By Mathew Kelly
My friend Fr. Bob Sherry and I have been hosting pilgrimages for a long time. Our current schedule includes three trips each year: the Holy Land; Lourdes and Paris (France); and Rome, Assisi, and Florence (Italy). On the opening night, we always ask our pilgrims the same question: Are you going to be a pilgrim or a tourist?
Tourists want everything to go exactly as they have planned and imagined it. They rush around making sure they cram everything in. They’re constantly buying souvenirs and knickknacks, many of which they will look at when they get home and wonder, “What was I thinking?” They focus on themselves, often shoving past others to get where they’re going. Tourists go sightseeing. Tourists count the cost.
Pilgrims are very different. They look for signs. If a flight gets delayed or canceled, they ask, “What is God trying to say to me?” Pilgrims aren’t concerned with seeing and doing everything, just the things they feel called to see and do. They’re not obsessed with shopping. They are aware of others’ needs. Pilgrims look for meaning. Pilgrims count their blessings.
The reality is we are all pilgrims. This planet we call earth is not our home; we are just passing through. We build homes and establish ourselves on earth in ways that ignore that we are really just here for short time. It’s a dangerous pastime to live as if you’re never going to die, but consciously or subconsciously we all fall into this trap to one degree or another.
In this life, we’re just passing through. The happiness that God created us for is different from the fleeting happiness and momentary pleasures of this world. God created us for lasting happiness in a changing world — and eternal happiness with him in heaven. The happiness he wants for us in this life is a rare kind of happiness that isn’t dependent on situations or circumstances. It’s easy to be happy when everything is going well, but Christian joy allows us to be happy like Paul was when he was in prison.
Do you ever think about heaven? It seems to me we don’t talk about it anywhere near as much as we should. When Rudyard Kipling was very seriously ill, a nurse asked him, “Is there anything you want?” He replied, “I want God!” We all do. We may not be aware of it, but we want Him. Behind every desire for a new car or a new house, a promotion or accomplishment, clothes and jewelry, plastic surgery, adventure and travel, food and sex, acceptance and comfort, is our desire for God. We are always hungry for something more complete, and God is the completeness that we yearn for from the depths of our soul.
We are just passing through, and it’s helpful to remind ourselves of that from time to time. In the context of eternity, we’re only here for the blink of an eye. Realizing this changes our priorities. At the same time, we’re here for a reason. You are here for a reason. God has a mission for you.
Life is a pilgrimage, a sacred journey. Typically, a pilgrimage takes us to a shrine or other location important to a person’s faith or beliefs. You can make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Rome, Fatima, Lourdes, the Camino, or any of the famous Catholic sites around the world. But you could also make a pilgrimage to your nearest cathedral. In fact, every Sunday you make a pilgrimage to your local parish to Mass.
Very often people make pilgrimages with special intentions in mind. Some ask God for a favor, perhaps to heal a loved one who is sick. Others make a pilgrimage in thanksgiving for a blessing they’ve already received from God. There are always couples on our trips who are celebrating a wedding anniversary. On every trip, Fr. Bob chooses one of the holy places and invites every couple to renew their marriage vows. Powerful!
Life is a pilgrimage, but sometimes you need a pilgrimage to discover life. We’re journeying in this life toward the sacred city, toward the heart of God — heaven. Nobody makes the journey alone. We all need companions. I’ve met some of my very best friends in this world on pilgrimages. These friends encourage us and challenge us to become the “best version of ourselves.” By doing so, they help us to get to heaven.
Let’s pray for the grace to be pilgrims and not just tourists. Let’s pray for the grace to be the kind of friend who helps others in the great pilgrimage of life. We’re just passing through this place we call earth. At every turn we’re tempted to be tourists, so spend some time today thinking about heaven.