By Michelle Francl-Donnay
I rejoiced when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” And now our feet are standing within your gates, Jerusalem. – Ps. 122:1-2
The suitcases were hauled up from their basement resting places, while the kitchen door sprouted lists of chores that must be done, things that must not be forgotten before we headed off in three different directions. Water the plants; be sure to take the sandwiches from the refrigerator. Did anyone remember to close the windows upstairs?
Mike and Victor were headed north to look at colleges, Chris, east to the shore for a holiday with a friend. Me? I was bound west for an eight-day silent retreat.
After a year in which I circumnavigated the globe – twice – and packed and unpacked my bags so often I lost count, I longed for silence and stillness. I rejoiced as I drove through the Jesuit Center’s gates, to plant my feet firmly in one spot for a week. Pilgrimages were the last thing on my mind. God had other plans.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes,” suggested French essayist Marcel Proust. I had come to be still, in a familiar place, where I did not have to struggle to negotiate a strange landscape. Instead, God sent me on pilgrimage, to see with new eyes rather than to see new places.
In reflecting on the reasons for his own pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Pope John Paul II mused, “We go to see where God has pitched His tent.” If we ourselves are dwelling places of God in the Spirit, as St. Paul tells us, then God has pitched His tent within us, and there is no escaping the pilgrim way – familiar landscapes or not.
A Christian pilgrimage, the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People tells us, has four movements: the departure, walking, the visit to the shrine and the return. So, too, this retreat.
Though I didn’t move physically far from my usual neighborhood, I departed from my usual ways, leaving behind both my writing and my customary prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours. I ventured onto unfamiliar roads, seeking God.
Not only did I literally walk miles through the hedgerows, but I walked in silence with the other men and women on retreat with the same desire – to let God be at work in their lives. I walked with Jesus, meditating on the Gospels, seeing with new eyes the places where God had pitched His tent in my life.
I stopped, again and again. Held in the warm stillness of the chapel, supported by the cool stone of the cloister, overshadowed by the expanse of creation above my head as I slipped out to pray on the grass at midnight. I listened to God’s Word echo in my inmost being.
And I came back, only to find I’m still on the road. Seeing with new eyes where God has pitched His tent, in the aisles of the grocery store, in my e-mail, in the kitchen with my sons. In me.
You teach all the faithful to perceive the signs of your presence along all the pathways of life; grant that like the disciples of Emmaus we may come to recognize Christ as the companion of our journey and know Him in the breaking of the bread. – From the intercessions for the Blessing of Pilgrims After Their Return
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.