“You should go eat dinner on the other side of the lake; it’s cheaper over there.” Standing at the top of the Alps, my friend and I absorbed the man’s advice. We had just completed an 8-hour uphill day at the end of a two-week hike and were resting at the top of the Grand St. Bernard Pass in the Swiss Alps. It was late, we were tired, and he wanted us to walk around the lake to save money. But we didn’t skip a beat; after all, we were pilgrims. It was the way of the road: Take what you’re offered and live in poverty. I ditched my sodden shoes for flip-flops, and our evening stroll commenced.
Circumventing the lake, my eye caught the sign: “Italia.” It suddenly clicked. Dinner was cheaper on the other side of the lake because the other side of the lake was a different country, one that used euros, not francs. That was the easiest and most unexpected border crossing of my life — and also the experience that helped me understand how quickly Covid-19 could spread through Europe seven months later.
As I look back on last summer’s hike, I’m struck by the reminder of what it means to be a pilgrim — and by the conviction that the upsets to normalcy that have come with the coronavirus echo a pilgrim life. Lessons of the pilgrim road have become lessons of my corona-changed existence. They leave me with five challenges for today.
A pilgrim journey is a choice for both silence and solitude. You walk alone for hours at a time, process in silence, suffer in silence and wonder in silence. As your feet propel you in ceaseless forward motion, your heart learns to rest in the stillness of the now. Today we are subject to enforced stillness — even enforced solitude. Ensconced in my coziest blanket at home, typing on my computer and bombarded by messages, I realize it is still a choice. Do I take advantage of these moments of stillness to truly be still — to let stillness permeate and change my heart? Or do I drown stillness with the blare of media and the glare of screens?
Walking through the vineyards of Switzerland, it doesn’t matter if I don’t speak your language. I am going to greet you! Who knows what adventure you have to share, or the joy in discovering something in common? Pilgrimage teaches me to treasure daily encounters and daily companions. So does this virus. I never took so many walks with my whole family as we did this last week. And I never saw the neighbors so delighted to say hello. Often my family ends up at four different Masses on a weekend; yes, we all go to church, but it’s really too much to coordinate everybody’s schedules to attend the same Mass. Well, this Sunday we all “attended” the same Mass — a 10 a.m. livestream in my living room with homemade donuts and brunch afterward. As everything stops, let’s remember those things that stay: the treasure of the companions who share our littlest moments and the glorious ability to shout a neighborly conversation at the regulated six feet and feel ever so socialized.
Receive the gift
Tired, hot, hungry, sun-burnt, cold, wet, blistered — somehow pilgrims learn to still discover the gift of the moment. Drenched and frozen after a morning in the rain, we were ecstatic to find an actual indoor bathroom. As we sat on the tiny apartment stairwell and ate our smushed granola bars between the shivers, we couldn’t have been more grateful. The most ordinary and even tiresome moments become extraordinary moments of grace if we will only have eyes to see. Amid shutdowns and shut-ins, may we train our eyes to notice and to receive the gift of the now.
Trust God’s providence
We had no food. It was National Day (the equivalent of Switzerland’s Fourth of July), and we had been warned that everything would be closed. No opportunity to buy food; hours left to walk. God would have to provide. Did he ever! We visited a countryside Catholic community, Eucharistein, a community which embraces poverty and which fed us in abundance. We went on our way, backpacks full of the luxuries of canned corn and brown sugar candy, only to discover a waterfall, gorgeous in the sunlight, a rainbow emerging under its spray. My day of potential fasting had been transformed into the most exquisite picnic I had ever known. I laid down on a giant rock, hands behind my head, eyes on the waterfall, knowing the goodness of God’s provision, and I had a eureka moment: “We don’t recognize God’s provision until we are needy.” Here I was, in awe of God’s ability to provide canned corn for my journey, and yet how often I fail to marvel over my daily abundance. It was time to stop taking things for granted and to recognize the miraculous glory of God’s care in the little things. In this time of unusual need, may we rediscover our God as provider, perhaps in the miracle of finding milk and eggs at the third grocery store.
Walk on, pray on
Every step is a prayer. Every step is an offering, laden with intention and purpose and commitment. We are sure in the knowledge that we will push on and attain the goal — in God’s timing and only by his plan. If you feel trapped at home, take it as a pilgrim takes a blister on the trail: inconvenient and painful, but always fruitful. Offer it as a prayer for those who suffer in body or from fear, and trust in God to use it to bless others and to transform your own heart. He is ever so capable, and he calls us to walk in his peace.
In this time of Lenten journey and viral infections, may we have the grace to recognize our own pilgrim status. For to be a pilgrim, we don’t have to hit the trail; we need only choose to have a pilgrim heart — a heart awake to encounter God’s goodness and providential care at every turn. Psalm 84:6 declares, “Blessed the man who finds refuge in you, in their hearts are pilgrim roads.” Lord Jesus, please use these days of trial to pave our hearts with pilgrim roads that lead home to the Father. We trust in you!