The Pilgrimage Experiment for a Jesuit novice dates back to the very beginnings of the Society of Jesus. St. Ignatius Loyola, understanding himself as a pilgrim, included this unique way of encountering God in the Constitutions of the Society as an important experience in one’s formation:… [make] a pilgrimage without money … begging from door to door at times, for the love of God our Lord, in order to grow accustomed to discomfort in food and lodging. Thus too the candidate … may with genuine faith and intense love place his reliance entirely in his Creator and Lord. (Constitutions, General Examen, ¶67)
The Pilgrimage Experiment begins by returning to the graces of the 30-day retreat (the Spiritual Exercises). Through the retreat, Jesus invites each one to co-labor with him in the world today. Each novice discerns where Jesus desires to meet him as a pilgrim.
Through conversation, the novice director determines a “landing city” specific to each novice. Each novice receives $5 and a one-way bus ticket. For the next 12-14 days, a novice seeks that tangible presence of God to deepen his reliance on God’s care, God’s protection, God’s voice.
Life on the road as a pilgrim can be tough. A novice begs for food, shelter and transportation, making very real his dependence on God’s loving care. The pilgrimage, therefore, is not just a very different experience of being in the world. It is a unique time of allowing the desired grace to become tangible, become incarnate.
What follows are the reflections of three Jesuits who completed their Pilgrimage Experiment. Each writer represents a different stage of formation: a novice (the first two years), a regent (after philosophy studies – a time of working in a Jesuit apostolate) and a theologian (theology studies after regency). Their reflections make clear that it was not what they did or where they landed that transformed them, but the ways they encountered Christ in the world and in the people they met.
Nicholas Blair, SJ
Second Year Novice
Sitting in the Greyhound Bus station preparing to leave for pilgrimage, it seemed only natural to pray for confidence and courage, but I desired something much more specific. I asked for the grace of confidence to do difficult things, and to know deeply God’s providence.Praying for this confidence encouraged me each time I had to ask for directions or tell my story, becoming vulnerable to complete strangers. By the end of pilgrimage, I was surprised by how my nervousness turned into overwhelming peace. This grace was not daring or gusto; it was a full-hearted understanding that I was journeying with Christ.
The night before we got on the first bus, I was anxious. The small knot in my stomach relaxed a little when I heard we would be sent out in pairs. I knew we would going solo in a few days, but for now, I was immensely grateful to have a fellow novice by my side.
Arriving in Akron, Ohio, my fellow novice and I headed straight for the homeless shelter. We asked for bed assignments near one another. As we made it to the front of the line of men waiting for their beds, we announced, “We have #60 and #61.” The man replied, “60 is the room on the left. 61 is the room on the right.” We were split up. My sense of security ebbed away.
As I walked to my bed in the back corner of a massive dormitory, I repeated a familiar prayer, “Jesus, I trust you.” As I approached, a voice in the darkness boomed, “Hey. Twenty bucks for security.” I froze, panicked. “I… uh… I…” was my articulate response.
The two men on the bunks below and next to mine burst into laughter. “Clearly you don’t come here often,” one of the guys, Kevin, said. “What are you doing here?” The night consisted of some great conversation and advice from a seasoned shelter-seeker, as well as much needed rest. The next day, Kevin gave us some bus passes — not the only time I would be helped by someone with very little to give.
That prayer to Jesus became my mantra. I started my journey saying a simple prayer when things got tough: “Jesus, I trust you.” After a few encounters with intense hunger and last-ditch efforts at finding shelter, I realized that the prayer was neither completely sincere nor inclusive of everything I felt. I had to add to it to express my sense of urgency. One evening, I was walking, talking to myself but also praying, hoping that something would come through. I said, “Jesus, it’s getting late.” Pause. “… and I trust you.”
