In every epoch, culture and faith tradition, there have been tales of and from the road: Odysseus’ journey to return to Ithaca from the Trojan War, Jesus’ quest to his destiny in Jerusalem, the Prophet Muhammad’s trek from Mecca to Medina, Jack Kerouac’s American sojourn “On the Road,” even the cinematic pilgrimage of the Star Wars canon. There is essential in la condition humaine about the journey. While destinations and goals are fundamental, there is something about how we get there that is just as indispensible.
This past summer I accompanied a group of Georgetown students to World Youth Day 2016 in Krakow, Poland. World Youth Day is a gathering organized every three years by the Catholic Church in various locations around the globe with young people — mostly college-aged — from a host of countries.
This year, the week’s events culminated in a Mass held about 11 miles outside of Krakow and was attended by an estimated 3 million travellers from 185 countries. While the concluding Mass, with notable representation of the globe accompanying Pope Francis, was phenomenal indeed — it was the joys and challenges of our preceding days leading up to the Mass that were so profound. This is what the journey, often defined as pilgrimage in religious terms, is all about.
In his book “The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred,” author Phil Cousineau writes: “The point of pilgrimage … is to improve yourself by enduring and overcoming difficulties. In other words, if the journey you have chosen is indeed a pilgrimage, a soulful journey, it will be rigorous. Ancient wisdom suggests that if you aren’t trembling as you approach the sacred, it isn’t the real thing. The sacred, in its various guises as holy ground, art, or knowledge, evolves emotion and commotion.”
Emotion and commotion — and so it was for us in Krakow. There was the high emotion and grandeur of cafes and medieval castles we visited. Yet lost luggage, sleeping on a gymnasium floor and trekking a dozen miles in temperatures bordering on 90 degrees — interspersed with thunderstorms with thousands of other pilgrims — caused much commotion as well.
Yet it was in the commotion that something emerged. All of us, upon individual and communal reflection, came to identify that with all of these apparent creature discomforts, we also came to embrace the distinction between what was truly wanted out of this pilgrimage and what was truly needed. We came to a deeper understanding of what was essential for this pilgrimage — a journey that we understood as a microcosm of our greater treks through our lives.
Luggage, comfortable beds, an Uber or Lyft to get us where we were going — all of these comfortable wants abated as a deepening notion of who we were and where we were going increased. That became the defining feature of this pilgrimage: discerning the distinction between life’s wants and needs, and the desire to live more fully from the essential needs.
And so it was in Krakow. Yet so it is each day of our lives as well. It becomes a matter of perspective. I recently had it explained to me as the crucial difference between a vacation and a pilgrimage. On vacation, we move through cities, along beaches, into towns and the countryside. On pilgrimage, it is the cities, the beaches, the countryside and towns that move through us, shaping us, transforming us into who each of us is more fully.
As we continue our journey through this semester on the Hilltop, may each of us come to embrace the joys and struggles, the emotion and commotion of our sacred life journeys, our pilgrimages, both individually and collectively.
Fr. Gregory Schenden, S.J., is the Roman Catholic chaplain. As This Jesuit Sees It appears every other Friday.
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