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April 27, 2022 – The first-year novices of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province will soon embark on a 12-14-day pilgrimage during which each one, on his own and with very little money to meet his needs, will learn to deepen his reliance on God’s care and protection.

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)

It’s been more than 20 years since Jesuit Fr. Bart Geger’s pilgrimage experiment, but his memory of one particular encounter remains fresh in his mind. He originally wrote this essay as a young Jesuit teaching at St. Louis University High School. As this year’s class of novices hits the road, we thought it was a good time to revisit Fr. Geger’s experience.

Please keep our novices in your prayers.

The first-year novices of the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province become pilgrims for a two-week period beginning April 29, 2022.

Judge for Yourself

By Fr. Bart Geger, SJ

Fr. Bart Geger, SJ

I make no excuses for the story I’m about to tell. It happened eight years ago. You will question my memory. That’s all right, it won’t offend me. Sometimes I almost manage to convince myself that it didn’t happen. So now I’ve written it down, in case I ever manage to do just that.

Every Jesuit makes a pilgrimage during his first year in training. The details vary, but in my case, it meant wandering the country for two weeks, alone, with $50 in my pocket. I planned to stay in homeless shelters, and maybe even beg, since $50 wouldn’t last long. The purpose was to give myself a concrete experience of what it means to trust God, instead of merely giving the idea lip service. My superior gave me an open bus ticket good for two weeks and dropped me off at the Denver station. The date was Dec. 26, 1990.

South seemed a good direction, so I boarded a bus for Juarez, Mexico. The passenger next to me had dreadlocks like Bob Marley and a glare like Jack Nicholson. He reeked of forbidden substances. I shrank into my seat and tried to look non-irritating.

We arrived in Albuquerque around 1:00 a.m. The bus station was about the size of our chapel, with a cluster of tables and vending machines in one corner. After getting a cup of coffee, I sat with my back to the lobby. A teenage couple sat in front of me, holding hands, whispering animatedly. Marley/Nicholson sat a few tables to my left, smoking a cigarette. He grunted occasionally but was otherwise quiet. An elderly man mopped the floor to my right. He did not look up from his work.

I was sitting with my chin in my left hand, the coffee in my right, when I perceived someone standing over my shoulder. I pretended not to notice, hoping he wasn’t a beggar. I couldn’t afford to give him anything. He mumbled something I didn’t understand, and then he said, more distinctly, “Mind if I sit down?”

Damn. He’s either a beggar or mentally ill. Maybe both. I sighed and said OK.

The man was in his early thirties, average height, slim build, wearing faded jeans and an army jacket. He had dark eyes and hair that parted in the middle, reaching halfway down his neck. His skin had an olive coloring. It vaguely bothered me that I couldn’t put a finger on his race. At first I took him for Hispanic, then Native American, then maybe Arab.

He made small talk about the weather and his destination. I wasn’t really listening, to be honest. I was tired and uncomfortable, and I figured he was warming up to ask me for money. But then he smiled and said, “Would you mind praying with me?”

Without warning he took my hands in his, placed them firmly on the table between us, lowered his head, and started praying out loud for all he was worth. I felt my face turn red. I looked over at Marley/Nicholson for possible support, but he saw which way the wind was blowing. He grunted, got up and walked away.

The man stopped praying. He looked into my eyes, smiled warmly, and said, “I sure could use some money.” Aw, damn, I knew it. But without knowing why, I reached into my wallet and gave him $20. His eyes widened, and a big grin crossed his face. “Hey, thanks, man. You take care, OK?”

He walked away. And there I sat, wondering what in the world possessed me to give him half my money. I didn’t know whether to feel noble or stupid.

Thirty seconds passed since he walked away, forty at most, when I suddenly realized what it was he had mumbled when he first walked up behind me. I know that sounds strange, but if you’ve ever remembered a dream after you’ve been awake several hours, you know what I mean. What the man said was, “I know you’re on a journey looking for Christ, and I can help you find him.”

I jumped to my feet, nearly spilling the coffee. I looked around the lobby, but the terminal was empty, except for the janitor and a few passengers milling around. I ran outside where the buses were parked. He wasn’t there. I ran around the outside of the station. He wasn’t there. I went back inside and – I promise I’m not making this up – checked the men’s room. He wasn’t there, either. My heart was still racing when I boarded the bus.

Later, when I told this story to my Jesuit friends, they asked me whether I thought the whole thing was just a coincidence. After all, it would have been obvious that I was on a journey, and maybe the beggar simply made an offhand religious comment. I didn’t know then what to tell them. But now I do. You see, it doesn’t matter whether the beggar was Christ or not.

The fact remains, it was Christ.

It always is.

Fr. Bart Geger, SJ, is currently an assistant professor of the Practice at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, a research scholar at the Institute of Advanced Jesuit Studies, and the general editor of Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits. Visit his author page.