This past weekend I went on my second religious pilgrimage since I arrived in the Dominican Republic last summer. The first had been to the National Shrine of Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes (Our Lady of Mercies) just outside of nearby La Vega. Just now I went to the Basilica of Nuestra Señora de Altagracia (Our Lady of High Grace) in Salvaleón de Higüey. For the former I walked about 30 kilometers, and for the latter I rode for about 300, with a bus transfer in Santo Domingo. Because I chose to travel on the holiday proper to each devotion (September 24 and January 21 respectively), I had great opportunities to reflect on the nature of pilgrimage.
I am almost tempted to characterize my weekend trip to Higüey as consisting of not one, but two pilgrimages: after all, I encountered God both in my visit to the Basilica, but also in my other destination, the relatively nearby Parque Nacional Cotubanamá (also known as the National Park of the East). As much as I experienced God’s presence among the caves and the waves of the park though, that trek only counts as a pilgrimage if I focus on my own personal experience. Although my unfortunately brief period of natural solitude was truly incredible however, I do hesitate to call that journey into nature a pilgrimage, for reasons that have nothing to do with buildings, artifacts, or rituals. Instead the crucial difference between my pilgrimage to Higüey and my experience of the park was the presence of other pilgrims.
There are many ways in which a pilgrimage reflects the general life journey, including moments of excitement and weariness, accomplishment and disappointment, unexpected risk, and unsought grace. And then there is the company we share, consisting of various persons each possessing their own distinct motivations, both religious and secular. While I may set off on a pilgrimage with one travelling companion, several, or none at all, the vast majority of people who shape my experience along the way are not chosen by me. Mixed in with pious devotees and earnest caretakers are not only the curious, superstitious, and reluctant, but also grifters and criminals looking to somehow exploit the crowd of humanity. All have much to teach us, whether or not they intend to do so. Some pilgrimage destinations receive constant visitors, while others peak at significant times. Why not avoid the crowds when possible then, and choose downtimes to visit? For the simple reason, that experiencing the other pilgrims may be the most moving part of the journey.
Before going to Higüey, I was careful to make a hotel reservation. When I arrived at the Basilica however, I saw tons of people, many of them Haitians, who had made the long trip with no place to overnight during their stay other than the grass and pavement outside the church. I saw some people who had brought pots to cook for themselves and others, while others moved through the crowd trying to do a bit of business. There were women and men, boys and girls of all ages, many of whom had sacrificed much to journey and pay homage, perhaps to seek some much needed blessing through Mary’s intercession or to give thanks for a favor already received. Regardless, these were the fellow pilgrims who had the greatest impact on me.
Too often, the Catholic Church has become overly comfortable with the wealthy and connected. While I don’t normally think of myself in these terms, there is no getting around the fact that I was one of the relatively few enjoying a hotel room. The conviction of the masses though convinced me once more that the devotion of those closest to the earth, with presumably limited formal theological training, is what keeps the Church truly alive. The lifeblood of the Church is those who know that Jesus loves them and identifies with them regardless of whether they may be unwashed or even unlearned. These are the ones who shall inherit the earth, not our bishops, philanthropists, or activists. Their silent and perhaps unintended rebuke of ecclesial excess and comfortable bourgeois piety speaks loudly to those with eyes to see. The witness of their faith shows all the faithful where our treasure ought to lie and to whom the message of Christ’s liberation most fully belongs.
They are the ones who most truly made this journey a pilgrimage for me. Otherwise I could have easily stayed in my hotel room and prayed there.
This week’s “ear candy” and “brain food” both reflect dynamics that may be present in many particular journeys we make during our lives, but also on the larger life journey that each of us takes. In “Never Alone”, Tori Kelly refers to some different companions that she’s had, but also sings of her personal trials on the way to finding unfailing companionship with God. In his poem, “Eldorado”, Edgar Allan Poe portrays hopes and disappointments that may arise at different points in the lifespan. Notably, even the character who begins by riding alone eventually encounters somebody else and must ask for guidance.
Ear Candy: “Never Alone” by Tori Kelly (featuring Kirk Franklin)
Brain Food: “Eldorado” by Edgar Allan Poe
Come back next Saturday for a new post!