Why make a pilgrimage? One might respond: to visit sacred places. The God that we believe in is the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. He is a God who encounters man in history, choosing people, precise times, and places. He is a God who did not disdain to be enclosed in the womb of a virgin, as sung in the Te Deum in all its wonder and rawness. To visit sacred places means to profess the faith in this God.
That being said, a pilgrimage is not only this. That which qualifies the pilgrim is not only the fact that he tends towards a certain point of arrival (which is shared with any religious tourist) but also, and especially, the free choice to make a long and tiring walk in order to arrive there. I understood this clearly a few years ago, at the end of a pilgrimage with the American CLU students. Our destination was the sanctuary of Our Lady of Good Help in Wisconsin. We walked for three days, under the baking sun, for the most part on the shoulder of asphalt roads, to arrive at a modest little church, which only recently became a fully functional sanctuary. Thelma, an Italian American New York purebred, comes up to me: “Father, I am frustrated. I have been walking for three days, enough to form blisters on my feet, ‘in the middle of nowhere,’ to get to a place I could have reached quickly and without effort by car. Can someone explain why what we are doing is not absurd?” I was taken aback for a second, then I told her: “Maybe because the point of a pilgrimage is not so much about arriving as it is about discovering the value of the fatigue that the journey entails.” “And what is that value?” she responded, still not persuaded.
For my young friend, born and raised in the era of Internet and Amazon, the possibility of investing time and effort, which could have been avoided to arrive at a destination, was inconceivable. This incomprehension, expressed through her straightforward question, struck me like a thunderbolt. In fact, isn’t this the central question of life? Wouldn’t it be better to arrive at the destination immediately, without tiring too much along the way? In synthesis: what relation exists between the fatigue of the journey and the enjoyment of the destination?
“We move because of a desire, a love. One doesn’t love remaining on the couch. He who truly loves is willing to accept the fatigue in order to reach that which he loves,” my trappist friend once wrote me. On top of this I’ll add that the greater the love, the more it wants to demonstrate itself, to be incarnated in signs that make its intensity visible. For this reason it is possible that a long and tiring walk might be reasonably preferable to the way that is quick and painless. The wounded feet are actually the glory of the pilgrim. This is true especially for the prince of all pilgrims, that is, our Lord.
John the Evangelist reveals the narrative of this love in his usual way, which is both discreet and sublime. In Bethany a dinner is held in honor of Jesus, who has recently resurrected his friend Lazarus. His sister Mary, in an emanation of love and recognition, takes a pound of precious nard oil and pours it entirely onto the feet of Jesus. We often ask: why precisely the feet? There are various answers to this question. For now I propose the following: because the feet are the part of the body (and the pilgrim knows this well) that most evidently show the signs of a hard journey.
Couldn’t the Lord have given the brother back to his sisters while staying in the same place, remaining in his secret shelter? He came, knowing well that that journey might come at a high price. He came, already knowing what it might have costed him, and in the end what it did cost him: the condemnation to death. Maybe he could have saved his friend, any of his friends, in thousands of other ways. Instead he chose this way, which was the most costly. In fact, Jesus’ journey from the very beginning was directed far beyond Bethany: it went towards the cross and ultimately to the grave. Only when His journey brought him to the dwelling place of ‘He whom he loves,’ would it be possible to say that the journey was concluded.
From this journey, the Lord’s feet are forever marked by the stigmata. He does not want to take away these marks. On the contrary, they are his glory, because they enshrine the memory of His love.
It is the same for the pilgrim. He sets off in order to arrive. But when he arrives, he discovers with the same joy both the signs of the fatigue and the fact of arriving. The love—said St. Bernard—is a reward in itself.