Living Life as a Pilgrim: An Attitude of Pilgrimage in Everyday Life
“The prayer language of exile is the language of God’s absence.”
Maybe you’ve reached a pivotal moment in your interior life where there is a sense of nothingness – vacancy within you, a hollowness of spirit you can’t define, yet know feels like a sort of poverty. This emptiness does not resolve as you continue to pray, turn to God with your requests and even desperation, or practice constancy and fidelity.
The spiritual desolation you encounter is not unlike that of the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt. They wandered, seemingly aimless at times, through a desert that spanned miles so vast. Where God led them, no vegetation thrived, and certainly no life-source of water was plentiful. This metaphor of exile refers to the spiritual aridity that afflicts souls who are drawn more deeply, and mystically, toward the Heart of Jesus.
The concept of spiritual exile is akin to Christian life as a pilgrimage. For many, we vaguely accept the notion that we’re called to “carry our crosses,” but more often than not, this is merely a cliché we use to define our creed. In some ways, the concept of carrying a cross tailor-made for us becomes a way to identify our superiority, or even perceived martyrdom, rather than a path carved for us that radically transforms us.
There are four basic ways we can understand what it means to be a pilgrim, much like the early Israelites, with a destination not of this world. If heaven is our version of The Promised Land, then we can expect to feel exiled – to be immersed in a world that seems foreign and uncomfortable.
Exilic spirituality, as defined by Lee Beach, PhD., in her article, A Spirituality of Exile: Responding to God’s Absence, includes the four movements of prayer that occur as our faith deepens during these desert trials: lament, remembrance, reorientation, and hope.
The Book of Lamentations has largely been overlooked by the Church, except for a few verses parsed out on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. Some biblical scholars believe it to be too jarring, too desolate and without the fulfillment of resurrection or restoration. However, it’s not odd for a Christian to find herself in such a place – a place within that has dried up, a place where she can only observe darkness and feels only a constant anguish.
The soul is often annihilated during what St. John of the Cross defined as The Purgative Way. This point of a person’s spiritual journey involves what feels like ruthless and unrelenting punishment and abandonment from God. Take a look at what Lamentations 2:12 describes as ruthless pain:
Come, all who pass by the way,
pay attention and see:
Is there any pain like my pain,
which has been ruthlessly inflicted upon me,
With which the LORD has tormented me
on the day of his blazing wrath?
Living life as a pilgrim legitimately passes through a place of lament, in which the soul is tormented by the purgation of its ego, its sins, its weaknesses.
We cannot call ourselves true Christians without a somber attitude of remembering the history of humanity and its ultimate redemption. Perhaps this is why Catholicism includes a rich context from the beginning of creation and the fall of Adam and Eve through the end of time, when Jesus will return to earth.
When we live as pilgrim people, we are in a state of constant remembrance. This is not to say that we are not joyful or joy-filled, only that we are acutely aware of our finitude and our tendency toward sin (concupiscence). Pilgrims do not forget where they came from. As they sojourn, what they leave behind becomes symbolic of their transformation. In wisdom, they understand that, while they shed the old, it is necessary to undergo a purgation and refinement that hurts. All the while, they keep the end in mind – and that is hope.
Reorientation is generally defined as either “the action of changing the focus or direction of something” or “familiarization with something again.” An attitude of pilgrimage is one that is malleable. In other words, it is open to the direction of the Holy Spirit. This is where the beatitude of meekness is crucial, because as we grow in meekness, we also become more attuned to how the Holy Spirit operates in, through, and around us.
Meekness reorients us, because we tend toward distraction – the lure of earthly matters – but the Holy Spirit moves our hearts heavenward. The wrestling between what is transitory and what is eternal becomes a type of restlessness in the pilgrim. He begins to feel like a wayfarer, questioning his place in the world and whether he will ever reach his destination.
The vulnerability of seeking God transforms our hearts from hearts of stone to fleshly hearts. We are more capable of feeling all things, both intensely euphoric and excruciatingly painful. But the attitude of reorientation draws us into God’s benevolence. Meekness is not merely the acquisition of humility; it also involves receptivity, sensitivity, and compassion. These are truly the hallmarks of a follower of Jesus.
There is no way to consider our lives as one lengthy pilgrimage if we do not have an end in mind. The end for the Christian, of course, is heaven. When the desolation of exilic spiritual yearnings tarry, we lean upon the hope of the Resurrection.
And this is no trite, saccharine hope. It is the hope borne from longings unfulfilled, from the compounding suffocation of losses, from the torn Flesh of the Body of Christ. It is a hope incarnate, one fully alive in the soul of every Christian who lives as a pilgrim, because it is the way we participate in the “yes” of Mary and Jesus every day.
Hope carries us. It orients us. It propels us. Without it, our lives don’t make sense. We have no reason to suffer, to sacrifice, to weep. Hope reminds us that every type of pain is redeemable and has been redeemed. Hope strengthens us when we find ourselves on the brink of despair. It elevates us when we believe we can’t go on any longer. And that is precisely the moment grace sweeps us out of the desert of exile and into the respite of consolation, or at least a sigh of relief.