‘The third experience is to spend a month in making a pilgrimage without money, but begging from door to door at times, for the love of God our Lord, in order to grow accustomed to discomfort in food and lodging.’ (Constitutions of the Society of Jesus no. 67.)
Well, I guess this more of less explains why Jesuit novices go on a pilgrimage, because it is in their constitutions. Last month I spent walking in Spain together with one of my fellow novices without a penny in my purse. Leaving Loyola in the ever-so-hilly Basque country on the 1st of June and arriving in Sunny Manresa (near Barcelona) at the 3rd of July, in total slightly over 500 kilometres (320 miles); visiting along our way the shrine of Francis Xavier in Javier and the shrine of our Lady in Montserrat. But rather than sharing our day to day doings, I would like to share a couple of ‘key’ experiences.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I was not looking forward to this pilgrimage. Just because it’s in the constitutions doesn’t mean that I have to like it. I truly had to force myself in the very first week to walk. My dream of distant Manresa which came closer every day is what kept me going. This, at least to a certain extent, was a practice of obedience. I didn’t want to go. But this is part of being a Jesuit, something I hope to become, something I feel called to, therefore I have to do this walk. I don’t consider myself to be utterly spiritual, I’m more practical, and that caused me to see all the hardships ahead.
The insecurity of what to eat and where to sleep when you don’t have anything to spend; of the pain in muscles or the prospect of blisters (happily didn’t get any of those nasty buggers). Maybe I’m a bit unfair towards myself now but as far as a motive goes, this was pretty much it for me. It took a long time for this to change…
After about two weeks of walking, long after we passed Pamplona and the Castillo de Javier, we reached a tiny town called Santa Maria de La Peña, with an absolutely stunning view. Somehow I experienced a deep appreciation, but above all a deep realisation of what God had done to us, to me, in these previous two weeks. For example, just the day before it had been raining non-stop, everything soaked, my boots, even my sleeping-bag! But against all expectation we reached a town (Bailo) where someone gave us a lift in her car to Arres. In this town there was an ‘alberge’ (a shelter for pilgrims) run by volunteers. They provided hot food, a dry sleeping bag but above all companionship, a real experience of hospitality. How was I not to enjoy this goodness? Yet, somehow I needed the beauty of creation to realise that. When reflecting on this movement of my spirit it reminds me of the end of the 1st week of the Spiritual Exercises as written by Ignatius, where one reflects the love of God for him, and his inadequate answer to that, commonly known as sin.
But at the end of that week you realise that you are still loved, even with all your failings. Certainly for me, it felt as if a burden was lifted from my shoulders and I could move more freely. Well, the same happened in Santa Maria de la Peña. A burden was lifted and I could enjoy the walking, the rhythm and the silence a lot more, which certainly filled me with joy. There were days when we left at 5:30AM and arrived at our destination around noon. Yes, we made our siesta’s but large bits of the days were simply empty. But it was this emptiness which became most enjoyable, simply free from the burdens of daily life.
Another challenge which I found difficult was the daily begging for food and lodging. This never felt easy to do, even till the very end it simply felt unnatural: unnatural since I like to be self-sufficient and independent in the full sense of the word. Relying on people who I had never met nor probably will meet again felt awkward to say the least. Ringing someone’s doorbell felt as if I was imposing myself too much on others. Being denied help isn’t really a confidence builder either. However, denials were exceptional. We met a lot of wonderful people who gave us plenty to eat. Whenever they did it felt gratifying, simply good. It made me reflect a lot! Would I accept a smelly, unshaven stranger in my house, who doesn’t speak the language? I guess that in receiving hospitality there is an invitation to show hospitality when the time comes. I’ll share one of our best experiences. After a day of walking we arrived in a small city called Igualada, about 40,000 citizens. We knew from experience that it is more difficult to find food and shelter in bigger towns than it is in small villages. So we when went to the town hall, where they directed us to an alberge. We were refused because we couldn’t pay the fee and therefore there was no way for us to stay there. So we were directed to a nearby convent. Sadly, even at the convent we were refused. But just as we left the convent two elderly women came up to us, asked who we were and what we were doing.
After we had exchanged some words one of them invited us in their house where we were treated to an excellent meal, she offered a bed for the night and even washed and ironed our clothes! And when we left the next morning she had prepared us a nice lunch. Receiving so much hospitality and generosity left me at times with a strange feeling of embarrassment. Because would I have done the same? This was difficult to the very end; it never got any easier… I firmly believe that it was providence that directed us, and as the days past on and on I was growing steadily (but slowly) more and more confident that God will provide for us.
Honesty implores me to stay that my biggest challenge was walking with another person for six weeks. Someone who has a different character, background, interests and who is 15 years older. Yet we share the vocation to Jesuit life. Different ways of looking at things cause new sets of challenges in all sorts of ways. I’m sure my walking-partner can attest to this. One of the main challenges concerning this is accepting weakness. Neither of us is perfect nor will ever be, but especially physical pains are shared by both. If I can’t move on or need to slow down so will he and vice versa. I do believe that separation is a fruit of the bad spirit, as opposed to the good spirit of God who was working very hard in trying to keep us together. Accepting the other as he is, with all his strengths and weaknesses was very much part of the pilgrimage but also giving him the opportunity to accept me as I am. So I can be true to myself. To be honest and genuine, I still need to work a bit on that.
I’ve written a lot now on challenges which may cause to think that the pilgrimage was without blessings. But please don’t think so, they were there, plenty of them. We were blessed with the people we’ve met, the food we were given, the complete absence of blisters and many, many others. However, often the greatest grace is in accepting and realising there is a challenge to overcome. Knowing that God will always be there to take care of me.