One of the more rewarding spiritual experiences in life is going on pilgrimage. My first pilgrimage experience was back in 1993 when I attended World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado. My initial hope for the trip, a hope that many youth had in Denver that week, was to have a “close encounter of the Papal kind.” What I found interesting was that what I hoped to get out of World Youth Day and what I received were two different things. Yes, I treasured the moment I saw St. John Paul II from about 30 yards away while standing behind a security blockade. However, the most powerful take away form World Youth Day was the strengthening of my faith through being in prayerful solidarity with about 750,000 Catholic youth from around the world. As we walked, sang, listened, and prayed, my faith strengthened and I knew I was in a better place spiritually than when I arrived. This experience didn’t answer all the questions I had about Catholicism or chase away all the struggles I brought to this pilgrimage. Nevertheless, being part of this journey taught me a valuable lesson I treasure to this day: Our lives are an adventure, journeying into the unknown aspects of life in the hope of learning more about ourselves, the world we live in, and God.
I was reminded of these and other lessons about being on pilgrimage the first time I watched the movie entitled, The Way. The movie stars Martin Sheen and is directed by his son, Emilio Estevez. It is a thought provoking movie of a father who decides to walk the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) after learning of the death of his son who was trying to complete the pilgrimage at the time of his passing. Martin Sheen’s character, Tom Avery, struggles in the movie, as any father would, to find answers to why his son was walking the Camino, hoping to bring closure to Daniel’s death. As Tom walks this path of pilgrimage, he is joined by a ragtag group of sojourners who are trying to lose weight, break an addiction, and write stories about why people walk the Camino. By the end of the movie, the weight problem is still there, the cigarettes are still being smoked, and the pain of a father’s heart is still palpable. Nevertheless, there is a clear sentiment that the pilgrimage did change each character for the better, but not for the reasons that lead them to embark on this journey in the first place. These simple, but powerful examples of pilgrimage teach us that to take this type of journey is not an end, but a beginning of one of life’s great adventures: The pursuit of the love of God.
This simple message of an ongoing pilgrimage came to mind as I attended the Faith and Astronomy Workshop this past January. In many respects, our “ragtag” group of clergy and laity were on a pilgrimage to understand the relationship between faith and astronomy. One of the core take aways I had on this “pilgrimage” was that if we explore faith and astronomy properly, we never really come to “an end” of the journey, but simply find new roads, new questions, and new experiences that take us in a new direction when exploring the relationship between Creator and creation. Many of us came with different hopes and questions to be explored at our workshop. Some of those questions might have been answered, while other questions either remained or were abandoned if favor of more interesting ones we hand not considered before. Nevertheless, when new paths are found, there is never a sense of regret over the fact that what initially motivated our exploration has changed. Instead, our excitement and enthusiasm deepens, realizing that there are things far deeper, far richer, and more meaningful to explore. In a real way, to explore faith and astronomy is more than an intellectual pursuit or a class we take in college. The exploration of faith and astronomy is a pilgrimage through billions of light years, promising mystery and intrigue on this adventure! In the process, we come to learn that the proper disposition of heart on this journey is to humble ourselves between the two great mysteries of God and the universe, realizing our inability to fully grasp either reality. When engaging this journey, we begin to realize that what we learn the most when exploring faith and astronomy is something indefinable within ourselves, intimately connected to how we see God and the world we live in: Our life’s meaning and purpose.
Something that can do harm to a pilgrimage is not being open to the journey. If someone thinks they have God and the world figured out, what’s the point of any further exploration? When humility before that which is beyond comprehension is replaced with arrogance, then the human heart can become hardened, dismissing such a pilgrimage of faith and science as a “waste of time.” What I find interesting as a priest is that many people confide in me that, as they grow older, the lack of exploring such questions begin to gnaw at them. There is regret that they chose to make life more about the practical things instead of exploring questions of meaning, purpose, beginnings, and ends. An interesting manifestation of this internal angst is the many online and DVD “continuing education courses” one can find that are designed for adults. What are the courses most commonly found? They usually are philosophy, theology, astronomy (or some other science), and a myriad of titles trying to help people find meaning in life. In summary, I find that if we don’t allow ourselves the experience of a meaningful, pilgrimage type of exploration in our lives, then, eventually, the pilgrimage seeks us out as the human heart aches to search for meaning and purpose. In light of this, a pilgrimage is not only a “nice idea,” but something essential to the human experience.
One of my favorite quotes from the Prayer Journal of Flannery O’Connor is this, “No one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer and he has his reasons.” One of the greatest gifts I received from this year’s Faith and Astronomy Workshop is the humble recognition that my knowledge of faith and science is, to borrow a sentiment from St. Thomas Aquinas, nothing more than straw in the eyes of God. Nevertheless, God calls me to pilgrimage, to understand the world I live in and my relationship with him who is my Source and Summit. I invite you into this exploration as well and, together, may we delve deeper and deeper into the never ending adventure of discovering who God is and what our place is in the universe, seeking to find meaning, purpose, and peace in our daily lives.