When I think of being a pilgrim, I think of being on a journey oriented towards God while enduring a certain dose of physical discomfort or hardship. In many ways our trip to World Youth Day served up exactly that.
We encountered many of the challenging aspects of our pilgrimage at the culminating event of World Youth Day: the overnight vigil preceding the papal Mass.
When the much-anticipated time came for our walk to the site where we would spend the night in vigil, we were turned away due to heat. If you followed the coverage of WYD at all, you may have heard about the extreme dryness and heat in Madrid in August. At many large-scale events, folks were being pulled out of the crowd having passed out from dehydration and heat exposure. The seven-kilometer route to the airfield where the vigil was being held had been deemed too long to walk in 103 degrees. Pilgrims were directed to take a bus two-thirds of the way closer before they were allowed to begin walking.
Arriving at the site of the vigil we saw an enormous cloud of dust covering the field because of all the people and activity on the ground below. It was at this point that I learned that more than one of our students had asthma and some were pretty allergic to dust and hay. As it turned out, the field had been covered in hay to help with the dust.
Then, within an hour, we realized there were storm clouds on the horizon headed our way.
I have come to understand that the storm that struck us on that field during the vigil with the pope was fairly well publicized. We saw it coming long before it actually hit. It was beautiful: dark clouds against a light sky. As it got closer we also began to see lightning shooting through the clouds (a thrill for our Portland students, who, despite great familiarity with the rain, have little exposure to lightning). The first drops were cold and few and far between. Then it hit with a gale force. The wind was pretty remarkable.
After the pope left, the night unexpectedly cooled down. There was a lovely breeze that was increasingly less lovely as more and more pilgrims settled in to try to sleep. When we were moving around it was a pretty comfortable temperature, but when we were still, it was enough to elicit shivers.
These are some examples of how we were pretty physically uncomfortable all the time. As pilgrims, though, we knew this was part of the deal; discomfort was what we signed up for and we were willing to persevere because we were on a pilgrimage to encounter God.
But the other part of the “pilgrim deal,” the part that I forgot to count on, was that while we were journeying towards God, God was also with us on every step of our journey. God was not only our destination, but also our means to continue striving for that destination.
Theologians such as Avery Dulles have often referred to the Church as a “pilgrim people of God.” In his well-known Models of the Church, Dulles quotes the Vatican II document Lumen gentium saying:
The Church, “like a pilgrim in a foreign land, presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God,” announcing the cross and death of the Lord until He comes. By the power of the risen Lord, she is given strength to overcome patiently and lovingly the afflictions and hardships which assail her from within and without, and to show forth in the world the mystery of the Lord in a faithful though shadowed way, until at last it will be revealed in total splendor.”
Here’s how I saw the “consolations of God” and the “strength to overcome…afflictions and hardships” in our overnight at the airfield:
The clouds that covered that field were the first respite we had from the Madrid sun all week.
The rain that came pushed down the dust and hay particles in the air and made it possible for those with even extreme allergies to be just fine.
The slow approach of the storm gave us plenty of time to put our belongings under blankets and plastic to protect them from the rain.
When the storm hit in all its fury, our students and most of the dedicated pilgrims around us started dancing and singing, alive in the Spirit.
The storm and rain somewhat unexpectedly paused long enough for us to participate with the pope in Adoration, leaving many of us thinking of another time the winds and rain died down before the presence of the Son of God.
I will remember our journey for many reasons, but the enduring memory for me will be how God was made ever-present not IN SPITE OF but often IN and THROUGH the hardships and challenges. I believe this is true in our day to day lives as well. Perhaps the gift of our pilgrimage is throwing that truth into even sharper relief that it might be burned more deeply into my memories and sustain me in my daily journey.