Pilgrimage gave me confidence in my relationship with Jesus. It helped me grow in trust – especially in uncertain times. My experience of uncertainty didn’t end with pilgrimage. I’ve experienced other forms of uncertainty as my novitiate unfolds: a month in Puerto Rico learning a new language, ministry with the homeless of Lafayette, La., and teaching high school students in Belize City, Belize. Trust in Jesus has been essential. From that trust grows confidence to do difficult things.
Jesuit life promises difficult moments that will take great faith. Pilgrimage is a touchstone moment from which to draw confidence for the rest of my life.
As a novice, my most important job is to stay open to wherever God is calling me. The graces of pilgrimage are special, yet they are only a few of many to be discovered in a Jesuit lifetime. That seems to be one of the many beauties of this life – it opens the heart to continual growth, while relying on grace already received.
Even if I never feel peace again, I can look back at pilgrimage, know who is leading the way, and say, “Jesus I trust you,” no matter how late it gets.
Daniel Everson, SJ
First Year Regent
When I was an interfaith chaplain at a detention center for unaccompanied immigrant children in Chicago, I would often pause before one of the young migrants’ drawings there. A chain of X’s – the U.S.-Mexico border – ran from the middle of the page to its bottom edge. There were small human figures on both sides of the border. Some were approaching it from the south. Others had already crossed. Above this scene, the artist had written: La vida migrante, la vida mejor. (The migrant life, the best life.)When I discerned to work with these young migrants, a major influence on my decision was my novitiate pilgrimage, which I spent almost entirely in Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico border. It was on pilgrimage, reading the news at the Jesuits’ kitchen table in San Antonio, that I first learned about unaccompanied immigrant children. The children in detention in Chicago could well be the children I learned about on pilgrimage. Moreover, it seemed these children were on a pilgrimage of their own, seeking a better life, a safer home or a parent they had never met.
I found the detention center to be a more loving place than I had imagined. It was managed by a loving staff of social workers, who genuinely cared for the children and took great pains to reconnect them with family members. But still, I wondered, how could this vida migrante be la vida mejor?
My novitiate pilgrimage brings me closer to an answer. To be clear, unaccompanied immigrant children face far greater threats than any novice on pilgrimage. When my novice director put me on a bus from Kansas City to McAllen, Texas, with nothing but five dollars and a backpack full of clothes, I was terrified. But I was 24 years old, white, male and traveling in my own country. I can only imagine what unaccompanied children must feel as they depart their homelands, no more than 17 years old, for a surreptitious and dangerous journey to a foreign land. Even so, I wonder if the novitiate pilgrimage exposed me to the same grace God offers to young migrants who leave their homes – perhaps with nothing more than a few dollars and a bag of clothes – in search of a better life.
The grace I have in mind is the grace of trust – and of the peace that comes with it. As I boarded the bus in Kansas City, I said a prayer: “God, if you are real, now is the time to show it.” If God could take care of me for 17 days, when I had intentionally been stripped of pretty much anything I could use to guarantee my own survival, then I could believe in God more firmly than I ever had before. And sure enough, in so many ways that it would take a book to describe them all, God provided everything I could have needed and more.
Was my pilgrimage always comfortable? No. I spent several nights in homeless shelters and several more sleeping on a Greyhound bus. Was pilgrimage always easy? No. Many plans were frustrated as I tried to raise the money I needed to move from city to city. But did I ever lack for food, clothing or shelter? Did I ever go without help when I needed it? Did I ever lack human companionship? No, no and no.
Toward the end of my pilgrimage, this lesson set in. Struggling to beg for money and fearing I would never make it to New Orleans, my final destination, I sat down for Mass in Fort Worth. Little did I know that the man who sat next to me was an alumnus of Jesuit College Prep in Dallas. He bought me a bus ticket to New Orleans and invited me to spend the night on his couch. It amazes me to this day: God provided for me in a way I could never have imagined. God, I had to concede, was worthy of my trust.
