Mercy Moments: Episode 3
Mercy Moments: Our lives are dripping with mercy. Indeed, our world is drenched in it.
Pilgrimage: a sacred journey.
Before my first immersion retreat to the U.S./Mexico border, I had never considered traversing through the desert, risking everything in search of a better life, to be a pilgrimage. While on retreat, we were invited to walk in the footsteps of such travelers, through the Sonoran Desert heat, lugging gallons of water which we would eventually leave behind for those in need. As our desert guide John shared accounts of migrants who had crossed through the desert – people he had met while providing humanitarian aid with the group No More Deaths – he frequently referred to the journey we were imitating as a pilgrimage.
I have completed three pilgrimages in my life. Each one unique. Each one drastically different than the desert treks John described.
In the summer of 2002 after my first year in college, I returned home to join my parish youth group on pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Toronto, Canada. World Youth Day is actually a weeklong experience that John Paul II began as an invitation to young people from all over the world to grow in their faith. Every few years, he would choose a new location and meet the youth of the world there. I had only become seriously involved in my youth group around the time I was graduating from high school. So after a year away, I was excited to be back with the group and looking forward to our bus ride north. At a parent information meeting, our pastor decided to really hype on the idea of suffering. He explained, “This is a pilgrimage. There will be suffering.” He was always so good with kids. That statement alone is enough to deter literally anyone…except a group of ridiculously excited, energetic, zealous, teenage friends. We took his warning and turned it into our motto in the “let’s get ready to rumble”style. Throughout the week we frequently chanted “Let’s get ready to suffffffffffffffffffffer!” Beyond our obnoxious joking, we really did have meaningful, albeit pain-free, experiences. I’ll never forget sitting on the shoulders of a friend as she stood squished among the thousands hoping to catch a glimpse (and a photo with our disposable cameras) of the man in the popemobile – the would-be saint who had captured the hearts of millions around the world.
In the summer of 2008, I was teaching at a Jesuit high school and had signed up for a pilgrimage based on the life and spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits – a Catholic order of priests and brothers. I joined faculty and staff from Jesuit institutions throughout the midwest as we traveled all over Spain and Italy to cities and churches and caves that were significant places in the life of Ignatius. While Ignatius lived for almost a year in a cave as a means of practicing simplicity, penance, and sacrifice; by the time we visited the cave, it had been transformed into a quaint chapel. So again, my second pilgrimage was meaningful, but definitely pain-free. I could get used to this.
In the summer of 2018, I set out for the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. An ancient pilgrimage that has attracted people from all over the globe for centuries, it covers 500 miles of the northern Spanish countryside. Gone were the tour buses, high school friends, and colleagues. This time, I was alone on foot. I would travel for a total of 40 days and walk for 33.
As a distance runner in high school, during long runs I would often silently repeat the mantra “God pick my feet up and I’ll put them down”. Years later that mantra came in handy on day one of walking the Camino. The Pyrenees mountains. I don’t know how else to describe them. I mean it’s in the name. They’re mountains and yet I still had imagined them to be different. They felt at times like I was walking up a wall. I had packed a bag of gummy bears (a snack that I often bring on long runs) for a day when I imagined I would be extra tired and in need of a sugar boost and a little something to remind me of the comforts of home. Well that day was day one, hour seven. I’m alone in the Pyrenees mountains remembering that the premise for the movie The Way is that it’s possible to die in these mountains and I’m just angry. The entire bag of gummy bears was gone in minutes. From that point on I was plagued with indescribable blisters on my feet for the rest of my pilgrimage. I was miserable. But then, I met Joe.
On Day 10 of walking I was in the courtyard of the albergue (or pilgrim hostel) in Santo Domingo de la Calzada when I met a woman from Chicago. When I told her I was from Cleveland, she replied “Oh! Then you must know Joe.” I didn’t know Joe. But we were quickly introduced and when Joe asked me ‘how I was’ I responded without hesitation, “horrible”. He then went on to say that he had a blister kit that he had been using to help people all week long. It turns out he was known for his roadside blister surgeries, performing mini miracles with nail clippers for strangers in need. Joe asked if I wanted him to help and I gratefully accepted. Joe saved my Camino. While I continued to struggle with blisters for another 23 days of walking, I finally knew how to care for them and that made all the difference.
As a fellow pilgrim watched Joe treat my blisters in the midst of the courtyard, she kept commenting on how brave I was. I told her if Joe had suggested he cut off my foot with nail clippers, in that moment I would’ve replied “Well, it’s worth a shot.” I wasn’t brave. I was desperate. Desperation is a unique form of motivation. During my third pilgrimage, I could finally heed my pastor’s warning from decades before, “There will be suffering.” No more papal benedictions and high cathedral masses; this time, my prayer was in the pain.
And still, I can’t begin to understand the pain of the pilgrims our desert guide described. I was desperate, but I could have ended my journey at any moment. It was never a matter of life and death. Without John’s prompting, I don’t know if I ever would have considered migrants in the desert to be pilgrims on a sacred journey. But now as I consider the harrowing stories of countless travelers in the desert, I can’t help but see them as pilgrims. Treacherous terrain. Harsh climates. Dehydration. Blisters! Oh the blisters! Being beaten by a coyote, the hired guide trusted to bring a group across the border to safety. Or finally reaching a port of entry, with the intention of claiming asylum, only to be turned away because of Title 42. Yes, desperation is a cruel form of motivation. And while most of us will never know this reality. We can still relate if we admit we too would risk everything to save our lives and those of our loved ones. Indeed, what journey is more sacred than the one made to save a life?
Calling for Mercy
This Sunday marks the two-year anniversary of Title 42. Title 42 is shorthand for the Public Health Service Act of 1944 that prohibits entry to the United States when the Director of Disease Control believes there is a “serious danger to the introduction of a communicable disease into the United States.” The previous administration cited COVID-19 as a pretext to effectively close the U.S. border to migrants in March of 2020. You can learn more about Title 42 and its implications for immigrants and migrants by clicking here.
Ending Title 42 can protect asylum seekers by restoring asylum protections. To learn about this process, and take action by contacting your representatives, you can click here.