During my second year as a missionary with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), I led a pilgrimage to the Holy Land for myself and 27 others. We saw many of the places Jesus walked and lived, and the Gospels began to take shape in my mind in a way they never had before. As we traveled to each new site — Jesus’s home in Nazareth, the Mount of Beatitudes, the Upper Room, the place where Jesus died and rose, and many others — the impact of each location grew in intensity as I started to piece together the story of Christ in a real and tangible way.
The places and experiences that most resonated with me were often completely different from the rest of the group, and it was always cool to share glory stories and God moments at the end of the day, seeing how Jesus was uniquely working in each participant’s story. This was my first real experience of what it meant to be a pilgrim in the traditional sense of the word, on a physical journey walking with Christ.
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“Don’t steal the journey Jesus has for those you’re walking with.” A wise benefactor of the FOCUS program at the University of Memphis gave me this advice my first few weeks as a missionary. Like my pilgrimage in the Holy Land, our lives are a journey with Christ that looks distinctly different from one pilgrim to another. Little did I know at the time how important this message would be to me in my walk with Christ as a disciple, daughter and mentor. My story was and is unique to the stories of others, and ultimately Jesus is doing something bigger in every heart I encounter than I could ever imagine or formulate myself.
It’s so easy to compare our spiritual journey with those we walk with, those in our community, and those in the broader Church. We get caught up in thinking that our spiritual lives need to look a certain way — we need to read the right books, wear the right clothes, follow the right influencers, even worship in the “right” way. And we think that others’ journeys need to fit into the mold we’ve created for them. Their opinions need to match ours, we all need to use the same lingo, our faith should influence the way we engage with the world in the same ways.
In college, when I was first diving deeper in my faith, I found that there were many spiritual practices and liturgical preferences that I had never heard of or experienced before within our Catholic circle. There was always a silent pressure to be doing things the “right” way, and a source of tension between those who found themselves to hold similar opinions and those who didn’t. Very quickly, the sin of pride began to corrupt our community, and often more time was spent discussing these various opinions and preferences rather than truly enjoying and loving one another, sharing the Gospel and ultimately worshipping God.
I see this tendency mimicked in comment boxes and reposted stories. I see it in women struggling to be convinced of God’s love for them and striving to add more and more to their Catholic plates. I see it in my own heart, discovering opinions and judgments of others I didn’t even know I had based off of things I’ve seen or read or heard. And I see it hurting the Church who, within the unity of faith and obedience to the magisterium, has a diversity of ways this obedience is expressed.
This problem is nothing new to Jesus. He saw the same things happening within his own community, too. Multiple Gospel accounts recall the confused and concerned Pharisees who question Jesus’s eating with tax collectors and sinners. Surely the true Messiah wouldn’t spend his time with such moral outcasts? Is this what following God really looked like?
He allows a sinful woman to anoint his feet during dinner at Simon the Pharisee’s home, and when Simon questions Jesus’s authority because of it, Jesus acknowledges the great act of love the woman had made by her great sacrifice of perfume. How can so great a sinner be capable of giving right worship to God?
The disciples rebuke those bringing children to Jesus, but Jesus insists that the children come to him because “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Mt 19:14). How can the childlike understand what it means to love Jesus rightly?
When Mary, Lazarus’s sister, anointed Jesus with costly perfume, Judas criticized the act and stated that wasted money could have been given to the poor. Can we worship Jesus lavishly and still care about those in need around us?
What Jesus shows us in these instances, and time and time again in the Gospels, is that the pilgrim journey he has us on is often unique and vastly different from disciple to disciple. As we accompany others, and walk the journey ourselves, we must be mindful of the fact that love of God takes infinite forms. All we have to do is look at the landscape of saints within the Church, each with varying stories, sins, conversions and apostolates, to be reminded of this.
We are in the process of being transformed into exactly who God wants us to be. When we want to already be at the end of our pilgrimage or want our journey, and the journey of others, to look more like someone else’s, we are failing to acknowledge and trust who God is and what he is doing. We are failing to believe that he is in control, that he knows the path that will lead to sanctification, and ultimately that he is good.
We can walk with others to help them take the next right step, but we need to be cautious of thinking their next right step will look like ours or anyone else’s. We are a pilgrim people, on a collective but distinct journey, and as Jesus leads us and others, we must root ourselves in the humility that truly trusts what God is doing, knowing that he is the ultimate actor in all of our stories.
If you’re tempted to compare your journey to someone else’s or to place judgment on where another may be on his or hers, remember the many stories of saints and sinners who, through many small and great moments, handed their lives over to Christ in distinctly beautiful ways.
Pray for others, pray for your own heart, and ask the Holy Spirit to guide your choices and the choices of those around you. Believe that God is at work and that he is the one who will change hearts and move mountains. Look for opportunities to engage with the truth and share it with those you know and love. And ultimately, trust that the Holy Spirit will give you the words and inspirations to become a saint and, hopefully, to bring others along with you.