On pilgrimage

Francis, in Assisi

It’s not that we didn’t already know that “the church” is actually the people of God, the living body of Christ, and not the building where those people gather to worship. But that point has certainly been driven home for us during this past year of pandemic, and what a comfort it has been. It means that “church” can continue even when we’re not able to be together in our buildings, no matter how much we miss them. And it has opened new possibilities we could never have imagined in “normal” times—including my presence in the Ascension community this Lent and Easter. This blessing was never part of my plans back in the time when I made plans and fully expected I’d be able to live them out.

So many of our plans have evaporated during this past year. One of the plans I did have for 2020 was to join a 10-day group pilgrimage to the mountainside town of Assisi in Italy, home to saints Francis and Clare. I was looking forward to making photographs in Assisi’s clear light, spending time with its art treasures, getting to know Francis and Clare and my fellow pilgrims better, spending time in community and precious time alone in that holy and peaceful place, and enjoying good, wholesome Italian food and wine. It was all supposed to happen last May. And of course it never did.

And that’s exactly the thing about pilgrimage. It means letting go of our own carefully laid plans and putting one foot in front of the other, living life as it comes to us and opening our hearts to receive the grace present in each moment. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson is the author of a titled Without Oars: Casting Off into a Life of Pilgrimage. He says that as pilgrims “we open ourselves to each event, each person, each sorrow, each suffering, and each joy that we discover, daily, on our path.” In doing so we find blessings where we weren’t expecting them, and we find that God has been there with us all along. 

In that sense you could say that the entire past year has been a kind of pilgrimage, if not the one we’d intended. And Lent is also a pilgrimage of sorts, as we walk toward the cross with Jesus. What will be the unanticipated blessings we find in this holy season?

Granberg-Michaelson says pilgrimage is meant to transform us, not just for our good, but for a purpose. For pilgrims, he says, the ultimate test comes when the pilgrimage has ended: “Put simply, have they been transformed in order to be transforming?” In other words, will we be better people when the pilgrimage is over, ready to do what we can to make a better world? Good questions for Lent especially. What kind of people will we be after Easter?

I’m grateful that my pilgrimage of 2020-21 has brought me into your community, if only for a time. May it be an unexpected blessing for all of us.

Mozarabic prayer from the book Without Oars:

You call us from our settled ways, O God,
      out of old habits and rutted traditions.

You call us into the land of promise,
      to new life and new possibilities.

Make us strong to travel the road ahead.

Deliver us from false security and comfort,
      desire for ease and uninvolved days.

Let your Word and Spirit dwell in us
      that your will may be fulfilled in us
      for the well-being and shalom of all. Amen.

Written for the Spring/Summer newsletter at Church of the Ascension, Parkesburg PA