Thursday, July 5, 2012

Roman Holy Days: Starting out on a Franciscan study pilgrimage

Welcome to the 2012 Franciscan Study Pilgrimage. Our journey starts here in Rome. The Eternal City. Actually, at 35-degrees Centigrade at the moment, it’s also the Inferno City. What the heck am I doing here anyhow? For months now, I’ve been trying out one of several one-line, question-and-curiosity satisfying spiels to explain myself: I’m on the lam…. in between assignments…. on a study tour…. taking some time out to rest, recharge the batteries…. I am on a pilgrimage.

Wait. That last one works. And besides, it’s the truth: I am on a pilgrimage. An open-ended journey with one very particular item in my baggage: I want an answer—actually. The Answer, if I can get it, to any or some of my heretofore unrealized dreams, hopes, desires, and longings. In other words, I want to go away somewhere and then come back different, changed (for the better, of course) somehow. Or at the very least, a little (okay, so I’m greedy) or a lot more satisfied and serene.

So. I’m on a pilgrimage. I’ve signed up for this group experience and about 20 of us—Franciscan women and men, laypeople and religious, brothers and priests, working and retired—are pilgriming (sic) together through Rome, then through Rieti (wherever that is), and finally, through Assisi—before we all return to our respective homes and jobs.

Our first meeting, which was two nights ago here in Rome, Friar Todd Laverty, one of our trio of directors (Friar John Quigley and Sister Jean Moore are the others) met with us in one of the meeting rooms in our pensione, the Hotel Tra Noi (rhymes with ‘Hanoi”). First the team members, then each of the participants in turn, stood, introduced her/himself, and briefly shared their purpose in coming all this way to spend all this money and take all this time to travel together. In various stages of hunger, thirst, fatigue and jet lag, we gave our responses: I want to get back to my Franciscan roots. . . . I’m looking for something which will enrich me for the rest of my life… I’ve been on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and thought this would be a great way to learn more about our (Franciscan) charism…. I want to steep more into my Franciscan identity…. When it came my turn, I just blurted out: “I'm here to retool.” Well, not the entire complicated truth, but close enough….Interesting, though. We’re all pretty much on the same page.

Todd thanked us for our comments and attempted to put us at our ease. He told us he’d been involved in organizing and leading pilgrimage groups for more than twenty-five years. And time and again, he’d observed a phenomenon he called “the Resurrection waltz.” We’re all pilgrims, “ he said. “ And as pilgrims we deliberately do things in our lives which cause us to change, be more open to God, in order to meet God.” A pilgrimage involves a very specific kind of process, he explained, referring to the writings of Victor Hunter: “First, there is the disaggregation. It may feel like things are falling apart for a while. There’s a lot of stress and disorientation. You may feel exhausted, or queasy for a bit. Then, there’s the second step, the stage of liminality. (Literally, the threshold experience). All kinds of things can happen as we pass under or over a threshold. It’s a good idea at this point to pay careful attention to dreams and feelings, as we move into a new experience of ourselves. It’s a process we Christians experience as growth in holiness: the deepening of our conformity to Christ and in God’s image…. And finally, there is the stage of reaggregation. Things have changed. We find that we begin to put our lives together in a new way. Now there’s no deadline on this final step. In a way we are always on pilgrimage, aren’t we?”

Well, I could certainly relate to disaggregation and liminality. But, actually, I would just as soon skip all that stuff and get to reaggregation: the evidence of an authentic pilgrim’s progress, if you will…. But wait. Let’s not get ahead of things. For the moment, it’s enough to do the step work, get with the program. Trust the process. I think of the welcome letter I found in my packet: “We ask that you put aside all worries and cares so that we can be truly pilgrims (sic)—open to what God wants to share with us and open to what the sacred places have to say to us…. Be ready for an experience that will touch you, that will challenge you. That will bring you into the presence of the sacred.”

Fair enough, I thought. Plenty to chew on there. But let me go back to that word “liminality.” Liminal. Pre- liminary. E-liminate. Limits. I look around the room. To hear our talk, it’s clear that we’re all pretty darn liminal right now: One sister has just stepped down as Provincial of her religious community. Another is retiring after a long career in nursing. Someone else, already active in retirement, has just built a built a little personal hermitage and been ‘gifted’ with the trip by family members. Several of us are on sabbaticals of varying length. And I’ve counted at least six younger friars with who are completing studies, preparing for their profession of solemn vows, or else getting ready for ordination as deacons/priests. Myself? I’ve already mentioned that I’m on the lam, having left a huge, multi-cultural parish for another, smaller community/ ministry assignment. And I really do need to rest and retool somewhat to be ready for that challenge.

We pilgrims, then, are all very different, and yet, in some ways very much alike. Sharing our articulated intentions while bearing within still greater, deeper, unexpressed and inexpressible hopes for our journey. Our itinerary booklet has a wonderful excerpt from Pilgrimage, by Virgil Elizondo and Sean Freye which echoes and summarizes Friar Todd’s earlier reflection: “ The pilgrimage itself mirrors not only the most basic reality of the church, the people of God… but even more so the reality of humanity itself, human beings together on the way to the mysterious beyond….. Yet pilgrimage sites are not ends in themselves, but often serve as thresholds into new stages in life. One does not go as a pilgrim to stay, but to pass through a privileged experience that will change us in unsuspected and uncontrolled ways….One breaks through limitations to experience a bit more of the ultimate and unlimited experience.” Okay, fellow pilgrims, here we go. Wish us well, everyone, okay?

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