We’re going on pilgrimage. You, me, the Archbishop of Cincinnati, and 80+ assorted pilgrims, hitting the road Friday for 10 days. We may be packing light, but we’re carrying priceless cargo—our prayers and those of others who’ve asked our intercession, the burdens and fears and and hurts and losses we long to lay in the lap of the Mother of God, the weight of our heart’s devotion. The Marian shrines of Portugal, Spain, and France are our destination, but we know that destinations do not a pilgrimage make. It’s all about the road.
That road, for us this time, is not el Camino de Santiago, so we’re not hoofing it (except for the 800-yard dash between terminals to make a tight connection at Charles de Gaulle in Paris, which in itself qualifies as a properly penitential exercise). As befits Lourdes and Fatima, two shrines unknown to medieval pilgrims, we are most of us traveling by 20th century means: planes, motor coaches, high-speed trains. You, however, will be even more advanced, accompanying us virtually through this blog, traveling invisibly through the ether like St Teresa of Avila (to whose scattered body parts we will also pay our respects) levitating.
Wifi and iPad and my duties as a tour management assistant willing, I will be posting daily from the road. I’m no Egeria (though there’s some assonance there with Egregious), but I hope to make this pilgrimage diary at least half as interesting as her chatty, liturgically detailed account of a journey made to the Holy Land some 1600 years ago. And I’m no Chaucer, but I can guarantee that anytime you have “sondry folk, by aventure yfalle / In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes . . . alle” there will be Tales.
For myself, as a pilgrim I’m afraid I’m closer to John Bunyan’s Christian than to the pious Egeria or any of Chaucer’s Canterbury company, though The Pilgrim’s Progress reflects an evangelical spirit that would reel in horror from the thought of rosaries and healing springs and the preserved fingers of saints. Christian, you see, is clueless and often afraid, constantly missing the road signs, falling into the Slough of Despond. Been there, done that, have the T-shirt. As a large, out-of-shape lady who suffers panic attacks, I confess to feeling more trepidation than excitement on this eve of the trip of a lifetime.
Christian gets help on the road from his friend Faithful—as Dante is guided to Paradise by his beloved Beatrice, as the disguised Archangel Raphael steers Tobias on the right path—and I am fortunate to have many Faithfuls. My friend/boss/disguised Archangel Michael, having endured a trip to Rome with me, decided that giving me other pilgrims to look out for would distract me from my own anxieties. My family and friends (including my Panda angel high school alum sisters and my colleagues at the Patheos Catholic Channel) are cheering me on. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati will be following along via its Stewardship Office Facebook page. And I’m asking you to hang with me, too, Faithfuls. (You don’t even need a passport.)
Christian’s pilgrim song is still sung to a brisk and hearty hymn tune by English Protestants, and it even worked its way occasionally into the otherwise more high-toned repertoire of the US Episcopal parish I used to belong to. I enjoyed its martial muscularity as a change from Palestrina and Bach, but now I want to reclaim as my theme song the original words Bunyan wrote:
Who would true valour see, Let him come hither;
One here will constant be, Come wind, come weather
There’s no discouragement Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent To be a pilgrim.
Whoso beset him round With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound; His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright, He’ll with a giant fight,
He will have a right To be a pilgrim.
Hobgoblin nor foul fiend Can daunt his spirit,
He knows he at the end Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away, He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labor night and day To be a pilgrim.
Because—hobgoblins and foul fiends of the mind notwithstanding—to be a pilgrim has always been my first avowed intent. Lourdes especially calls, as it has since I read the Abbe Trochu’s biography of Bernadette as a child, but of course everywhere on pilgrimage is an apparition site, a place where the curtain between earth and heaven is thin, a tent of meeting. A tabernacle, quite literally. And we do well to keep in mind the anonymous Irish bard’s advice to pilgrims:
To go to Rome is little profit, endless pain.
The Christ whom you seek in Rome,
you find at home, or seek in vain.
But still. We’re going on pilgrimage. Don’t be like Christian’s false friend Obstinate, who tries to dissuade him. Don’t beset me round with dismal stories. Please be Faithful, and come with me.
Tomorrow: The itinerary in detail—and why this is an especially intriguing time to be going where we’re going.