Thinking about being a pilgrim
(Journey at the end of life retreat 11/17-11/20/2015)
I remember when I was around 10 or 11, watching a movie with my mother way past my bed time. In the movie one of the actors greeted a friend by saying “hello pilgrim”. It was an old film from the 30’s. I thought about that word ‘pilgrim’ and when the movie was over I asked my mom what the word meant. I had some idea about the word but needed further clarification. So my mom thought about it for a minute and said this:
“Pilgrims are people who make a journey towards a sacred place”.
I was not totally satisfied with that but thought it was enough for the time being. Journey, sacred place, made sense. So I asked her, is my going to church on Sunday, when I walk there, is that a pilgrimage? She said “no, it is much longer than that, though in some ways it does resemble a real pilgrimage. It is simply moving towards a desired goal, and in doing that it can bring life into perspective”….or something of that nature.
Three months before I graduated from High School, I remember lying in bed thinking about graduation, my joining the Navy and an uncertain future. I was scared and excited at the same time. I did not want to leave home, yet I did not want to stay either. It was then that the idea of what being a pilgrim is all about started to solidify for me. I knew when I was lying in bed thinking about this, that I would end up in a Monastery, so I had the journey towards a sacred place set before me. However, even if someone has no sacred place to move towards, they are still pilgrims. It is about the journey, what happens during that trip, and where there is no real resting place that is permanent along the way. The fly in the ointment is that we all have deep inner lives and longings that drive us on.
If we really are pilgrims, what happens when we forget about that? We can try to dig in, plan our lives out, and seek a place that we call home. We often get our ideas about home from our past, where we have memories that we wash clean and long to return to a past that never really existed, at least not in the Norman Rockwell sort of memory. This brings out our deep longings for home…..yet how often do we feel at home? Perhaps for a short time, but then ‘time’ happens, the years fly by, we blink, and things change, loved ones die, or we get sick ourselves and are told that we too will soon be moving towards the end of our pilgrimage, our lives. Perhaps our nostalgia is really a desire for what we are actually moving towards on our pilgrimage.
Death becomes every more obvious as we age. Our culture tries to hide it, yet it peaks out in our movies, and books, for the unconscious will manifest wherever it can to get our attention. It is the artist that often shows us the best and worst about ourselves, and also what we seek to repress. What is feared I believe is the Paschal Mystery that is lived out in all of our lives.
When a loved one becomes sick, be it parents, brothers or sisters and dear friends, this reality can seem like a slap in the face, but it is a wake up call, to rouse us from sleep and to look at life and see what it is about. For some life is simply a short journey and then nothing. I kind of find that comforting, though I do not believe that. For most, we have at least a nominal belief in God and an afterlife. We have always known the temporal nature of our lives but have chosen to ignore it more often than not. Sickness and death take that away from us; we loose our naïveté and are forced to face stark reality.
Faith does not take away suffering, nor does it make things easier, it is not about “pie in the sky when you die”. No, it is about being able to see meaning in our lives and to embrace the journey because this life is the beginning of ever deeper penetration into reality. We have to choose however to believe that, because we often have childish ideas of God that are soon dispelled as we age and we experience our own suffering as well as that of our loved ones…..and of their deaths.
In taking care of others we come face to face what is really important in our lives. It is about service to others, about compassion and love. One of the things I hate about those who want to administer Euthanasia is that is can cut short this valuable experience for all involved. If our lives continue, then perhaps the death process is the most important aspect of our lives…..painful as that often is. Yet we go through deeply painful episodes all through our lives that could be even more excruciating, yet we get through it. Again, I believe that the Paschal Mystery is played out in all of our lives. God with us, and as St. Paul says, “We carry in our bodies what is lacking in the suffering of Christ”.
When people went on pilgrimage in the past, it was dangerous and filled with inconvenience and suffering. It was exhausting and often tedious, yet they took on this journey to visit a sacred place. Our whole life is either a pilgrimage towards the sacred, or it is about nothing at all. Each way of believing has its appeal, yet which is true? All we can do is to seek the truth and choose the path we walk. I do believe that if we truly seek, we will all one day find……grace is after all a gift; all we need do is to be open to it.