A few years ago, I agreed to go on a Polish walking pilgrimage from somewhere in New Jersey to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The distance was 70 miles, the duration three days, and the plan was to arrive at the Shrine for Mass on the Feast of the Assumption, August 15. Overnights were to be spent in tents in state parks and other available ground, with food and personal facilities supplied by a cadre of pilgrimage staff. Our rucksacks and duffle bags were transported by truck to the sleeping areas, where a Mass in Polish was celebrated every evening following dinner.
I arrived with typical aplomb, ready to knock out the march in short order. Secretly, I scoffed at the idea that 70 miles over three days – THREE DAYS! – might be anything even approaching a challenge. But despite my extensive infantry training in the US Army, I had made a fatal mistake. I had chosen the wrong shoes for the event, opting for a pair of leather boots that got wet on the night before we set out. As everyone knows, wet leather shrinks, and so by the time the march began my boots were at least a size too tight, and I had no replacements. My sunny optimism quickly faded into a deep foreboding.
Sure enough, by lunch on the first day my feet were a mass of blisters. We had only gone about ten miles over four hours, but I could barely walk. Actually, if we had kept walking the entire 70 miles right there and then I might have been all right, but the extended lunch break did me in, and when I rose to resume the march, the pain was excruciating.
So there I was, an overweight but otherwise fit man in my 40’s being lapped in the sweltering New Jersey summer sun by elderly Polish women in bad shoes and black babushkas. Then an angel appeared in the form of Jorge, a 17-year old Puerto Rican kid from White Plains, NY, who saw my distress and asked how he could help. In my pride I tried to laugh him off, but as the miles wore on the pain grew worse, until finally I was trudging along on the blades of my feet to spare my tender, poached flesh. Through it all, Jorge hovered close by, occasionally offering me water and asking if I need help.When we finally reached that night’s encampment, Jorge offered to retrieve my gear from the truck and build my tent. Then he went and found a nurse to attend to my blisters. Just as she was leaving, Jorge returned with a steaming plate of food and a cup of Kool-Aid. He helped me to Mass later and then back to my tent. He even set his tent next to mine in case I needed anything during the night. In the morning he broke my tent, packed my bags, loaded them on the truck, brought me breakfast and helped me down to the latrines.
And so it went for the next two days. The blisters only got worse, of course, and soaking rains both days didn’t help either the boots or the blisters. In fact, I spent most of the final day walking without shoes at all, preferring socks to the cramped, waterlogged boots. But through it all there was Jorge, my angel. As we sang songs and prayed the Rosary (we must have said 500 decades in three days), he was always there to care for and encourage me. He had made himself my servant because he saw my need. I am eternally grateful to him.
So, here’s what I learned that week. I learned that true Christian humility often means letting other people serve you. It means dropping all pretense of autonomy and power, and embracing the humiliation that comes when our false identities are broken. Dorothy Day wrote that “We have all known the long loneliness, and we have found that the answer is community.” Why ‘community?’ Because community means giving others the chance to be Christ to us when we really need them. It means accepting the limitations of our bodies and our spirits, and embracing our need for one another. It means placing all our trust and finding all our strength in Jesus, as well as in those who offer love in His name and for His sake.