Recently, my friend and I decided to hike—for the first time in my life—a “fourteener.” (That’s a 14,000 ft. mountain, for those of you who live east of the Mississippi.)
Six days of painkiller later, I was finally able to handle stairs again.
Let’s be clear. I enjoy hiking—in a leisurely kind of way, but by Colorado standards, I am by no means a “hiker” and had done next to nothing to prepare myself for this. It was quite possibly the hardest thing, physically, I’ve ever done.
Prayer on the Rocks
It occurred to me over the last few weeks, as I have faced some personal tragedy, how much I am entirely unprepared, not only for that mountain climb, but for this whole attempt at the spiritual journey. Suddenly, I can’t find God in His usual hiding places. And even the things that usually bring me joy or consolation (i.e. prayer, mission, evangelization, etc.) seem so stale.
I think it’s for moments like these that God gives us memory. It has been said that the Holy Spirit is the Memory of the Church. When suffering—or even just the daily grind—begins to chip away at what’s left of our faith, He bids us, “Do this in memory of Me.”
“Do this…” Receive this. Accept this. Trust this. In memory of My passion and death. In memory of My cross, My resurrection, My suffering, My cup.
…Because by Your holy cross, You have redeemed the world.
And when our faith waivers, I think that sometimes all we can do is to recall those events and places that once brought us grace and made us who we are. For these, we have pilgrimages.
The Heart of a Wanderer
I’ve been to many places as a tourist. But Hilaire Belloc explains that the heart of the pilgrim is the heart of a wanderer. In some ways, it has less to do with the destination—it need not be a church or cathedral—but it has everything to do with the disposition of our hearts and whether they seek an encounter with the Sacred along the way.
It makes me think of Our Lady, and how she was continually journeying: to help her cousin in the hill country of Judea, to Bethlehem while 9 months pregnant, to Egypt as a refugee, back to Nazareth with a toddler, to Jerusalem to find her lost Child, and finally, to Calvary to lose Him again. I imagine that all the while, she kept the heart of a pilgrim—always seeking, hoping, trusting, and never far from the Presence of God.
Wandering on the Mountain
Back to the hike. So, I’ve learned… depending on weather conditions, the mountain can get risky. You need to summit before noon to avoid getting struck by lightning when the storms roll in—which means getting up at 3am and beginning the climb in complete darkness. At that altitude, there is so little oxygen that trees can’t grow, and even the most experienced climbers find themselves gasping for air.
We hiked in silence for much of the trek (mainly because when your lungs are on fire, chatting really isn’t an option). For the last hour before the summit, we scrambled on all fours over boulders through frigid wind gusts—some nearly strong enough to blow us off the rocks.
“Remember your intention,” my friend kept repeating to me as the ascent steepened. I was attempting to offer it for the people in my life suffering the most right now, but more often than not, I was just thinking about how soon it would be until this was all over… and why in the world we decided to do this… and we got up at what time for this?!
Everyone on the trail is at their breaking point (some of us, sooner rather than later). I was surrounded by barren rock, only able to see the ground at my feet. I couldn’t bear the sight of the summit, still so far away. One foot in front of the other. But when I stopped to look back, all I saw was beauty. Then, I realized, in that moment, God was showing me my soul: parched and dry, seemingly dead, and unwilling to see anything beyond what was directly in front of me. Even here, Lord, You speak beauty into the hollowness of our lives. You give us only what we need.
I can’t say I’ve ever felt fully prepared for any kind of pilgrimage, new journey, next step, etc., nor for the kinds of things God asks me to swallow. I imagine I won’t exactly feel “ready” for Heaven when I die, either. (Thank God for Purgatory.) But I’m finding that the most profound moments of grace in my life take place when I feel least prepared to receive them.
As for those times when we can’t hear His voice anymore, I realize we can’t always get away and climb a mountain, or go visit a shrine, but one priest suggested to me a mental-retreat or mental-pilgrimage:
“Go back to that place in your memory, when you knew God was there.” Take a moment, and bring to mind that conference, that confession, that time when you were alone with God in the chapel. Remember what it looked like, what it felt like, and everything that your sensed or experienced. Even if it was years ago—pray there again, in your mind’s eye, and re-encounter those graces through your memory.
So many times, it has been a “pilgrimage of the memory” that broke down the walls around my soul. These are the places I take them:
Here are my top 10 (in no particular order).
(And just to clarify—this list is by no means comprehensive. Compared to most of you, I’m not that well-traveled. These are simply places that have saturated my soul—left their mark—and I continue to draw upon those graces in my life. I hope it helps you remember your own.)
1. The Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament — Hanceville, Alabama
Where I found what Heaven must be like.
2. The Grotto, University of Notre Dame — South Bend, Indiana
The grotto during final exams…where students go to find their Mother.
3. Mepkin Abbey — Moncks Corner, South Carolina
Keep Grand Silence, and pray with the monks at 3am—when they start their day. As the sun rises, (since you’ve been up since 3am) walk the grounds by yourself. An old plantation, with over 700 acres of beauty… It’s the Garden of Eden.
4. Saint Mary’s Catholic Church — Greenville, South Carolina
(Featured in George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic)
Fr. Jay Scott Newman. That is all.
5. Any country road in South Georgia
Not kidding. It really can be a spiritual experience. Drive through the pecan orchards as the sun is setting. If anything, this is proof that God loves you.
6. Resurrection Catholic Church — Montgomery, Alabama
An incredible parish family, serving the African-American community of Montgomery, Alabama. It’s rest for the weary soul. Oh, and that choir…
7. Poor Clare Monastery — Comayagua, Honduras
They usually only speak with guests one day per year, on the Feast of Saint Clare. But joy speaks a language all its own.
8. Canterbury Cathedral — Canterbury, England
Kneel at the spot where St. Thomas a Beckett was murdered, and pray for religious liberty.
9. Santa Chiara Basilica — Assisi, Italy
I won’t pretend that I’m super comfortable around incorruptibles, but I know Saint Clare is powerful intercessor. Go visit her in the crypt, then go upstairs to pray before the San Damiano crucifix—the one that spoke to Francis, saying, “Rebuild my Church.” There, ask Jesus what He wants of you.
10. The Cova — Fatima, Portugal
Because it’s peace on Earth. And you can still feel Our Lady’s presence there.