As T. S Eliot said in his poem “The Journey of the Magi,” we don’t always find what we are looking for on a pilgrimage. When we arrive, after a journey that may have been hazardous or at least full of calamity punctuated by boredom, what we find is not what we were expecting.
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
…And the night-fires going out, and the
lack of shelters,
… the villages dirty and charging high
A hard time we had of it.
…All this was a long time ago, I
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had
seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different…
The shrine we sought is small, dirty, crowded with hawkers pushing cheap souvenirs in our faces. The food is bad, the water expensive, the rooms infested. The police are everywhere and yet someone’s wallet is stolen. Altogether, the trip is a disappointment, and the pilgrims compensate by getting drunk and noisy on the last night.
And then there are pilgrimages we didn’t expect to make.
A back road between two rural villages is punctuated by an old church, a cemetery, or a tree on a hill. We stop for no particular reason. Inside an old door, through a rusty gate, beside a clear spring we find that divine moment we may have missed when we went looking for it.
The motive for the pilgrimage may vary from pilgrim to pilgrim: The need for an answer or a cure; to escape sorrow or love; ennui or doubt. Will any of these be answered, will any needs be fulfilled? It is a matter of the Holy Spirit whether what is sought is found, and is requested is given.
The pilgrimage, there and back, should change the pilgrim, who hopes for the best change, although what does change may be unexpected.
Did you expect to gain something?
And if you lose something instead?
Were you hoping for an answer of “Yes?”
What if the answer is “No?”
Do you expect to return home satisfied?
What will you do if God sends you on elsewhere?
One never knows at the beginning what the end will be.