The worries I faced in Fort Worth pale in comparison to the threats unaccompanied children face on their journey to the U.S. Many of these young people have an unshakeable trust in God. They trust in the God that brought them – not without pain, not without suffering, but who brought them nonetheless – to a place of new hope. While their future remains uncertain – will the social workers be able to find their family members? – they trust that God is still with them now, as God always has been, and as God ever shall be.
In the end, I think it must be this trust that makes la vida migrante la vida mejor. There comes a great peace when we surrender ourselves to the God who brings us – not necessarily without pain or suffering, but who brings us nonetheless – to the places we need to be. The unaccompanied children, whom I was so privileged to serve for three years, know this far better than I. But the lingering grace of my pilgrimage is the sense of trust and peace that comes when we stop relying on ourselves, and instead trust in the God who creates us, sustains us, and brings us safely home when our “earthly pilgrimage is done” (cf. Eucharistic Prayers for Various Needs).
David Lugo, SJ
Second Year Theology Studies
When speaking to student groups about my vocation and formation, the one experience that sparks their curiosity the most is the novice pilgrimage. Naturally, the 30 days of silence on the Long Retreat, and the overall length of formation are also impressive, but it is the weeks-long pilgrimage that tends to garner the most questions. In particular, most seem to be shocked by the idea of being left alone in the world to “fend for yourself” on as little as five dollars. As the years have progressed, however, the uniqueness of the pilgrimage has faded into the recesses of my memory, and what remains at the fore is one particular grace that serves as a touchstone for my relationship to God.As I journeyed from Houston to Los Angeles on the Greyhound, making intermittent stops along the way, I found it difficult to ask strangers for financial assistance to make the next leg of my journey. Certainly, the embarrassment and vulnerability I experienced in those moments was itself a grace, seeing how generous strangers can be to a traveler. But it was not in this initial ask that I received the most consolation.
On the final leg of my journey, from San Bernardino to Los Angeles, I felt an invitation from God to give away all of the money that remained in my bag from the many generous benefactors along the way. All of a sudden, I feared the possibility of being poor again, as I was in the beginning. Surely, the money I had was God’s gift and He wouldn’t ask it back from me, right?
The fear entered my heart that, though God had clearly been good to me already, He would somehow forget me if I were to be poor again. What I remember thinking in that moment of fear was that I doubted God would continue to provide for me beyond the first moment of consolation. Yes, God was generous to me at the beginning, but if I gave it all away again, would He bless me again and provide for me anew? I mustered the courage to trust that God would continue to be generous, even after leaving everything I had “earned” with someone who was clearly more in need than I.
The decision to start over was made easier when I met the man in need that God placed in my path. I don’t remember his name now, but I remember he was recently released from prison. He was on his way to visit his son for the first time since being imprisoned. He had learned a great deal about responsibility while in prison and was hoping to make amends with his family and to become a good father to his children.
Sitting next to him on the bus, I felt the money in my pocket weighing heavier and heavier. “This money doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to this man,” I thought to myself as we approached the bus terminal in Los Angeles. I feared starting over from nothing and fought the idea of being generous to this man as so many had been generous to me.
In the end, I came to the realization that if God had been so good to me, I should be kind and generous to those who are also in need. My fear notwithstanding, I had a responsibility to be a good steward of God’s gifts. So, I gave him all the money in my bag. The shock and gratitude on his face and in his voice were enough confirmation for me to know that this was indeed God’s will.
God did not abandon me and continued to provide for me throughout the trip. The lesson, however, has remained with me throughout the next eight years: the same God who provided for me in the beginning, will continue to provide for me along the way, if I continue to heed His call to leave everything behind, care for those in need, and trust in His care. As I approach priestly ordination, I remember this grace and trust that in moments of confusion and darkness, the God who was good to me in the beginning, will continue to provide for me along the way.
This article first appeared in Jesuits magazine, a three-times-a-year publication of this province. If you would like to receive the free magazine, please sign up here.