23 pilgrims are approaching the goal of Santiago, Spain…but still 11 days and 254 km out (exactly 10 million inches today, I accidentally found out on my units-conversion-app.)
The Church Fathers compared the Jews´ time in the desert to a Christian’s pilgrimage on earth. This is to ultimately lead them to the Promised Land. For us, earth is training ground to be able to enter the eternal Promised Land, but the Old Testament shows that the giants to be defeated are too great for natural powers to conquer. It takes supernatural power to enter the land of milk and honey…not because milk and honey are hard to obtain, but because of the enemies that block us. This is why sanctifying grace is so important to enter into heaven. Grace is not the “Price of admission,” wrote Frank Sheed, but rather we (without supernatural grace) are in such a state that “our souls lack the powers that living in heaven calls for.”—Theology for Beginners, 67.
This is why our pilgrimage on earth is not only a punishment for our forefathers´ sin, but also an adventure in self-conquering. When we were in sin, like the Egyptians, we were addicted to the flesh pots of Egypt, the leeks, the cucumbers…really nothing too delicious except for the fact it’s in the past, I suppose, and prohibited. But baptism has us pass through the waters of the Red Sea to…not quite heaven.
Why? Because the Israelites must tarry in the desert for a long time. So also, we Christians must tarry on earth. It would constitute our downfall to conflate the desert (earth) for the Promised Land (heaven.) This conflation is an easy trick that the devil has lain for the rich and confortable. When I was in Kolkata, the city was so filthy, so full of poop and death and noise that no one could ever mistake it for heaven. But when I ride my bike through Greenwood Village and Cherry Hills Village along the Highline Canal south of Denver…I frequently think that is something like heaven. And this isn´t the worst thing, occasionally. But it’s easy to get stuck in the penultimate vocation-location instead of the ultimate vocation-location of heaven. The poor have this advantage over us. And it’s not sentimental social justice. It’s a real advantage against an eternal hell.
Still, God knew how hard it should be to live in the desert, not being at the final home. Thus, He gave manna from heaven.
Of course, this is the Eucharist, our main strength before we get to the Promised Land.
When the Israelites made it to the Promised Land, the manna from heaven stopped falling. Similarly, although heaven will be an eternal Mass of all beings crying HOLY HOLY HOLY, we will actually not receive the Eucharist in heaven because then we will be at
the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His servants will worship Him. They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Rev 22:1b-5)
On earth, we need the Eucharist to defeat the giants that guard the way to the Holy Land. If we triumph, we are His sons. Yes, we become sons and daughters of God at baptism, but something of the crowning depends on us, too, for Jesus says in the book of the Apocalypse: “The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.” (Rev 21:7)
Do we walk this Pilgrimage of life alone? Or perhaps alone with God? On the Camino in Spain, I frequently hear young and old people say “Well, everyone has his own Camino!” Indeed, St. John Paul II said that each person is a particular image and likeness of God. So, yes—that means everyone’s pilgrimage through life is equally particularized and beautiful. But I think the phrase “Everyone has his own Camino” would have confused JPII a little since he came from a tight-knit Polish family and group of friends, seminarians…notwithstanding the tremendous loss he suffered.
Furthermore, that phrase would have never been heard on this Spanish pilgrimage 800 years ago. Why? Because they always went in communities and families. This Protestant-individualization of walking through life “Me and Jesus” is actually relatively new. Even in the early Church writings I see the Church mentioned as much as Christ was mentioned.
I’ve made some serious mistakes of thinking I could walk through my priesthood in lone-ranger mode. For example, I was betrayed by a brother priest. When people found this out, he quickly ascribed his own decision to his superiors, and later to his subordinates. I had no defense system against these lies because I didn’t control the communications. I wimped out in self-defense.
But my bigger mistake was having jumped-in alone years ago. St. Thomas Aquinas defines pride as biting off more than you can chew. This was exactly my sin in waiting so long to join a community that believes the same things as I do, which I’m finally seeking.
Archbishop Chaput would always say, “Your faith is personal, but never private.” So also, everything on this Camino of Life remains communal—personalized but not private. I now want to live a public witness of faith—not just helping others—but in need of others I can trust, too. This I have learned, being sick on pilgrimage.
Yes, even the disciples were sent out only two by two.
In Luke 24, Jesus is found walking the way to Emmaus not with one, but with two “Cleopine” disciples. There is a particularization to each person’s “Life-Pilgrimage,” indeed—but never a total isolation…not even for those called to the hermetic life. (Hermits must be those who live in the deepest communion with the Church triumphant, militant, and suffering.)
This communal aspect of our “Life-Pilgrimage” is seen in the painting above, Road to Emmaus, by Jan Wildens. Notice that Cleopas is not walking with Jesus alone. It is three of them, just as in Luke 24. Some believe Cleopas’ fellow disciple of the Lord was Cleopas’ wife!
In any case, Emmaus starts this way: Christ is already risen from the dead, but the couple is in a state of despondency. Christ reveals Himself and their hearts burn. They long…but only later are they completed in Him.
One of the strangest lines in the account is when Jesus “acted as if He were going farther, but they urged Him strongly, saying, ´Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.´” (Lk 24:28-29) Why did Jesus act as if He were going to keep going? I haven´t read the Church Fathers on this, but I’ll give my own guess:
He could go far beyond us. He could leave us in the dust, but He chooses to remain in the Eucharist and in the saints to walk this path with us. He shows us we have to wait for others.
Jesus shows the apostles the means not to stop suffering, but to suffer well when He sends the Holy Ghost. He promises to walk with them, not to give them all the answers about why they “have here no lasting city.” (Hb 13:14) Since mankind’s fall out of paradise, it never was meant to be lasting, anyway.
This is why St. Peter reminds us strangers and sojourners that we shouldn´t get attached to a titillating, crumbling city on earth: “Beloved, I urge you, as sojourners and exiles, to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul…Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps.” (1 Pt 2:11,21.)
That word steps is so important for pilgrimage theology. The avoidance of illicit pleasures isn’t just extinguishing desire, à la Buddhism, so our hopes for more, say, chocolate don’t go unfulfilled. Rather, it’s about the simple avoidance to attachment to Babylon when the Heavenly Jerusalem awaits. Yes, have children in Babylon! Enjoy the fruit of the land! But Jerusalem, not Babylon, is your home.
To launch from Babylon to Jerusalem, we ironically need to go about it with friends—despite the danger of attachments to unhealthy friendships. Yes, we must walk it with Christ and others in order to not become attached to the sweet, ephemeral, glittery rivers of Babylon (read: Madison Ave., or our own egos.)
What is this Heavenly Jerusalem? That will be part 5…A few more steps before we make it there (scheduled for our arrival in Santiago.)