“Therefore you provided a flaming pillar of fire as a guide for your people’s unknown journey, and a harmless sun for their glorious wandering (Wisdom 18:3).”
This past calendar year has been one of travel for my family and I. I can honestly say that I have put on more frequent flyer miles, stayed in more hotels, stuffed more suitcases, and experienced more of the world as a sojourner than in all my previous years combined. Now that much of the hustle and bustle is through- at least for the time being- it has been on my heart to “unpack” it all and examine the gift of this precious time in light of Lent.
As Christians, we are all called to journey. In a very real sense the life of every Baptized Christian is itself a journey; for by our Sacramental call, we are not merely aimless wanders in this life. Rather, we have a destination and a mission. We are called to love, honor and serve God in this life so that we might enjoy eternal bliss with Him for all eternity in Paradise. During the season of Lent, we focus more directly on just what it means to love, honor and serve God by seeing Him and loving Him concretely in our neighbor. It is thus, that during Lent we engage more fully in prayer, fasting and almsgiving so that we can have eyes that genuinely seek Him, ears that truly hear Him, hands that willingly serve Him, and a heart that overflows with love for Him.
By definition, a journey implies movement and transition; there is both a definite beginning and a finite end-point. As Christians, we recognize that Jesus Christ is our Alpha and Omega- He alone is our beginning and end. If our journey is not focused on Christ, that is, on gratefully recognizing the Providential love of God in our past, engaging Him fully at each moment of our present, and desiring to above all rest in His embrace in the finality of our earthly end, then our journey runs the risk of merely being self-directed wandering. For it is only with the Lord as our guide that our destination is secure: “Therefore you provided a flaming pillar of fire as a guide for your people’s unknown journey, and a harmless sun for their glorious wandering (Wisdom 18:3).” God neither forces His love, nor His plan upon us. If we choose to wander around like lost sheep in the desert, rather than remain close to the shepherd and the rest of the flock, the Good Lord will let us. However, it is only in journeying with Him that our hearts will find the object of their desire and the happiness that accompanies it.
While all journeys involve travel, not all travel is a journey. Real journeys involve true sacrifice of precious commodities like time, money, sleep, comfort and personal security. Recently my family and I were privileged to be part of a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage with the Milwaukee Mercy Choir to sing for the Holy Father, at both the recent November Consistory and the Papal Mass closing the Year of Mercy (I intend to blog more regarding this pilgrimage in coming weeks). We traveled with one hundred seven individuals, fifty three of whom – like my daughters and I – were vocalists in the 300 member International Mercy Choir.
For nearly eight months before the first plane ascended into the evening sky toward the Eternal City of Rome, there were endless hours of planning and preparation. The sacrifice for the journey was tangible – from the financial cost of travel, the hours of choir practice, to the temporary separation from loved ones who were unable to travel with us. Even before the morning we all boarded buses for the airport, there was a real sense of sacrifice. Travel itself is not comfortable. While the most carefree among us might have found snaking through airport lines and security with 107 fellow pilgrims to be an adventure, for most travelers, stepping through the airport security scanners is enough to leave one feeling uncomfortably vulnerable at the acute loss of privacy. Vulnerability, moments of discomfort and uncertainty all seem to be among the hallmarks of an authentic journey.
On a journey like this, the traveler quickly learns that time is relative. There must be an unwritten rule that the length of queues, such as the line to have one’s passport stamped at the Immigration Kiosk in Spain, is invariably inverse proportionally related to the time remaining before the flight is scheduled to leave. International travel with a group of this size could be characterized as intense moments of urgency and panic separated by hours of tediousness- both waiting for flights, and during the 8-10 hours crossing the Atlantic. Intense prayer is another of the hallmarks of a journey. Through it all, I had a rosary in one pocket and a chotki in the other, and prayed constantly –especially when it looked like we were going to miss our flight back from Spain to the U.S., and during those gut-wrenching moments of in-flight turbulence. Yet as much as I prayed, I knew that others were praying as well- both those on the pilgrimage and those who were supporting us with their prayers. We in turn prayed not only for ourselves, but carried with us the intentions of hundreds of people who had trusted their precious concerns in our intercession. The honor of praying for others, and in turn being prayed for by them, is one of the indescribable joys of a pilgrimage, and this particular journey.
Yet, so it is with Lent. We and our fellow pilgrims sacrifice – both individually and collectively- to journey toward a real goal. We pray for each other and are in turn supported in a real way both physically and spiritually by the fruit of that prayer. We sacrifice our time and comfort, giving alms, fasting, and praying intently. While this time period is measured in real moments- hours and days – it also transcends time, and bears significance in eternity. Travel shakes us of the constraints of our routines. The comforts of home – food, a comfortable bed, cleanliness, our favorite clothes, our sense of security- are all left behind for a duration. Don’t even get me started on time zones and jet lag…. Journeys involve sacrifice. Yet, because of that sacrifice, we are privileged to behold vistas that were previously unimaginable.
May the sacrifice of the Lenten Journey bear spiritual fruit for each and every one of us in both time and eternity.