I learned a lot on this trip about what pilgrimage is and about what it means to have a spirit of pilgrimage. And through it all, I grew and changed significantly. Allow me to share with you some of what I learned.
Going with the flow is part of pilgrimage.
Sometimes you don't know what's happening next in the schedule, or how long it will take to get somewhere. Or maybe you do, but then the schedule changes unexpectedly, or you take a wrong turn and it takes twice as long to get where you're going. Whatever happens, just live in the moment. You are always right where you're meant to be. Embrace the journey and don't worry. Adopting this attitude is part of embracing a spirit of pilgrimage.
Suffering is bound to happen, and it's part of pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage is certainly not free of struggles and sufferings. On my trip, nearly everyone got sick (sometimes more than once), and there were a multitude of other illnesses and injuries people experienced. A few people had a family member back home that passed away while they were abroad. And everyone endured sufferings like exhaustion, being annoyed by someone, being homesick, and plenty of other small annoyances and trials. But it's all part of the journey and part of pilgrimage ~ especially because these sufferings made for excellent opportunities for sacrifice.
Living simply is part of pilgrimage.
We ate and lived quite simply most of the time, with a few moments of "luxury" in between. Most of the time we were staying in monasteries with a religious order, so we ate their simple meals with them. Or sometimes we bought food for the whole group on the spot at a grocery store. Furthermore, all of us lived out of a hiking backpack, with about a week's worth of clothes and a couple pairs of shoes, for 5 weeks. This pilgrimage gave us a chance to take a step back from our comfortable, convenient lives in America and experience the joy and grace of living simply.
Pilgrimage is less about tourism and more about God.
While there were some touristy moments and excursions (like freaking out when we saw the Eiffel Tower in Paris), tourism is not the purpose of pilgrimage. In fact, on this trip, we spent more days at the monasteries where we were staying ~ praying Lauds and Vespers, doing chores, having time for personal prayer, and spending time together ~ than we did seeing all the sights of Europe. Because the purpose of pilgrimage is to grow closer to God and to deepen our spiritual lives.
On pilgrimage, God speaks to people's hearts in different ways.
There's no denying that God worked in the hearts of every one of us over the course of our trip. And oftentimes it varied from person to person. Some people received certain graces or gifts from God that I did not, even though I might have liked to. Some people endured extraordinary sufferings, physically or emotionally, that I did not, and God used it to speak to their hearts. God spoke to everyone in a different way ~ a unique way. And the unique way in which God worked in each person's heart was perfectly fitting for that person and exactly what God wanted for that person. This aspect of pilgrimage that was beautiful to watch.
On pilgrimage, graces abound during and after.
There were times on my trip when I didn't or couldn't make the most of a moment that would have been very special and grace-filled. For instance, during the prayer vigil with the Pope during World Youth Day, I was still reeling from experiencing heat exhaustion earlier in the afternoon, and it was hard for me to enter fully into prayer and be fully present at the beautiful event. At first it saddened me as I felt like I had missed out on fully experiencing the beauty and graces of the vigil. But I realized something ~ that grace is available not only during a moment, but also after. God can (and often did on this trip) bestow graces on you as you go back and reflect on a certain experience and pray about it. Graces can abound both during and after a spiritual experience or encounter.
Pilgrimage is a reflection of our pilgrimage to heaven.
Our lives are a continual journey toward heaven, toward eternal, blissful union with God in heaven. And pilgrimage, like the one I made this summer, is a reflection of that. We were on a physical journey through France and Poland that culminated in World Youth Day, seeking to encounter God, to deepen our relationships with Him, to receive His graces, and to grow in the love and joy of Him. And this very much reflects the way in which our lives are lifelong pilgrimages to God in heaven.