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 | By Sister Ellen Hess, VDMF, S.T.D.

Pandemic as a Pilgrimage? Lessons from St James the Apostle

On the 25th of July we celebrate the feast day of St James, apostle and martyr, who is also the patron of all pilgrims as well as of Spain, where he went to evangelize and where his followers took his remains after he was beheaded by King Herod in Jerusalem. His grave, found inside the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, is the goal of the “Way of St James” – “El Camino de Santiago,” one of the oldest and most famous pilgrimage routes in the Christian world.

The word “pilgrim” comes from the Latin “pelegrinus,” meaning “from abroad or stranger” and references the spiritual attitude of the Christian as someone on a lifelong pilgrimage of faith as described in Hebrews 11:13: All these died according to faith, not having received the promises, but beholding them afar off, and saluting them, and confessing that they are pilgrims and strangers on the earth.

What can St James, the patron of all pilgrims, teach us today, in the middle of this difficult pandemic where we are stuck in self isolation, where travel is limited to essential travel, where many outside ventures are closed and unavailable. What does it mean to be a pilgrim and how can we apply some of the essential traits and lessons of pilgrimage to our lives?

We are all pilgrims and the pandemic has essential traits which are also found during a pilgrimage, the first one being that our ordinary lives have been interrupted, nothing is as it was before, our routines have drastically changed, without having changed our physical location.

The second similarity is the experience of hardship, when the old certainties crumble, when the customs are changed, when we no longer feel secure, when our lives are threatened by an invisible virus, the challenge of trust and abandonment acquires a new seriousness and horizon. That is a good moment to deepen in our spiritual journey. This moment of pandemic can become a liminal place, just like a pilgrimage, where we can encounter God and ourselves as never before. As on a pilgrimage, grappling with difficult situation can become a catalyst for change and for a life journey with more awareness and encounter of God and with others.

Difficult situations force us to question our immediate goals and test our purpose in life. A pilgrimage, or a conscientious journey helps us to reformulate what St Ignatius of Loyola, whose feast day is on July 31st, calls the Principal and Foundation of life, which is to orient our life towards loving, serving and praising God in all we do. These questions of purpose and meaning in the middle of a pandemic can either haunt us or they can open the way to a profound transformation, which is one of the effects of a pilgrimage. Because the journey and circumstances are challenging – physically, emotionally, financially and spiritually – they can become opportunities for change and transformation.

When I completed my first pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela many years ago, I was working as a Campus Minister at a university in Alcala de Henares, in Spain, and went with a group of students along the primitive way from Oviedo to Santiago, it was a transforming experience where I gained many spiritual insights that have stayed with me during the rest of my life.

The first was that you can only take with you as much as you can carry while walking. Invitations like a pilgrimage really narrow down our essentials in life, just as the pandemic. The second important lesson was to experience the power of love and caring as a means to go beyond yourself. Walking and suffering together creates bonds that go beyond words and allow yourself to become vulnerable as well as strong. Humiliating moments like having the blisters of your feet being healed by others become a communitarian celebration of life and friendship. I wouldn’t have made it to Santiago without my students, they were my motivation and challenge beyond any personal goal. I knew that many of them needed to encounter God in new and fresh ways that only a journey away from their old environment could provide. Supporting and helping them I learned that the motivation of love is so much stronger than even my personal accomplishment of walking 350 miles while developing a real painful tendinitis. When I finished this pilgrimage, I chose the motto for my perpetual vows: “For them I consecrate myself.” I am sure most of you either engaged in ministry or having to care for family have had that similar experience.

The third lesson was the importance of community. We all entered Santiago together, as a group, some limping, some carrying double backpacks for others, some with signs of exhaustion, bleeding knees….but we entered together, caring for one another, making sure no one got left behind. Our goal had changed from getting there no matter what, to reaching the tomb of the apostle together, as a group, as a pilgrim church where differences, gender, strength or health did not matter but where the spiritual bond of Christ among us carried us through and made us a living and joyful expression of church, despite the obvious signs of hardship.

Our journey through the pandemic is similar to a pilgrimage, the physical hardship of isolation, of limited access to the outdoors, of limited space is as challenging as setting out into the wilderness. We all feel the psychological hardship of fear, uncertainty of future, and depression and we all suffer the financial crises in some way or other. Nevertheless, this situation invites all of us to a different introspection and reformulation of our goals and purposes, the immediate as well as the existential ones. We are invited to keep deeply connected, never before have I experienced the need for community as strongly as in these times where we are physically cut off from our groups and people, our family and friends.

This pandemic has become a spiritual challenge, a challenge to reconsider what is essential, and it has reinforced our need and dependence of one another. We can only reach our Goal, which is Christ, together, as one Church united in its diversity and expression of faith, and I invite you to continue this pilgrimage asking as did the Prophet Jeremiah in 6:16: This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”