Between May and June, myself and Teo – one of my fellow novices – walked around 580km in just under a month of pilgrimage. We did so while begging for our food and accommodation, having “taken nothing for the journey” (Luke 9:3) in terms of money. We began in Manresa, Catalunya and made our way towards Loyola in the Basque Country, via Javier in the Navarre region of Spain. This was a walk in the opposite direction along the ‘Camino Ignacio’, the way of St Ignatius as he left his home and embarked on his famous journey of conversion that continues with the modern-day Society of Jesus.
The pilgrimage experiment stands alongside the Spiritual Exercises as one of the key experiments of the Jesuit novitiate. Like the Spiritual Exercises, it feels difficult to express the hidden depths and meaning of the pilgrimage experiment concisely in a few hundred words. Also like the Exercises blog, I’m aware that many reading this will be considering a vocation to the Society of Jesus or about to join our novitiate this year and so I am reluctant of ‘spoiling’ others’ experiences by going into too much detail about my own. Instead I offer below a Highlight and a Lowlight of the experiment so as to give a short and sweet flavour of what the experiment can involve.
Highlight: Deep and meaningful moments of prayer in Javier.
Early on in the experiment I realised the vital nature of maintaining my prayer life while walking and not allowing the severity of the experience to detract and distract me from feeling close to God. Putting prayer first was what made this month a pilgrimage and not a walk. A huge difference and one I felt most strongly at Javier, the birthplace of Francis Xavier. There was tranquillity and a holy atmosphere that enabled me to enjoy a consoling moment of prayer that helped contribute to my sense of vocation in the Society of Jesus, no doubt inspired by the heroic example of St Francis Xavier. Emerging from the Basilica I was also taken aback by the carved list of destinations Francis Xavier worked in, with a carved phrase above declaring: “What profits a man to gain all the world and yet to lose his soul” (Matthew 16:26). This reminded me of the difficult yet rewarding path of a vocation to the priesthood, a timely and much-appreciated lesson I learnt as a pilgrim.
Runner-up: The warmth of the people of Irurtzun.
As Teo and I arrived in a sleepy Basque town one Saturday morning, we were welcomed by a group of locals and invited into their ‘Association’ (Working Man’s Club). We were fed bread, cheese and olives, and engaged in warm conversation, welcomed like long-lost family rather than (certainly by this stage) scruffy foreigners. The local priest put us up in the Parish Centre and even bought us a couple of bocadillos (ham and cheese sandwiches) for the road ahead. This experience is a microcosm of the wonderful warmth and hospitality we were generally given by the people we encountered en-route.
Lowlight: Lost up Arantzazu and sleepless in Igualada.
As we set out on our final trek, from Arantzazu to Loyola, we had to navigate the Sierra Aizkorri-Aratz, a range of mountains over 1500m high. A couple of wrong turns saw me taken out of my comfort zone as we scrambled across rocky crags, our backpacks groaning down on our backs twenty-eight days into our pilgrimage, which, at this point, felt more like an expedition we were woefully underprepared for. That being said, Teo and I worked well together after initial frustrations to navigate ourselves safely down to the Uriola valley below. Another ‘low point’ came in Igualada, a friendly city but one where we ended up sleeping rough on the streets overnight. This enhanced my sense of gratitude for the comforts we usually enjoy and take for granted. I also hope it gave me a heightened awareness of the plight of many homeless people on the streets back home, who I will now try and treat with a deepened mercy and kindness.
Final additional reflection:
One aspect of the pilgrimage which also deserves to be mentioned in this blog is how, like my experience in Drongen it enabled us to enjoy a real flavour of the international Society. We managed to visit several Spanish Jesuit communities: Lleida, Huesca, Pamplona, Bilbao to name but a few. Perhaps most interestingly we got to spend time just before our departure, with our fellow novices, those based in the Spanish novitiate in the beautiful San Sebastian. We were taken aback by how warmly we were welcomed here and in all of the communities, again giving us the feeling of having a ‘home from home’ and not being strangers in a distant land. The friendliness of the Spanish Jesuits taught me new lessons in hospitality and generosity that I hope I can reciprocate to those around me in future. Another blessing of the pilgrimage and another example of the personal development that the novitiate experience has made possible.