“Everything you think comes to an end.”
When I was in Mapachapa, Mexico two weeks ago, Rosa, a Mexican religious aspirant, said those exact words to me. It served as paradigmatic statement which encapsulated a major difference between our cultures. Americans don’t like to see things come to an end, while other cultures accept that the finality of life without pretense.
Learning to accept that truth is wisdom.
For twelve months now, I have woken up every morning and whispered a simple prayer, “Dear God, please lead me where you need me to go, and show me what you need me to see.” For twelve months, I have never felt as if God failed to answer that prayer. Every single day held an encounter that was a sacramental sign of God’s love. Overtly, that was experienced through the Eucharist, but subtlety, through the encounter with God’s dwelling here on earth, in the People of God.
A couple days ago, I completed the “task” of this pilgrimage which was to visit three hundred and sixty-five churches in one year. Each of those visitations were an external sign, performed to represent the real pilgrimage that took place this year, the journey to visit the Cathedral where God reside, built within my heart. To visit this shrine, gave me more spiritual strength than all the other visitations put together. I discovered that, if a person cannot find the sanctuary of God within themselves, they will never find the sanctuary of God, even in the most astounding of cathedrals.
And so what?
What exactly did I accomplish through this journey? Did I change the world?
I doubt it.
I cannot claim to have changed the world… but I can claim that I prevented the world from changing me.
On January first, 2007, I left with the kind of arrogant maverick exclamation that you can expect from a faith-filled man in his youth, “I will not be confined or defined by anything in this world! I follow only God!” At the end, I find I find that I am confined, and defined, not by a thing, but a process, a spiritual exercise which cultivates the soul, so that God’s love may reign in it.
I abandoned everything I knew. I left my fishing nets at the boat. I followed.
In the calm abandon of my journey, I have been trying to figure out for weeks how this pilgrimage would come to an end. I only realized tonight, at evening prayer, that it was over. That is to say, I realized that the physical manifestation of journeying has come to an end. I have no further destinations, other than to return home. I have made it around the world with the Catholic Church, other Christians, other religions, and all people of good will. So the physical must come to an end, (just as Rosa warned me that it would) but I am comforted in knowing that the spiritual pilgrimage continues.
This confines me. This defines me. I am a pilgrim.
Even though I end this pilgrimage, it was only a practice for the one I am making with the whole of my life, the pilgrimage which ends in the abode of God, eternity, heaven. One pilgrimage ends, and another begins, but we have brief stopping points, markers along the journey, which remind us the direction we are headed, and call us into focus.
One such marker is a birthday. Mine being today, I have the privilege of being born on a special day in the Church’s calendar. December 17 is the first day of the “O Antiphons” in the Common Prayer of the Church. These are the antiphons which give us the song “O Come O Come Emanuel.”
December 17 is the antiphon for “O Come O Wisdom!”
I never claim really believe in horoscopes or supernatural prophecy, but if I have ever felt that there is any connection with the placement of my birthday to fate, I would say that I am attracted to the mystery of wisdom, which the Church celebrates on December 17. I usually cannot speak or sing the prayers out loud on December 17. I have always found myself humbled before the wisdom of God. The master weaver who brings all things together, even our mistakes. Tonight was no exception.
In my quiet pause, I bowed my head as a tear pressed its way from my eye in the exact moment that the reading from scripture was read out loud during evening prayer. In that moment, I realized the pilgrimage was over.
This particular pilgrimage began when I awoke from a dream three and three and one half years one late summer morning in 2004. I told my Spiritual Director and he told me “Forget about it. If you can forget about it, then it was nothing, but if it keeps coming back to your heart, then it is something of the Spirit, and we need to pay attention to it.”
He justified his harsh response with the steady voice of a saint, “To know if something is from the Holy Spirit, it must be tested.” He then referenced the same passage from scripture that was read tonight in evening prayer. The same reading that will always be read in the Church on December 17.
1 Thessalonians 5:18-24.
In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil. May the God of peace himself make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.
Things end as they begin, and where this pilgrimage has begun, it has found its end, faithful and accomplished.
I have tested the dream. I have tested the Spirit. The Spirit’s Holy Wisdom is true, and for this I surrender my heart in thanks.
The pilgrimage is over, and a new one begins.