Lent as Pilgrimage: A Weekend Retreat for Women

As I mentioned in a a prior post, last weekend I gave a weekend women’s lent retreat at St. Ignatius Retreat House in Manhasset, where I served as a staff associate until my move to Minneapolis in 2007. Many of the women who participated attend this particular retreat weekend year after year, and it has been my blessing and privilege to lead them in the retreat four of the last five years. It is always a very special weekend for me.

This year, my them was A Lenten Pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is a wonderful image, not only for Lent, but for our lives as Christians: We are, for the entirety of our lives, on a holy journey toward full union with God.

In my opening talk on Friday evening, I talked about why I think pilgrimage is a good image for our lives and for our Lenten journey. We also spent some time that evening focusing on our own journey thus far. On Saturday, inspired by the Canterbury Tales, my motif was that or narrative, considering in our three sessions, respectively, Tales of Discipleship, False Steps on the Pilgrims’ Trail, and Jesus Tale. We ended Saturday evening with a powerful ritual of coming to the cross. Sunday morning, we reflected on what it means to be Pilgrims in a Post-Resurrection World.

I recorded the five talks I gave at the retreat. You can download the podcasts of each of the five talks here. (After this week, i.e., after new podcasts start to be posted, go to March archives to find these most easily.) Or, you can listen to the talks at the icons below. (Note that for copyright reasons, the podcast does not include songs I played for the participants.) You can find the prayer material for several of the sessions here.

Friday evening: Introduction – Pilgrimage as a Metaphor for Our Lives:

Saturday morning: Tales of Discipleship:

Saturday afternoon: False Steps on the Pilgrim’s Trail:

Saturday evening: Jesus Tale:

Sunday morning: Pilgrimage in a Post-Resurrection World:

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Pilgrimage in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim Faiths

Last night I participated in a panel discussion at the University of St. Thomas sponsored by the Jay Philips Center for Interfaith Learning and the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center on the subject Pilgrimage: What Might Jews, Christians, and Muslims Learn From and With Each Other? I (as you might guess) spoke on the Christian perspective and my co-panelists were Rabbi Norman Cohen and Sheikh Odeh Muhawesh.

The evening was not only enjoyable, but I learned a great deal from my co-panelists. I was moved particularly by Sheikh Muhawesh’s descriptions of his Hadj experiences and by Rabbi Cohen’s discussion of the celebrations of Pesach, Shavout and Sukkot as metaphysical pilgrimages.

One of the questions we were asked to address was whether interfaith pilgrimages were appropriate and something to be encouraged.

As a general matter, I think we learn much, not only about each other, but about our own faith tradition when we engage in interfaith experiences with other persons. So I think there is value in all encounters with other religions. I also think that there is a particular value to interfaith pilgrimages.

I think we (perhaps instinctively) recognize a holy place when we see it, much as we recognize holiness in individuals when we see it – without regard to what religion it is. (I think in this context of the reaction of non-Buddhists to the Dalia Lama and non-Catholics to Pope John Paul II.) I was still a Buddhist the first time I walked in the steps of St. Francis outside Assisi – when I knelt at the place he slept and where he often meditated. I could feel the specialness of that place. I suspect I would feel the same at a holy place of other religions as well. I don’t remember the circumstance, but I was once with a group in NY that was invited by the rabbi to come up to the ark of a synagogue (Aron Kodesh) – the holy spot in the synagogue where the Torah is stored. Standing there was profoundly moving for me – even more so when the rabbi removed the Torah and opened it out on the table from which it is read.

I believe that if all people of different faiths do is talk to each other about their beliefs, it is all too easy to say “my idea is better than your idea.” And “my idea is better than yours” leads all to easily to a sense of “you are not me” and therefore are less worthy of my regard.

But if I kneel together with someone of another faith on ground that is holy to them and experience the holiness of that place with them, I can more easily see the person as brother or sister. When I touch that spot and recognize with them that this is holy ground, we become united in a way words alone do not unite us. That doesn’t negate the differences between my religion and the other’s. But those differences don’t separate us quite so much when we are united in a shared experience of the holy.

When I raised this point with my friend Joshua the night before last, his reaction was that interfaith pilgrimages might be worthwhile, but should not be a substitute for pilgrimages where the worship and shared reflection does not require the editing and self-censorship that interfaith activities often seem to demand.

I agree they should not be a substitute. But I do think sharing at the level of our prayer experience and more generally our experience of the holy, accomplishes something that talking about theological doctrine doesn’t do. And that what it potentially can do is very important.

It is also my intuition that the kind of sharing that would take place during an inter-faith pilgrimage, precisely because of our shared experience of the holy, might require less editing and self-censorship than interfaith activities otherwise might.

Annual and Life Pilgrimages

Today marks the beginning of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, which is one of the five pillars of Islam. The Hajj is the largest annual pilgramage in the world, with at least two million people making the pilgrimage each year.

Although not a mandatory element of our faith, the concept of pilgramage is important for Catholics as well. Each year, many Catholics go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to sites of Marian apparitions like Fatima or Medjugorje, or go on longer pilgrimages, such as the Camino de Santiago.

The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia defines pilgrimages as “journeys made to some place with the purpose of venerating it, or in order to ask there for supernatural aid, or to discharge some religious obligation.” That definition seems to me to run the risk of missing a central aspect of the pilgrimage – the journey itself. While the endpoint of the pilgramage always has special religious significance, and it is correct that veneration will be offered there, what happens on the road is no less important than what happens when one gets there. The conversations with God and with other pilgrims. The difficulties associated with the trip. All of the experiences, large and small, that make up the journey.

Pilgrimage is a good image for our lives. We are, for the entirety of our lives, on a holy journey toward full union with God. Our entire life is a journey with a sacred purpose. And everything that happens along the way is part of that journey and something we learn from. Keeping our eyes on the destination is fine – so long as we don’t fail to notice what is happening along the way.

Life As Pilgrimage

I just finished reading Rembert Weakland’s A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop. The image of pilgrimage is a central one for Weakland and one that resonates with me.

For Weakland, “the idea of pilgrimage means that perfection in this life is never achieved, only striven for, where the good and bad grow up together till the final judgment that rests, not in human hands, but only in God’s…. Life itself has often been called our earthly pilgrimage on our way to the dwelling place Christ said he had prepared for us.”

The pilgrimage image is a good one, reminding us that conversion is a life-long process. That none of us really, fully and totally gets it all right all of the time during our lifetimes.

Pilgrimage is also a good image because pilgrimages have both an individual and a communal aspect to them. Weakland describes it in this way: “A pilgrimage was the church in miniature: all the pilgrims strove together for a common goal, making many sacrifices on the way, suffering for and with one another, praying together and individually along the way, yearning for places of refreshment and repose, all the while telling stories and sharing wisdom.”

This description sounds very familiar to me from my friend Michael’s description of his pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago this past fall. It reminds us that we don’t undertake this journey alone. That others contribute to our growth and to our journey as we contribute to theirs. Neither they nor we are perfect. Neither they nor we have all the answers. But we manage, in our imperfection, to continue forward in our journey toward union with God.