This Summer, nine members of our faculty and staff are walking a route in Spain with sites related to the life of St. Ignatius. The following post by Mr. Stephen Pitts, SJ is the eleventh in a series of their reflections.
This afternoon we arrived in Montserrat. The name literally means serrated mountain, and the unique shape really stands out. From long before Ignatius’ time, a Benedictine monastery commemorates an apparition of the Virgin Mary here, and it has and continues to be a popular site of pilgrimage for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago as well. So it is no surprise that he stopped here on the way to Barcelona.
We are closer and closer to Barcelona, and the number of tourists here surprised us. We should have known, as tour bus after tour bus passed us on the mountain as we climbed up. Several of them bore the name of cruise ships, and I suspect that Montserrat is an optional day trip for any Mediterranean cruise that stops in Barcelona. Up until now, however, we have walked by ourselves on back roads and stayed at places where we were the only people. In contrast to the wonderful hospitality in very rural place, the accommodations here are sparse, perhaps owing to the number of people who pass through.
Ironically, then, the experience is not what some of us expected. Lately we pass around Ibuprofen at breakfast and dinner and a lot of the conversation in the hostel rooms concerns the proper way to treat blisters. I myself have a dozen. This experience of our own weakness heightens our awareness of the gifts we receive: yesterday we attended Mass with the sisters in the convent where we stayed, and I felt elevated by the sound of their beautiful voices. I am less shy about taking the people who host us at their word and asking for what we need: extra meat and cheese at breakfast to make sandwiches for the road, a good place to hang clothes to dry, etc. At the same time, many of us are tired from day after day of walking. It is one of the most physically demanding things I have done in my life.
For much of this trip I have not felt a theme to my walking. I have enjoyed the hiking and sightseeing, but nothing deeper has emerged, so I have tried to wait patiently for God. I have also been conscious of my role as the coordinator of the trip: I am willing to handle the practical things to let the trip be a spiritual experience for the participants, because I will make my own retreat in Manresa once they leave. Many times when we walk, I am either worried about whether we are on the right path or thinking about the schedule once we get there.
Every night after dinner we have a business meeting and a faith sharing. In the morning someone has read from the reflection booklet I prepared: a passage from the Mass readings of the day and the Autobiography of St Ignatius along with questions to apply them to our lives and our journey. Last night several things came to the surface that indicated to me the depth of the experience for the pilgrims. In our tired state, I had them reflect on their motivation for the pilgrimage, in order to draw strength for the final two days, and they shared very openly and honesty. I have been grateful for their prayerfulness through this whole trip.
When it came to me, I said simply that I wanted to organize the pilgrimage to allow our lay colleagues to have the depth of spiritual experience that I have had in my own Jesuit formation. So much of this time here has made me recall my two years as a novice: living out of a backpack, operating a day at a time on someone else’s schedule, ministering in close quarters with other people, accepting luxury and poverty equally gratefully. I told them that I still return to my journal from the 30 day retreat and that they would probably still
Reflecting later on this sharing and on many of the little thugs I have done on the trip–walking at the head of the pack with a map and iPhone leading people to places I have never been myself, working with the travel agent to organize accommodations and meals, buying supplies for the next day in the afternoon while the others sleep, taking one pilgrim to the ER for heat exhaustion, encouraging others to walk the extra mile, I saw a model for my own ministry as a priest: to do whatever necessary to facilitate others’ encounter with God and to get out of the way. I have quite literally walked over 100 miles with this group, experienced the joy and suffering with them, and invited them to find God in it.
Much of the ministry on this trip has come through the pilgrims’ conversations with each other and with God. I can take little credit for it. That makes me all the more grateful and amazed at it.
As I write this, I sit in the shade with a cafe con leche overlooking the basilica, where we will go in a little while to hear the monks’ evening prayer. I have been a little disappointed on this trip that I have been unable to celebrate Mass for the group at many of the wonderful chapels we have encountered, but when I went a moment ago to reserve a small chapel for us for the Way of the Cross this evening, the attendant told me that a group of people doing the Camino Ignaciano had just arrived from Britain and would celebrate a Mass this evening. He had taken the liberty of asking whether we could join them.
Once again God continues to watch over us and bless our journey. Tomorrow is our last day of walking. Like Ignatius, we will avoid the road to Barcelona and take the less traveled path to Manresa. Like him, may we encounter God there in a deep and powerful way that leaves and impact on us far beyond this journey.