Well, friends, it has been many weeks since I have last written. It has been a season of forming collages: gathering thoughts, piecing together parts of my memory that were once lost, releasing, and beginning again. I have learned that sometimes the transformations occurring in the soul are wordless, and thus our minds need time to process them before we attempt to sit down and write. So here it goes: a brief, and most likely jumbled, reflection on pilgrimage and how we listen to those soft murmurs in our hearts.
For Spring break, I spent six days in a remote monastery named Taize in the countryside of France. Along with 1900 (or so) other young pilgrims, we gathered at the Taize community, a place dedicated to peace and reconciliation from an ecumenical Christian tradition. We lived together, prayed together, worked together, translated scripture and played games. Our team from Davidson was made of eighteen (or so) students with two staff members, and the process of travel was around seventy hours total. In other words, as an introvert who loves to sleep, it was a great challenge to embark on this pilgrimage – in spirit, mind, and body. And, along with all challenges, it was also deeply rewarding and life-giving.
Our week at Taize was marked by simplicity: we prayed three times a day, ate breakfasts of bread and chocolate, went for long walks beside sheep fields and rejoiced when we had hot water in the shower. The time was purposefully simple so that we could seek God within ourselves and our relationships with fellow pilgrims and the brothers, away from the distractions of our everyday lives. I cannot express in words the awe that I felt witnessing nineteen hundred people gathered on the floor, on their knees, singing in several languages for what came to be hours into the night. As we began the season of Lent, the cross brought us together to experience Christ’s compassion and mercy in our midst.
It was there, in the silence of dark chapels, that I found myself breaking down for the first time in what felt like months. I felt the anxiety that often sits below the surface of my scattered thoughts. In regular time, disturbing fears and angers can be disguised or repressed constantly. When we sit for prayer, especially in the raw silence, these demons come back to us and we have no choice but to face them. Taize opened the closet doors of my soul that had been barged shut for months too long – and with spurts of silence, truths came to the surface.
One truth that emerged was a fear that I hold of violence. I look around at the world and the rampant violence against women. On a level of psychological violence, the media objectifies women’s bodies until young women internalize these images, producing self-loathing and body image issues. On a physical level, femicide and sexual violence against women are universal issues, especially in Latin America. As a woman who feels drawn to work with Latin American communities, I cannot help but feel terrified to confront realities of violence – both self-destructive tendencies that I hold, and the reality that there are powers of darkness in the world.
By bringing these fears to light, I found myself drawn more closely to the spirit of Christ. Jesus, the one who bore all brokenness, violence, and harm, understands my fears better than anyone. This well timed breakdown during the entrance to the Lenten season allowed me to experience these challenges with Jesus, and no longer run away from his hands.
“And if it is for your comfort to pour your darkness into space, it is also for your delight to pour forth the dawning of your heart.” – Kahlil Gibran
One day, I was standing in the washroom at Taize when I saw a girl next to me was wearing a sweatshirt from the Camino de Santiago. This famous pilgrimage extends from France to Spain, and is known as a spiritually healing experience for people. I spoke with the girl about her time on the Camino and she encouraged me to go. She even found me the next day in the breakfast line and told me, “Elizabeth, I was praying for you, and I think you need to go to the Camino. Do not be afraid.”
In Spanish, the Camino means the way. It also connotes the idea of a trail, or path, that pilgrims walk. While at Taize, I found myself at a crossroads. I had to discern where I felt God leading me toward for the next year, and with young adulthood, the identity formation that comes with these decisions. My head often creates this false fallacy that if I choose one option over another, I could make the ‘wrong’ decision and lose myself. Basically, I tend to see choices as black-or-white. The difficulty is that this creates a strong push-and-pull tension of attachment to comfort and aversion to failure, risk, and vulnerability.
From Taize, however, I learned that the way, the Camino, I am called to walk toward is one of commitment and vulnerability from the depths of my soul. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” because he wants to share with us and walk with us in the way of his unending compassion. He wants us leave the prison of our old ways of vision, our attachments and self-interest, so that our eyes may be drawn toward eternal life. Jesus exposes the falsehood of violence and rises again it that we might have the courage to repent, fix our gaze upon the cross, and be lifted to walk one more step toward the Light.
The beauty of pilgrimage is that it does not end once we return home, but merely begins as we learn to integrate the teachings back into our lives. Having confronted the shadows of my fears, I now had to face reality and integrate myself back into a daily rhythm. As I returned to Davidson, the distractions greeted me at my doorstep. Both my head and my feet are tempted to leap several steps ahead of the present moment. Yet in always thinking of and trying to “prepare” for the future, I miss the importance of living in the process and the transformation of the present pilgrimage. It takes much more courage to live moment to moment, step by step, and slow down to listen to our heart’s guidance in the here and now.
“The Camino, by its nature, serves as the ultimate metaphor for life. Footsteps along a well-trodden path may be our guide, but do not shield us from the questions that most of our busy everyday lives prevent us at times from fully recognizing. The road offers very little to hide behind.” – The Way
Through these past several weeks, I have realized that the Camino, the way, that Jesus calls us toward, is one that will break us down – but it will also renew and strengthen our spirits to face tremendous risk and vulnerability. We are called to walk the edge, integrate our roots with our highest visions for the potential of our community. And the purpose is not to succeed, but to bring ourselves to live by the promptings of the heart and commit to being with God in our midst. Wherever I find myself – on a high-speed train in France, sitting in a classroom at Davidson, or in the silence of a stone wall chapel, I want to keep my eyes open for two sets of footprints – particularly those of Christ leading me toward a more humbling place in reality.
After a conversation with a friend and sister, Sarah, this morning, I am reminded that each deeply challenging experience is always leading to transformation so that we can build a more peaceful community. We are dreaming and called to live into intentional community because our world needs more places like Taize – where pilgrims and people on the margins can come and eat bread (and chocolate for breakfast) together, share in the rhythm of a more sane life, and form transformative relationships.
Through the next few months, I will be praying the St. Francis prayer, which I offer as a blessing for your pilgrimage into the Lenten seasons. Blessings be with you!
- Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
- Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
- Where there is injury, pardon;
- Where there is error, truth;
- Where there is doubt, faith;
- Where there is despair, hope;
- Where there is darkness, light;
- And where there is sadness, joy.
- O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
- To be consoled as to console;
- To be understood as to understand;
- To be loved as to love.
- For it is in giving that we receive;
- It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
- And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
- – St. Francis of Assisi