The Wednesday morning service of Common Prayer at Old St. Joe's is a college Sacred Hour tradition.
A pilgrim’s guide to living
Pilgrims put themselves in a position where not only their physical location will change but also their sense of themselves and their world, said Howard Ebert (Religious Studies) at the first service of Common Prayer of this new academic year.
This excerpt from his reflection will resonate with readers around the country as they return to school themselves or see children and grandchildren off on this year's new journey. And, it chimes beautifully with the theme of the latest issue of the college magazine, which took a look at transformative journeys of many kinds.
What distinguishes a pilgrim from a tourist, a traveler, a nomad, a refugee? All of these terms designate someone who travels. Similarly, all may be undertaking a journey in response to a deep need, a desire, a restlessness … an incompleteness.
Richard Rolheiser … observes that this deep restlessness is a constant for all of humanity, for all of us.
In contrast to a tourist, a traveler, or a nomad, a pilgrim responds to this deep desire by undertaking a journey not into uncharted territory, not to escape but rather to retrace the steps of those who have gone before to find wisdom, inspiration and transformation. In this sense, a pilgrim undertakes a journey to be changed, to be transformed for the good of her or himself, and for others.
This desire to see and to live more deeply is supported by a pilgrim capacity to take the long view and to recognize the communion, dare one say communio, that he or she shares with all those who have traveled, and will travel, the journey.
These essential differentiating traits of a pilgrim – the desire to change, taking a long view and recognizing that he or she is not alone in this journey – are qualities that not only serve the pilgrim on pilgrimage, but are worthy of our reflection and emulation as we begin this new academic year.
The journey begins
A pilgrimage does not begin with the pilgrim’s first step. No, rather the journey begins well before the packing, planning, scheduling, and the goodbyes. It begins with the acknowledgement and affirmation of a deep, haunting need; a deep, haunting desire – a need and a desire, an unrest that moves one to act.
While there are myriad ways to deny, ignore, flee or to extinguish this unrest, a pilgrim acknowledges the deep need and takes action. In other words, the pilgrim takes the initiative to put her or himself in a position where they will be made to change not only physical location but change their very sense of themselves and their world. A pilgrim wishes to return home a changed, transformed, a better person.
Isn’t this also our wish? We come to this academic community to be changed, to be transformed. In a sense, this decision, like that of a pilgrim’s, is strange for our decision actually will make our lives more difficult, more complex, more insecure.
Like the pilgrim’s journey, our decision will entail hardship – challenges to our comfortable existence and to our well-organized routines. How many students have already experienced this as they negotiate their room arrangements, their roommates’ apparently strange “obsessions” and different, or lack of, basic “organizational skills”?
Also, how many students have already experienced a whole new vocabulary along with words they can neither say, spell or understand? Also, how many of the staff, faculty and administration have already encountered new and distinctive attitudes, perspectives, behaviors that seem intriguing, “different” or challenging?
On a personal note, I know one thing for sure this semester: because of my students I will think and perceive the subject matter, the world, and myself, differently. I will change; we will change.
So why put ourselves in a new, often uncomfortable situation? Why be around people, ideas, organizations that challenge, stretch us? Once again, I think that a pilgrim’s experience offers some guidance. A pilgrim recognizes that withdrawing into a comfortable isolation is not only impossible but unhealthy.
The very impetus at the heart of the unrest we all experience is not to turn in on ourselves but to open ourselves to a world and mystery beyond our understanding, beyond our control. That is why a pilgrim leaves the comfort of her or his home and moves into a world that is both fascinating and terrifying. For it is in this world that the living God is encountered.
It is in this spirit that we ask God to fill our lives, our journeys with God’s grace and love.
The long view
Being on a pilgrimage requires a “long view.” Otherwise the hardships, frustrations, fatigue can lead to despair.
Archbishop Romero … moved from a spirituality that was often centered on the next life and was disconnected with the concerns of ordinary people to a spirituality that embraced and found inspiration in the lives of the poor, the rejected and the oppressed.
This change, this transformation did not occur overnight, nor did it occur easily. It occurred over time, as Romero walked with the poor and those considered the “nobodies“ of Salvadoran society. He left the world of ecclesial privilege, of comfortable surroundings, of a “comfortable God,” with all of its comfortable trappings, to be with and to travel with the poor day in and day out.
It was his pilgrimage with the poor that led him to see the importance of human effort and its limitations and partiality.
At the same time, it led him to a recognition of the deep, abiding and at times, troubling love of a Living God. As a pilgrim, he saw that every step is necessary but every step is simply that – a step in and towards the great mystery of a Beckoning God.
As we enter a new academic year, we, like pilgrims beginning their journey, are filled with great anticipation and hope. Yet we know there are obstacles and frustrations ahead: exams, paper, deadlines and losses.
In these pleasant and unpleasant moments, it is wise to take the “long view” to temper our aspirations and to soften our disappointments.
For Romero, it was this “long view” that affirmed the value of every second, of every decision, of every life, and found its basis in a Living God who loves and surprises us.
Romero’s pilgrimage with the poor also underscores another central characteristic of a pilgrim’s experience: We are never alone! A pilgrim walks the path mapped by those who have gone before, trusting in the wisdom of past generations of seekers.
At St. Norbert College, we, too, rely on the wisdom, insights and inspiration of the past as embodied in the Catholic, liberal arts and Norbertine traditions – traditions rich and diverse in grappling with the fundamental questions of human existence: Why are we alive? Why must we die? Does it matter what we do? Is it worth the effort to love, to care? An education at St. Norbert is a pilgrimage into these traditions.
A pilgrim also walks with others. Think of pictures of pilgrimages and the throngs of people who are working together. Look around this church, this campus. Students, faculty, staff and administration are our fellow pilgrims – each traveling alongside us. At our best moments, we are present to each other to share the joys and the pains of this journey.
And then there will be those who come after us. This sense of being a part of a longer tradition is vividly apparent to me this year, for 40 years ago I was a first-year student at St. Norbert.
A resting place on the journey
The experience and witness of the pilgrim has not only important guidance and inspiration to offer us for this academic year, but for our lives. For if the great religious traditions are correct, we all are on a pilgrimage into the mystery of life, love, goodness, happiness and beauty: a mystery that many traditions and people call GOD.
And of course, all pilgrimages need way stations: places of rest, rejuvenation and reflection. How appropriate that we meet weekly here, in this church, as a way station. For this spot has served as a place for fellow pilgrims to celebrate birth, love, and the death of loved ones.
And this fall, as we relish the beauty of this campus cathedral with its glorious autumn colors, let us remember a fellow pilgrim, Fr. Anselm Keefe, who wanted every tree indigenous to Wisconsin to be present on this campus. It is his foresight, his determination that has made possible our experience.