About 20 years ago, I was sent on a pilgrimage to the Southwest of the United States. I was given $30 and a one way bus ticket, and told to make my way for 5 weeks and trust that God and the people of God would take care of me and help me find my way home.
I know, it sounds crazy. When we entered in late August, the pilgrimage was the one piece of our formation that all the parents wanted to talk to the novice directors about. And it was also the one piece the 11 of us were all pretty excited about (at least out loud). It was like a rite of passage, throwing yourself into the hands of God and seeing what happens. Like gambling with your life. What's not to like?
When he began his pilgrimage one of my classmates yelled "Let's Get this Steel Dog Rolling!" Yes, I know: classy, that one.
As part of my pilgrimage, I went to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Although this was the only part of my 5 weeks on the road that I had actually planned for ahead of time, there was really no good reason for the destination. There was no holy spot I was going to visit, no amazing human being I wanted to meet.
No, this choice of destination came from a sort of goofy fantasy that I and some of my college friends had come up with the year before. I can't tell you how it started, but somewhere between the end of college and the next year two of my buddies and I started to use the term "Albequerque" as a metaphor for a Zen-like, later-Van- Morrison-looking-back-on-his-life-with-a-certain-peace-about-it-all-and-singing state of being. We misspelled the name of the city to make it clear, we weren't talking about New Mexico, we were talking about some sort of inner utopia.
Van Morrison contemplates Enlightenment (or English Rugby -- same difference).
Planning this pilgrimage about a year later, near the end of my first year as a Jesuit, knowing that both I and a couple of my classmates were traveling initially to different destinations in the Southwest, it seemed only natural to consider spending some time in the "real" Albuquerque and seeing whether it didn't live up to our hype. Actually the idea had the three of us sort of grade school giddy, giggling about whether we would be in Albequerque in Albuquerque. (See what we did there?)
The week we spent there together? Well, it was nice. We stayed at Immaculate Conception parish with some really great Jesuits who were very hospitable and also extremely tolerant of our general laxity. As I said, we were on pilgrimage, but as I look back it seems like we spent most of that week just taking it easy, praying and reading and hanging out together. (Forgive me, my novice master, forgive me!)
I'm sure if I went back to my journal I'd see there was more going on there; and to be clear, by the time I got to Albuquerque I had already spent a somewhat scary week living in a homeless shelter in Vegas and another week dealing with the humiliation of not being able to speak the language (Spanish) in Juarez and El Paso. I know in Albuquerque I helped out at some sort of soup kitchen; but something tells me that happened after I got back.
Got back from where? Well, that's the heart of the story. At the end of our week-long "Spirit Spa" (and probably after a few polite prods from our hosts), my companions decided that they were going to take a bus to Santa Fe (60 miles north of Albu.), and then do a pilgrimage walk 18 miles from Santa Fe to Chimayo. I had never heard of Chimayo; it sort of sounded like a spicy soft drink. (Coca-Cola, now with Chimayo!) But according to my fellow novices it had this storied history of miracles coming from the site in Chimayo where a crucifix had been dug up. There seemed to be some sort of custom of gathering some dirt from that site, and that's what my pals intended to do.
The Church at Chimayo.
Now, I'm not sure whether it was the fact that I was feeling guilty for having spent the whole week basically "hangin' with my homies", or a classic desire to one-up someone else (ding ding ding ding!), but instead of joining them I decided that I would stay in Albuquerque and walk the 60 miles to Santa Fe (and, I thought secretly, the additional 18 miles to Chimayo -- take that!).
My friends just sort of stared at me when I told them this. A few stumbling words. The Jesuits of the community, as I remember, bit their lips and looked away. But no matter; my mind was set, and that's what I did. On the day my friends were going to Greyhound to Santa Fe, they first drove me up the highway a few miles and dropped me and my Gandalf/crazy person-sized walking stick along the roadside.
Then they got back in the community's car and drove away.
Tomorrow: Albuquerque, Part 2, in which the Pilgrim Learns That He's Made Some Really Poor Choices.