This article was originally published on the website for Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life.
The Lenten journey is one of prayer, sacrifice, and charity. Throughout the season, we are asked to intentionally break away from our normal routine of daily life, to strip away life’s trivialities, and to focus on our spiritual journey. In other words, Lent is a pilgrimage – a spiritual pilgrimage to the Cross.
Quite literally, my life revolves around actual pilgrimages. In 2016, during a pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, I decided to leave my safe and stable ministry job to embark on a career as an entrepreneur. My new business? A pilgrimage company that would facilitate journeys to the world’s most sacred places. Fast forward four years and Verso Ministries has had the humble privilege of sending hundreds of pilgrims around the world to discover what God has in store for them.
Understanding the Lenten season as a spiritual pilgrimage is not new. I certainly do not claim this to be an original idea. However, my insights about the thematic components of a physical pilgrimage can shed light on the principles of a spiritual pilgrimage. Two simple questions guide both a physical pilgrimage and the Lenten journey: Where am I going, and how will I get there?
Where am I going?
At first glance, the destination of a physical pilgrimage is easy to understand. We travel to a specific place where God has revealed himself in a unique way. When a pilgrim visits the Holy Land he or she explores the land of Jesus, visiting places like Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem. However, there is a distinct difference between a pilgrimage and a tour of religious sites.
A pilgrim and a tourist might visit the same places, but the ultimate goal is very different. For the pilgrim, the physical journey provides a means to understand one’s spiritual journey to God in heaven. For the tourist, the goals vary. The journey could be one of enlightenment or enrichment. Often, it serves as an escape from the realities of life back at home.
During Lent, we must keep our spiritual destination in focus. If we are not intentional about our pilgrimage to the Cross, we might reduce Lenten observances to the spiritual equivalent of New Year’s resolutions: spiritually empty practices that might lead us to enlightenment or enrichment but, in the end, might not help us become saints.
St. Ignatius talked about the spiritual life in very simple terms: one is either walking towards God or away from God. There is no such thing as remaining stagnant in the spiritual life. This dichotomy offers a reality check for our movement during both a physical pilgrimage and during the season of Lent. Are we moving towards God or away from God? Where am I going?
How do I get there?
Of course, understanding how to literally get somewhere is key to a successful physical pilgrimage, but more important is the attitude with which you travel. A better way to phrase this question may be, “With what disposition do I get there?”
The journey of a pilgrim involves prayer, sacrifice, and charity. This is how one travels as a pilgrim. While a typical tourist expects smooth travel with exceptional service along the way, the pilgrim travels with an open mind and a generous heart, ready to encounter whatever twists and turns may arise. A tourist expects convenience and comfort, while the pilgrim appreciates those things if they happen to come.
One of my group leaders was recently in Greece during the beginnings of the COVID-19 outbreak, which shut down several important places her group was supposed to visit. After having to shift around their entire itinerary for the day, she reflected to me afterward, “Today was a real test of the pilgrim’s heart.” She went on to describe the unanticipated benefits of switching the day’s activities and the unexpected moments of beauty they only experienced because of the new schedule. Without an open mind and a generous heart cultivated in prayer, these sacred moments could have easily been obscured from her view.
As Lenten pilgrims, we cannot foresee all the roadblocks we will encounter along our journey, but we can control “how” we travel. We all place certain expectations on our Lenten practices. Do I journey with an open mind? A generous heart? What happens if my journey is interrupted or taken for a detour? The Lenten journey is a pilgrimage to the Cross—how will I get there?
These two simple questions—where am I going and how do I get there—serve as guideposts along any physical or spiritual journey. As we navigate a world of quarantine and isolation, the analogy between physical and spiritual pilgrimage is all the more poignant. How does my journey through the world—my actions, movements, feelings, and dispositions—illuminate my Lenten journey to the Cross?