By Catherine Fournier
Pilgrimage is not a North American word. It’s not a concept that fits the history of the continent. North Americans understand emigration – getting there.. We came over the oceans by ship or plane, moved through the plains by wagon, train and car, scaled the mountains, all in search of a better future. The destination was the point and the journey itself best forgotten, especially if you had any thoughts to go home again.
Europe and Asia, on the other hand, understand pilgrimage very well. There are many famous pilgrimage trails and sites scattered through Britain, Europe, Russia and Asia. The very idea of hostels and inns evolved from pilgrimages. The Crusades were certainly more pilgrimage than military campaign. What with disease and the other hazards of medieval travel, it’s not like any individual involved actually expected to reach Jerusalem.
Russian and Asian societies have strong traditions of feeding and sheltering wandering holy men. A family considers itself honoured to host a pilgrim. Just as important, the pilgrim understands that their hospitality is both an occasion of charity for them and an expression of trust, humility and dependence on God for him. Pilgrims further understand that it’s not really important to reach a destination – there may not even be a destination. The journey is the pilgrimage, and the pilgrim strives to be perfectly resigned to the will of God in the matter of when and where his pilgrimage ends.
Perhaps this is what keeps North Americans from embracing the idea of pilgrimage. We don’t like dependence, we don’t understand it. In our history, the strong and self-reliant survived, the weak died (or went home, if they could stand the thought of the return journey). The rise of the nomadic nuclear family and the welfare state (assisted suicide, credit cards, old age homes, service industries …) has only reinforced our discomfort with the idea of dependence.
We don’t accept resignation well either – even those who practise resignation to the will of God. When you go on holiday, do you keep track of how long it takes you to get to the cottage? Did you manage to shave five minutes off the travel time this year? How many of us would be just as happy if the car broke down on the way to Ste. Anne de Beaupré and we had to turn around and go home? Would we consider it a wasted trip?
Here at the Fournier household, we are all learning to embrace the notion of pilgrimage – charity and dependence, acceptance and resignation, travelling versus destination. Peter is slowly recovering from a pinched nerve in his neck. He is regaining the use of his right arm and learning to take each day as it comes. Harder still, he is learning not to over-extend himself in his anxiety to find a new job. His is a kind of pilgrimage; the day-to-day journey of healing is as important as the destination of health.
And our pilgrim, Andrew, is learning the most of all of us about the nature of a pilgrimage.
As reported in last month’s story, Andrew struggled throughout the month of May and June to first keep and then catch up to his schedule. After finally reaching Bancroft he returned home on June 18 to rest and recuperate. He bought two pairs of shoes (13 for his right foot, 14 for his left), visited the doctor weekly, took anti-inflammatories and spent a lot of time thinking and worrying. Gradually, he started to listen instead.
He heard (from his parents, from a priest, from CLCY, from others) that like a pilgrim of old, he must accept being completely dependant. Dependence means showing gratitude, consideration, humility, patience. His progress is subject to God, the weather, his feet, the hospitality and charity of billetors, his family, the prayers of his supporters, the good people at CLCY organizing the pilgrimage, and very last of all himself. He’s learning that patience, gratitude, humility and acceptance are more important than how far he travels in a day. This is a tough lesson for a North American 20-year-old man accustomed to relying on himself first, but one that he’s showing signs of learning.
He’s learning that reaching Vancouver isn’t as important as reaching people’s hearts along the way, something he knew with his mind before he began. Now he’s learning it with his heart.
Peter gave Andrew Hillaire Belloc’s Pilgrimage, an excellent account of the physical and spiritual aspects of a pilgrimage. “Hey, Dad,” he said during his last phone call home, “Apparently as a pilgrim, I can bless people. Cool.” (I can hear all the priests who’ve said Andrew should become a priest chuckling as they read this.)
So, as of July 12 the Pilgrim for Life is walking again. Travelling about 15 kilometers a day, he’s walking along Lake Ontario and will head north at Oshawa. Perhaps I should make him another sign; one that says “Better Late than Never.”
To sponsor Andrew’s Pilgrimage for Life, please send a cheque (payable to Campaign Life Coalition, marked “Pilgrimage for Life”) to 104 Bond St. Toronto ON M5B 1X9. Donations will support Campaign Life Coalition Youth and Canadian Food for Children. To obtain sponsor sheets and a schedule of Andrew’s route, please call Tanya Granic, at (416) 204-1687 or toll free 1-800-730-5358.