“To go on pilgrimage is not simply to visit a place to admire its treasures of nature, art or history. To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself, where his grace has shone with particular splendor and produced rich fruits of conversion and holiness among those who believe.” (Pope Benedict XVI)
In the Gospel of John, chapter 8 verse 12, we hear Jesus proclaim, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” As the light of the world, Jesus guides us on our way. Through His public ministry He leaves an example of how to walk as “perfect pilgrims.” Helping to illuminate His public life, are the five Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary. Throughout the Luminous Mysteries Jesus displays, among other qualities; obedience, wisdom, perseverance, humility, and sacrifice. He prepares Himself and His disciples for what is to come as they undertake their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and ultimately to the Kingdom. During this process Jesus grows in what it means to be the Messiah and what it means to be the Son of God. Likewise, pilgrimage offers us a particular opportunity to grow in grace and to grow as fellow sons and daughters of God ourselves. With that in mind I would like to take a look at the experience of pilgrimage in light of the Luminous Mysteries.
The First Luminous Mystery: The Baptism in The Jordan
God calls us all to faith, and undertaking pilgrimage is one way of answering that call. By saying “yes” in that moment of decision and opening ourselves up to the direction of the Holy Spirit, we are initiated into a family, of sorts. As in our own families, we are able to offer and accept encouragement given validity through shared suffering, hope, and triumph. Furthermore, we are able to rely on the help of the Lord. “Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” (Heb 2:18) This period of testing began with baptism.
Through baptism, Jesus humbles Himself and shows us to be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In the gospel of Luke, it is shortly thereafter that Jesus is “led by the spirit into the desert.” In saying “yes” to pilgrimage we follow His example and respond to an opportunity to allow the Spirit to lead us. Jesus, along with the Holy Spirit, bring direction to our lives. As Jesus chose to begin his “earthly pilgrimage” with being baptized, so to our pilgrimage began with a moment of baptism.
The Second and Third Luminous Mysteries: The Wedding Feast at Cana & The Proclamation of the Kingdom
While pilgrimage can be an intensely personal journey, I believe there is also a significant aspect of community. This seemed especially true of hiking the Camino. One of the many professed rewards of the pilgrimage are the people you encounter along the way. While personal interactions can occur daily, the role that we play within those exchanges can vary widely. This calls to mind the second Luminous Mystery, The Wedding Feast at Cana; a mystery with a host of different characters. One set of characters I would like to highlight are Mary and the unnamed servers.
One of the first people we are introduced to in the story is Jesus’ mother. Mary is portrayed as an intermediary, bringing the concerns of the wedding party to the attention of Jesus and prompting Him into action. Not only can we ask Mary to bring us and our prayers to Jesus, but we ourselves can act as “Mary” for others. This could mean striking up a conversation with a fellow pilgrim and praying for them, or perhaps even praying together in the moment. It could be taking the time to discuss and answer questions of the faith, being patient and understanding over areas of disagreement or difficulty. It could be teaching someone to pray the Rosary or the Angelus for example, or encouraging a devotion to the Saints. These are all simple ways in which we can help bring others closer to Jesus, as Mary does. We can also take on the role of the servers.
As servants of God we can help to bring Jesus into the world. Having brought the water to Jesus they now bring the wine to the attendants of the feast, completing the cycle of the miracle. We can bring the miracle of Jesus into the world in many ways. We can serve by stopping to help a laborer with their work. We can share a fellow pilgrim’s burden, lightening their load and offering encouragement. We can share our time and talents, allowing God to work through us to add to the experience of a moment. These little things might not seem like miracles, but to the non-expecting recipient they may certainly be. God is constantly working through and in us. By taking on the role of the obedient servant we can marry our work to His, in community with others, and for the mutual benefit of all. This brings us to the third luminous mystery, the Proclamation of the Kingdom.
Following Jesus’ example, we are called to proclaim the “good news;” the gospel of the kingdom of God. As we just discussed, there are many ways of doing so. While we are hopefully trying to make the best of the opportunities afforded to us, the reality is that we often fail. It can be easy to dwell on our mistakes and to let our feelings of failure consume us. However, it is important to realize that none of us will perfectly walk the path of faithfulness. We will all miss the mark at times during the journey. Through all of our misses though, I think we can take solace in the fact that mistakes made on the journey are still on the journey. We are still on our way, making an effort to move forward. When we acknowledge our mistakes and repent we still make progress. What’s more, is that God wants to forgive us.
Psalm 103:8 professes, “Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger, abounding in kindness.” Going on pilgrimage is an incredible opportunity to approach God with a humble and contrite heart, asking for His forgiveness and relying on His grace and mercy. In the same moment we both repent and go forth, proclaiming the kingdom of God. One example of this, particular to the Camino, was kneeling at the foot of the Iron Cross. Witnessing the pile of stones symbolizing the untold number of pilgrims who have come seeking God’s forgiveness, wishing to do penance, was a powerful moment. We must not be afraid to ask for forgiveness when we succumb to temptation, nor must we be afraid of temptation itself. To quote St. Padre Pio, “Do not fear adversities because they place the soul at the foot of the Cross, and the Cross places it at the gates of Heaven, where it will find He who triumphed over death and will introduce it to eternal life.” In this spirit we can go forth confident that God will use our struggles and even our failures to bring us closer to Him.
While we inevitably wander from time to time, God desires to guide us back. We need only ask. As Matthew writes in chapter 7 verses 7 and 8, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” God, in His perfect love for us, freely offers His forgiveness; and so it would seem that in our weakness, and often in the unexpected, we find the Kingdom of God to be closest at hand. Therefore, with the help of Mary, the Saints, and our fellow pilgrims, we come together in community, to build each other up as together we journey towards the Kingdom.
