Just one year ago, I started reading “The Soul of a Pilgrim” by Christine Valters Painter in preparation for a trip to visit family in Germany and to go on a Benedictine pilgrimage to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.
“When we take inward and outward journeys, we can be pilgrims as long as we stay open to new experiences.”—Christine Valters Paintner, The Soul of a Pilgrim
If we are “attentive to the divine at work in our lives through deep listening, patience, (and) opening ourselves to the gifts that arise in the midst of discomfort” (Paintner), we are on pilgrimage. A pilgrimage may be intentional or not: becoming a new parent, losing a loved one, resolving a relationship conflict, or going on a spiritual retreat can be a pilgrimage if one seeks to learn, reflect and be transformed from the experience. Our life itself is a pilgrimage.
The cousin I visited in Germany was planning a pilgrimage of his own this summer. Jefferey and his wife, Sabine, were planning to visit Nebraska for the first time. I was excited to show him the Bohemian Alps, where his father (my uncle) grew up, the village where he went to school and to introduce him to family he has never met. Instead, Nebraska, Germany, and countries all over the world are on a different kind of pilgrimage altogether—the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of planning or hosting trips, we are staying put.
The pandemic transformed our world in an instant, personally and collectively—how, where and if we work has changed; how students are learning is different; the economy, health care, personal finances, shopping and travel no longer look like they used to. There is nothing that hasn’t been impacted by the pandemic.
Although each of us is affected differently, we are all on a pilgrimage, not of our own choosing, but from circumstances unimaginable just a few months ago. Still, we can “make the choice for the journey to become meaningful and soulful.” (Painter) We can choose this time as an opportunity to become more aware of who we are and who we want to be.
I have returned to “The Soul of a Pilgrim,” for insight, re-reading the book and also participating in an online retreat with the Abbey of the Arts, to navigate this pilgrimage of uncertainty and its library of emotions, as Mary Pipher calls it. I go from gratitude to grief in short order. I am both content and irritable, joyful and disappointed, trusting and afraid. In this smaller world of “stay at home”, I have a heightened awareness of the little things, both the beauty and the idiosyncrasies. More hours alone together in our home, my husband and I brush up against each other with all our uncertainty, anxiety, and fear, but also gratitude and joy. We have a lot of fun but can also get on each other’s nerves. We are a bundle of contradictions now more than ever.
Thomas Merton wrote that “most us live lives of self-impersonation.” In this time of pandemic, we are meeting ourselves anew in circumstances we have never experienced. When things were “normal”, we lived in unacknowledged uncertainty, but now, it is undeniable that we were never in control. This time can be an opportunity for self-reflection—what am I learning about myself and others? What have I lost or gain? What needs to be forgiven or forgotten?
“The best advice I can give myself is to allow it all to be. To hold it all, embrace it all, be it all. What you are feeling right now is human and valid.” –Carrie Newcomer
In Chapter 1 of The Soul of a Pilgrim (and Lesson 1 of the online retreat), we meditate on the story of Adam and Eve, Genesis 3:23-24 specifically.
“The Lord God therefore banished him from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he had been taken. He expelled the man, stationing the cherubim and the fiery revolving sword east of the Garden of Eden, to guard the way to the tree of life.”
This pandemic feels a bit like the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden—we are compelled to stay at home, to practice the Benedictine promise of stability. Although pre-pandemic life was likely not a fairytale Garden of Eden—it was our normal, the reality we were accustomed to. Leaving it is like a painful birth, but it can also be where pilgrimage begins. We cannot just give up, we must “till the ground”, to carry on through prayer and work, developing compassion, practicing hospitality, and becoming our truest self.
“When we stay put, we experience all of our own doubts, uncertainties, questions and judgments. We aren’t allowed to run away from the inner challenges of being alive. We must embrace a radical kind of monastic inner hospitality as we welcome in all of the strangeness that we feel in journeying to foreign places within us…” –Christine Valters Painter
We experience a nakedness, like Adam and Eve, before God. We cannot hide so easily; there is a transparency in our thoughts, words, and behaviors that we cannot escape. Practicing hospitality, not just to others, but to our inner stranger with her complex range of emotions is a call to the full human experience, embracing both our positive and shadow sides. Parker Palmer shares that “vulnerability is a form of courage.” From our vulnerability, we can face uncertainty with more courage. As a watcher of self, we can open ourselves to learning something new.
Fr. Mauritius Wilde, Prior of Sant’ Anselmo Benedictine teaching monastery in Rome, Italy reflects on the quarantine after four weeks on his blog Wilde Monk. He writes,
“Every day I learn something new. For example, I noticed that in a crisis like this things surface that we can hide in normal times. Usually, there are many ways of avoiding in a community. Now this is no longer possible. We are – one could say – naked. On one hand, new parts of us appear–new creativity, spontaneity, a sense of responsibility, a readiness to selfless giving and support. On the other hand, our weaknesses that we do not want others to see, lie bare. I believe every relationship has secrets and that does not destroy it. Maybe in contrary. Now, however, we are together continuously, and are left uncovered. We see ourselves as we are, more aware of our bad habits–emotions erupt, perhaps from ancient tensions that were latent, but with which we could deal. In a situation of stress, it becomes more difficult.”
Read more about lessons from quarantine in the monastery, how God may be looking at you and how you might pray during this time of uncertainty at Good and Meek Eyes from Fr. Mauritius.
“Pilgrimage invites us to allow all of life to become an intentional journey, even in the midst of loss and grief. It is a call to find ourselves and God in new ways.” –Christine Valters Painter
We are invited to this unbidden pilgrimage, to be courageous in our vulnerability. We can choose to respond to this call, to be intentional—to stay open to learning, to make meaning from our experiences, to accept the gifts that can come even in discomfort or uncertainty, and to draw closer to the Divine.
© Jodi Blazek Gehr