This column appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times on 10 June 2010.
Send forth Your light and Your truth. It is they that will guide me. They will bring me to Your holy mountain and to Your dwelling-place. And let me come to God’s altar, to God, my keenest joy. — Ps. 43:3-4a.
My train vanished at 6:43 p.m. last Wednesday evening — with me and 100 other travelers aboard. Heralded by a chiming triplet, the raspy voice of the conductor delivered the news. “This train has been annulled due to technical difficulties. This train’s last stop will be New Haven. Next stop, New Haven!” And if New Haven was not your intended destination? I sighed. The nature of pilgrimages, I supposed, is that the traveling isn’t always easy.
I’d left home a week ago, swinging my backpack onto my shoulders and easing out the front door to walk to the train station as the first tinge of dawn graced the eastern sky. On foot and by train, I was gone to seek God in the silence of an eight-day retreat, braced in the rocks of the Massachusetts’ coast.
I, like the psalmist and countless others before us, take to the road on occasion, seeking God with body and soul, praying for light and truth along the way. Salvation history and our personal histories abound with journeys to sacred places: be it the Magi who trekked from lands unknown to see God made flesh — or my mother and father, mustering their half dozen kids to walk to Sunday Mass. We are all pilgrims — through time, if not to far distant shrines.
In a homily on the Epiphany theologian Karl Rahner, S.J., reminds us of the mysteries inherent in our pilgrimages. Though far beyond us in so many ways, God is not a moving target, backing off as we approach. He is a destination we can actually reach.
The God we seek might be incomprehensible — a “boundless immensity” — but He is not the far distant end of a journey. Rahner notes our end is simultaneously our constant companion. We might physically or spiritually put our feet on the road, but all along we are led there by God. Or as a hymn from the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa melodically puts it, “You are awaited, my people, and I declare to you, people of God, I am going with you.”
St. Ignatius of Loyola, himself a pilgrim, warns us not to become overly enamored with the places along the way, no matter how inspiring: “We must always remind ourselves that we are pilgrims until we arrive at our heavenly homeland, and we must not let our affections delay us in the roadside inns and lands through which we pass, otherwise we will forget our destination...” While the time I spent admiring the breathtakingly vast ocean and sitting in the exquisite chapel was graced, the clearest trace of God I uncovered along the way was heard on the phone an hour before I got home.
In the end Amtrak mustered a train for those of us left on the platform in New Haven. As we made our way through the dark hours, discharging passengers in nearly deserted stations, I called home to tell my husband that I would be very late and not to wait for me. I would take a taxi home. A bemused laugh rippled through the phone. “Don’t be silly. Of course I’ll be there.” How could I have imagined otherwise?
When I came up the stairs at 30th Street Station, weary, wrinkled and lugging a backpack full of dirty laundry, Victor’s insouciant grin was there to greet me. A gentle embrace, a wordless lifting of my burden onto his own shoulder and I was home.
I traveled 700 miles, only to be reminded at my doorstep that I am awaited, and of what awaits me at my final destination: God, my keenest joy.
May He support us all the day long, till the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed and the fever of life is over and our work is done — then in His mercy — may He give us a safe lodging and a holy rest and peace at the last. — Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman