not what we were made for. Just as thinking about the finish line makes a race bearable, pondering the reality of our heavenly home doesn’t eliminate the “blisters” of our lives entirely, but makes them more tolerable, as we know there’s something greater for us at the end. Put simply, you were not made for blisters, you were made for heaven.
Secondly, a pilgrim must unite their sufferings to God. My dad used to say to me, “hope for the best, plan for the worst.” Never has this been truer than during my misadventures in Spain, which began with getting lost in the Madrid airport. Next came the blazing heat, then the attempted pickpocket, then the tendonitis, then the blisters; and how could I forget the lost passport debacle. Pilgrimage is supposed to hurt, and it’s certainly not supposed to be a walk in the park. Maybe that’s the point, because in suffering one can unite himself to Christ’s cross in a very special way. It’s easy to pray when everything is going well on our journey, but enduring suffering with joy and patience is an incredibly powerful and meaningful prayer. This doesn’t mean that our earthly pilgrimage can’t be enjoyable, because just as we unite ourselves to Christ’s sufferings in the low times, we can give God praise for the good times.
Last, a pilgrim has to rely on others. On a pilgrimage, you make friends that encourage you and help you along the way. Had it not been for my resilient and encouraging travel companions, Spain would have been an anxiety-inducing nightmare ending in, most likely, surrender. Luckily I had them, and lucky for all of us the Catholic Church is a vibrant community full of potential encouragers. We not only have our fellow Catholics to push us on to heaven, but we also have the communion of saints. These saints are those who have finished the race before us, and they intercede for us and inspire us by their heroic lives.
Pilgrimage, whether you want it to or not, matters a great deal. The pilgrim mentality entails keeping the end in mind at all times, uniting sufferings to God and relying on others. Even if you don’t think these things are necessary for salvation, they certainly can’t hurt.