The Fourth Luminous Mystery: The Transfiguration
Pilgrimage is a transformative process that expresses a desire for holiness. The story of the Transfiguration highlights both transformation and that desire. The story starts out with Jesus taking Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray. They express a desire for holiness by making an effort to grow closer to God through prayer. Not only that, but they allow Jesus to guide them. When we allow Jesus to guide us we are rewarded with visions of His glory. Peter, James, and John were undoubtedly forever changed by this experience. While it may have been a personal moment for each, I think it is worth noting the communal aspect of it as well. Peter, James, and John are together experiencing this amazing event. While pilgrimage changes the person, we experience those changes together. Not only that, but those changes have relational consequences. It is important to remember that we need to go back down the mountain and out into the world. We need to appreciate the moment to the extent that it helps us to move forward.
In the story of the transfiguration, perhaps wanting to prolong the experience, Peter wishes to make tents for Moses, Elijah, and the Lord. We too act in this way. We take photos and keep journals so that we can go back and revisit certain feelings and memories. We want to prolong those moments that hold personal significance for us. While that can be helpful and certainly has its place, we can also run the risk of forgetting to live in the moment. We sometimes grow afraid that the experience will be over too soon, and it can be easy to lose hope of things yet to come.
As amazing as witnessing the Transfiguration of Jesus must have been, how much more so was the glory of His resurrection and triumph over death? It is true that the end of something great can be difficult. It can be easy to spend our time looking backwards, but in order for our transformation to become complete, the experience must come to its conclusion. Peter, James, and John didn’t spend the rest of their lives wishing to go back. They carried on down the mountain with Jesus, all the more vigilant I imagine, for the next opportunity to experience God, to witness His glory, and to grow in holiness.
The Fifth Luminous Mystery: The Institution of the Eucharist
In the fifth luminous mystery we find the fulfillment of the previous four. In the first mystery Jesus places an importance on baptism, and we first hear God saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17) Next we hear Mary instructing us, “Do whatever he tells you,” (John 2:5) as Jesus first reveals His glory. In a foreshadowing of His Passion, we also see Jesus symbolically taking the water, signifying the waters of sanctification, and transposing that significance onto the wine, later His blood. Then in the third mystery, Jesus Himself proclaims, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15) In doing so He gives us the directive to do likewise. The fourth mystery brings us the story of the Transfiguration, where we see Jesus in glory once again. This time he is accompanied by Moses and Elijah. Their presence indicates to us that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets; the embodiment of the history of the People of God. Furthermore, in an echo of Jesus’ baptism, we once again hear God’s voice saying, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him” (Luke 35). These four mysteries help to illuminate our relationship to Jesus and point to Him as the Messiah. Finally in the fifth mystery, we are welcomed into the full light of Christ in the form of the Eucharist. Tying it together, Saint Pope John Paul II says, “…In the act of Baptism, which brings about a configuration with Christ, and then through his Sacrifice sacramentally through the Eucharist—the church is continually being built up spiritually as the Body of Christ. In this Body, Christ wishes to be united with every individual, and in a special way he is united with those who suffer” (Salvifici Doloris, V:24).
Through establishing the Mass, God provides us a great opportunity. We are given the Eucharist to help strengthen us in our efforts to become more like Jesus (especially in our suffering) and to love God more perfectly. To a degree, pilgrimage offers the same opportunity. We have the chance to come together past, present, and future to worship God in our thoughts, words, and actions. We are given specific opportunities to serve God and our neighbor. We are reminded of the challenges of Jesus’ public ministry and develop a unique appreciation for His work and that of the early disciples. There is also a peculiar mix of joy and solemnity. In the Mass we celebrate sacrifice. We commemorate Jesus’ death on the cross, but also His rising and victory over that death. There are moments of great sobriety, yet we joyfully praise God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I found the experience of pilgrimage to have a similar dichotomy.
Hiking the Camino was both difficult and enjoyable. As a pilgrim I experienced both failure and triumph; loneliness and camaraderie; pain and joy. There were times of hunger and fatigue, but also times of eating, drinking, and celebration. It was a demanding experience in many ways, but it was also rewarding in a way that no “vacation” ever could be. Things centered on God take on new meaning. They carry an added significance, leaving a lasting impression on one’s life and going beyond the experience itself. Like the Mass, I believe pilgrimage is both experiential and preparatory. We are prepared to go forth, and having gone out, we return ever more eager to be sent yet again, filled with the strength and confidence of God’s love, incarnate in the body of Jesus.
Pope Francis directs us, “The Christian must be a luminous person who carries the light, a light that comes from one that is not his own, but a gift of God, a gift of Jesus. We carry this light forward!”  As in baptism, pilgrimage too begins with this gift. By accepting the call to pilgrimage we are offered a special opportunity to be lit, guided by, and to carry forward the light of Christ. In the unexpected we are given the chance to have our water turned into wine. In our weakness we are offered a glimpse into the Kingdom of God and called to proclaim it to others. In expressing a desire for holiness we see His glory and are guaranteed that having looked, our lives will be transformed. And in humbly approaching the foot of the cross, we are assured that God will not fail to give us the strength that we need to continue to follow Him here on our earthly pilgrimage.
 Quote taken from the Pope’s Angelus message Sunday February 9th 2014
Post written by Andy from Minnesota. Andy was a pilgrim in Creatio’s El Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage in Spain in July, 2015.