It began with an unexpected wake up call.
Last Saturday morning, I found myself sleeping through the gently-sounding alarm that rung at 5 AM to get me swiftly out of bed. I was deaf because I had put earplugs in just a few hours before (my neighbors know how to party without concern for noise complaints). My Peruvian mom also slept through her alarm.. until she felt a shaking. It was the Virgencita telling her to listen if I had awoken (which I hadn´t), and to go get me up. So we rushed to get some oatmeal ready, fill up water bottles, and I was off for a pilgrimage with hundreds of Catholic university students.
Though I set off without knowing anyone, I came to meet new friends who shared our thirst, hunger, and desire to reach the sanctuary. Pilgrims came in search of blessings for their friends and family, healing, miracles, and affirmation of the Arequipeno identity. Some walked as far as 16 hours through the darkened hills. Others, like me, took the easier route of 3 to 4 hours of walking through the morning.
My friend Antonella was the first person I met. She is a tranquil, jubilant spirit, with a passion for psychology and a faithful dedication to the Virgin. I learned that she has brothers in the Southeast of the United States (including North Carolina!) and was able to translate many of the Spanish words I had been struggling to understand. Though I was a stranger — a non-Catholic from a different country — Antonella made me feel like I belonged and was accepted with her and her friends.
So that brings the next question – if I am not Catholic, why did I set off on foot to see the miraculous patrón saint of Arequipa? Why bother spending a Saturday morning in the crux of sun and tiredness and dust to go see an image of Mary?
I went on the pilgrimage one – because I needed a break from the daily life of the city. Two – I went praying to the Virgin Mary for healing related to perfectionism and body-image. I have written about addiction and eating disorders before, specifically that it has been a personal struggle that relates to my faith and work with the homeless community. Being in Peru, I find that addiction is not only present in affluent, Western cultures — it is a universal human struggle. Yet it is particularly reinforced by our individualist, pleasure-seeking culture, telling us to seek events and material goods to find purpose. Fighting against negative body image, specifically, is a lucha against patriarchy and false advertising of contentment. I feel that addiction arises from a desire for connection, a feeling of true belonging in community, to satisfy our deepest longing for fulfillment.
In Peru, I started attending a clinic called Vida Mujer for women struggling with depression, anxiety, anorexia, bulimia, and addiction. Most of the vídeos that we watch come from the United States, specifically about young girls that feel isolated by the critical voice of perfectionism. I find it incredible that though I grew up thousands of miles away from sisters at Vida Mujer, we share the common struggles with mental demons. Our time together watching clouds or dancing not only provides a sense of relief that we are in the journey together, but with a new feeling of trust. We can be comfortable with ourselves, not just for my own health, but for the well-being of the collective Body. I cannot be the self-made individual I have often been taught I am supposed to be, but I rely on them to hold me accountable. I learn from them that every decisión I make, every thought of temptation I believe or deny, also will strengthen or weaken our community.
Pilgrimage is the societal antidote to every-human-for-herself — nunca camines solo (never walk alone) was the first rule. One, I found it was important to go with others because temptation to quit grows with loneliness. Two, I could fall, trip, get blisters, run out of water, or get lost. I learned that even when I resisted being seen in these vulnerable moments, or grew impatient with having to wait for others, I desired to be with company. In the recovery community, we often repeat the mantra you are never alone precisely so that we know the power of God and sponsors and friends are always present, and we owe it to others to keep walking, step by step, with patience and strength from God.
Paso por paso, it took being stripped away of home, cell phones, a native language, knowledge as to where we were headed, and my usual group of friends before I could give up control. When I did, the journey was tranquil and meaningful. Even when the path was littered with remnants of human hands, the beauty of nature became more powerful with each turn. I learned to listen to the grasses whispering in the mid-morning wind, my friend´s imaginations about their futures, the silence of slow movements.
And finally, with much anticipation, we made it. I will always remember the sensation of arriving to Chapi, a sanctuary packed with pilgrims on hands and knees and filling benches. They taught me bone-deep trust — seeing others willing to take the stranger into conversation, willing to be woken in the night by the voice of the Virgen, willing to share water and bread and know that paso por paso, no estamos solos. Our body, our lives, no longer our own, but connected to our ancestors, to one another, to God. Now I know that no matter what path we take or mistakes we make, we go nowhere unless we go as part of a Body that is our lifeblood and our accountability.
Chapi ended as it began — with a wake up-call and the sacrifical love of a mother. Warmed by the light of the sun, satisfied by prayer, waking to the gaze at a Mother radiating pure acceptance. Dusty, sweaty, hungry, tired bodies, not only welcomed, but called to trade our loneliness for Her love. Trading our fearful fights with our demons for God-given freedom. The Body fed collectively by one loaf of bread, the shared journey that is togetherness, was enough to feed all God´s children. Virgencita de Chapi, guíeme – guide our steps, to the shared freedom of love and liberation.