Saturday, August 27, 2011

On Pilgrimage, Part One

Coming to write about my experience of World Youth Day, I realize right away an unfortunate fact about the ‘blogosphere’, namely its extreme temporality—the journalistic imperative of the present tense exponentially increased by the immediacy of new communications. WYD Madrid was a whole entire week ago – who wants to hear about it now? Bearing in mind that pretty much every other blogger in the world has moved on to whatever’s happening this week (Hurricane Irene, anyone?), I want nonetheless to reflect a bit on my experiences, for a post or two anyhow, and ongoingly reflect on this blog on some of the Pope’s words to the young people in Madrid. The intense temporality of the blogosphere should not have the last word here: WYD exists so as to plant seeds that will sprout and grow and bear fruit. How can this happen if it is forgotten two days after it happens?
So to set the stage, myself, another priest from the Pembroke diocese, and ten young adults went to WYD together! First, though, we took five days to do a whirlwind tour of Fatima, Compostela, and Avila. I want to reflect briefly on those experiences in this post. My reflections will be entirely impressionistic and personal—simply what happened to me and my heart as we pilgrimaged around these holy places.
Fatima: Truth be told, I didn’t have much of a devotion or interest in Fatima before going there, compared to, say, Lourdes or Guadalupe. I know the story, of course (what pious Catholic of my generation doesn’t?). But it never grabbed me, somehow.
The first thing that struck me about Fatima was that I was home there. Home, for me, is Mary. I live in a Marian shrine year round, which is pretty cool actually, and my experience in any place dedicated and hallowed to the Mother of God is simply that it’s just another room in my home. So that was nice—here I am, here’s my mama, all is well.
What struck me powerfully about Fatima specifically, though, was a certain quality of seriousness about it. The Fatima apparitions are serious business. Mary came there to call her children to action, to battle. In Guadalupe, she asked her poor children to come and tell her their troubles; in Lourdes, she is there for the sick to bring healing.
In Fatima, we are told that the world is in dire trouble, and that every Christian needs to get down on their knees, to pray, to fast, to consecrate themselves in deadly earnestness to Jesus through Mary. And the seriousness, the apocalyptic urgency of the Fatima apparition, pervades the place. It’s not a warm fuzzy Marian shrine; here, Mary like a good mother is warning us about the peril we are all in (Young man, you stop what you're doing right this instant! You are so grounded!). And she tells us what we need to do to survive it.
I had brought a large envelope of prayer intentions from Madonna House with me, and took a couple hours in the old basilica to go through it, praying for each intention, along with my own rather voluminous regular prayer list. Something came over me as I did this, and it became a very intense experience of intercessory prayer: Mary, help this person! Mother, come to the aid of that person! Jesus, have mercy on us! Very much in the spirit of the place.
In all that, though, it was beautiful and joyful. Where Mary is, there is joy, because where she is, the battle has been won. Our time in Fatima happened to coincide with my birthday, and I began my 46th year of life on earth concelebrating Mass in the Chapel of the Apparitions, sitting just a few feet away from where Mary appeared to the three children. That was cool.
Santiago de Compostela: Due to circumstances beyond our control, our time at Compostela was a little truncated. We were supposed to have a two hour guided tour; it got truncated to one hour (we had the fastest-talking English-speaking Spanish tour guide ever, though!), and that one hour tour was conducted while WYD pilgrims poured into the church from all sides. So it was all a bit chaotic and noisy. We did have a beautiful Mass there with a pilgrim group from Bretagne, who had paid to have The Thurible lit at the end of Mass. You all know about The Thurible, right? Size of either a large refrigerator or a small automobile, takes a hundred pounds of incense, attains speeds of sixty miles an hour in full swing, which swing took it directly over our heads… a rather peculiar, albeit impressive experience, really.
But my Compostela experience really was mostly one of feeling rushed and frustrated… I wanted to spend so much more time there, see it more fully, pray there more deeply. But, on reflection, isn’t this how life is? We usually want things to be just a bit easier, to go just a bit differently. We want just a bit more time to reflect, to pray, to stop. And it usually doesn’t happen: life just keeps chugging along, bearing us with it. A bit noisier and more chaotic than we would choose, the tour guide a bit hard to understand, the crowds jostling us, weird smoking objects sailing past us at high velocity. What’s it all about?
And isn’t ‘pilgrimage’ really a vast metaphor for life? We go on pilgrimage, on sacred journeys, to touch the deep reality that our whole life is a vast sacred journey to the heart of God. And this journey proceeds, not as we like it, but as God ordains it. A bit harried, a bit rushed, a bit ‘not what we had envisioned’ – well, that’s the journey! Take it as it comes, and trust the Father is going to lead you through it to Himself.
AvilaAhh, Avila. ‘The silent city’, our guide Lucia told us it is called. The beautiful medieval walls, the churches, the convents, the plazas. Here too there were WYD pilgrims on all sides, but even they (we) were stilled by the place.
There’s something about Avila… the presence of Teresa and John and so many holy Carmelites, the prayer, the silence, the deep contemplation—it has soaked into the very stones there, into the walls. A mystical city.
A high point for me was the visit to Teresa of Avila’s birthplace, now a convent with a church attached to it. The actual room she was born in has become, of course, a chapel. Now I have a deep love and devotion for Teresa – she’s one of ‘my saints’, truly. In my brief career as a composer I wrote a musical setting on of her most famous prayers. So imagine my joy when, in the chapel of her birth, our tour guide Lucia pulls out prayer cards and leads us in praying the very words:

Let nothing disturb thee
Let nothing afright thee
All things are passing
God never changes
Patient endurance
Attains all things
Who possesses God
Wants for nothing
God alone suffices.

And turning to us with a beautiful smile, she says to us “It’s true!” Amen, Lucia. And so, armed with that deep quiet faith in God’s sufficiency, carrying us through the seriousness of our times and the rush and chaos of our days, we got on the bus to Madrid.
To be continued…

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