Mar 5, 2011

Towards Lent: Pilgrim or Tourist?

Return to me with your whole heart

Each year you give us this joyful season
when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery
with mind and heart renewed . . . (Lent Preface I)

At long last we are about to begin this “joyful season” called Lent. It is the latest that Easter Sunday can come (April 24th) and consequently the latest that Ash Wednesday can begin our annual journey of faith.

We are marked with ash to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” We look upon our lives as we would into a mirror. We cannot deny what we see so we decide to do a little spring cleaning and leave behind the obstacles which prevent us from a deeper relationship with God. We give something up and/or do some work of charity for another as traditional ways to mark this season of violet, the color of penance. We pray more and abstain from meat on Fridays of Lent. We identify with the poor to become poor in spirit ourselves. We hear sacred stories of faith, glory, healed sight, “living water,” the cross and resurrection. We renew our baptismal promises and welcome among us new Christians born in the waters of baptism, fed on the Bread of Life, and anointed with the Holy Spirit. All this and more makes for a centuries old tradition going back thousands of years to the early Church.

I’d like to propose a bit of a different slant on this. Six weeks is not a long time to make significant, life-long, lasting changes in our lives. But, I think it all depends on our perception.

In this season, am I pilgrim or tourist? When you imagine a pilgrim what do you think of? (I don’t mean Plymouth Rock and our first Thanksgiving). Pilgrims are those who prepare for their journey. They speak of a pilgrimage and not a vacation. They are not concerned about overweight luggage or extra carry on’s. They travel light. They live simply. Once the journey begins, they enter their surroundings and try to connect what they see, hear, taste, and touch with the experience of their faith. For a pilgrim, their passage is more an experience that is meant to call them to look deeply into their lives. What are the roadblocks or barriers of resistance that keep me from growing in faith – into a deeper relationship with God?

Pilgrims do some sort of penance and see their journey as connected to their lives. The experiences of the trip all mean something and are not viewed as an inconvenience or an interruption. They may visit a holy place made sacred by a noted saint, the Lord himself, the Blessed Mother or the faith of countless earlier pilgrims. A pilgrim seeks to be changed or at least begin a new direction for their life more in accord with God's will for them.

A tourist on the other hand goes on vacation or holiday. We look forward to doing nothing, no phone, no emails, and no daily schedule. We pack for any unexpected weather, we are sure we have enough money to cover expenses, we schlep around our camera, look for bargains and good tour packages which may include very nice accommodations and a feast of delicious food. (Been on a cruise lately?). We observe our surroundings or just lay by the poolside. We say how beautiful something may be but in the end we come home with memories and are grateful that the journey is over. Nice to be gone but there’s no place like home. It’s a great trip but I’m essentially the same person I was two weeks before.

Do we view this Lenten journey before us as a tourist or as a pilgrim? We are on a journey of faith and we may have to do a little hard work in order to avoid just looking around at things. Do the no meat Fridays mean a visit to the local seafood restaurant or a simple bowl of vegetable soup for dinner?

The Lenten Sunday Gospels lay before us scenes meant to draw us to a greater awareness of our own sinfulness and who will bring us hope, new life, healed vision, living water, Christ as our food, victory over sin and death and ultimately eternal life.

As pilgrims we enter the desert with Jesus to wrestle with the power of sin in our life (Mt 4: 1-11).We stand on the mountain top with Peter, James and John as Christ reveals the glory of his divinity with Moses and Elijah (Mt. 17: 1-9). We are moved by the conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman who comes to draw water from a well (Jn 4: 5-42). We experience the new vision granted to a man born blind who, with eyes of faith, sees Jesus as light in darkness (Jn 9: 1-41). We are startled to witness the formerly dead Lazarus walk forth from his tomb at the word of Christ: "Lazarus, come out!" (Jn 11: 1-45). This holy pilgrimage prepares us for the holiest week of the year and for minds and hearts renewed.

Is this merely a vacation, a tour of sights and sounds or is it a journey towards conversion as we pass on our pilgrim way? So, let’s put aside the worries of what should I bring and the concern being prepared for any eventual happening. Let’s discard the extra baggage and begin this walk with trust. We are pilgrims. As the new English translation in Eucharistic Prayer III will proclaim: “Be pleased to confirm in faith and charity your pilgrim Church on earth . . .”