“Nick Vande Hey?!”
The voice was muffled, but there was no mistaking the words that came from window of the car that slowed to a stop across the street.
After a moment of confusion, Nick recognized the driver. “Izabella? What are you doing out here?”
“What are you doing out here?” came the reply from within the car.
Izabella’s question was more justified than Nick’s, for her family lived in the area, and she was driving with her sister to shoot trap a few miles away. Nick and I, on the other hand, were strangers in a strange land, and we looked the part. I was wearing a baseball cap, bandana, and sunglasses, and carried a hiking backpack filled with two sets of clothes, two toothbrushes, a Breviary, and a few spiritual reads. A rolled tarp was strapped clumsily to the outside of the pack. Nick was dressed similarly, with a wide-brimmed hat, a CamelBak (a type of water jug worn like a backpack), and a drawstring bag that held our meager food provisions: apples, granola bars, cookies, and a loaf of bread. Two walking sticks gathered from the woods earlier in the day assisted Nick’s sore strides.
What were we doing out there, on a rural county road, three miles from Francis Creek, Wisconsin, a town neither of us had heard of before? Nick and I were pilgrims, hiking across Wisconsin, from Our Lady of Good Help in Champion to Holy Hill in Hubertus, 125 miles south. We carried no phones, no money, and no plan for where we would spend each night. Food and accommodations came through begging and relying on God’s providence and the generosity of others. Having just completed a year of classes at St. Francis de Sales Seminary near Milwaukee (Nick studies for the Diocese of Green Bay and I study for the Diocese of La Crosse), we were inspired to begin the summer as mendicants, echoing the early Franciscan and Dominican orders and reliving a little of the Jesuit Pilgrimage experience—all in the spirit of the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Pilgrimages have held a special place in the history of the Jewish and Christian people. Christ himself participated each year in three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Pentecost, and Booths. He would have traveled with Mary, Joseph, and later his disciples as they presented themselves before the Most High God at the Temple in Jerusalem. After Our Lord’s sojourn on earth, triumph over death, and ascension into heaven, such visits to the Temple were no longer necessary, but pilgrimages reemerged as Christianity began to spread. The faithful have long visited the Holy Land and the bones of martyrs to walk where Christ and his saints walked, pray where they prayed, and beg for the grace to live as they lived, courageously witnessing to the Truth. Marian shrines and apparition sites in Fatima, Mexico City, Lourdes, and Green Bay, to name a few, also draw pilgrims from all over the world.
But what is a pilgrimage, and why does the Church encourage us to go on them throughout our lives? The Congregation for Divine Worship’s Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy puts it well: “A pilgrimage is a journey of prayer.” Like a retreat, which brings us out of the world for a time and reminds us that our destiny is otherworldly, a pilgrimage reminds us that we are wanderers, wayfarers—viatores, or peregrini in the Latin. The world, and all that is in it, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, was created in statu viae (in a state of journeying) “toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained.” A pilgrimage is a tangible expression of this reality.
But while pilgrims indeed wander, they do not wander aimlessly. Our sojourning is not a wayward sojourning. Rather, we are pilgrims with a destination: the heavenly homeland. And we must journey with that destination in mind. Simultaneously, just as a family vacation to Yellowstone includes intermediate stops in the Badlands and Black Hills, our journey to heaven includes smaller goals and destinations: finding our vocation, mastering a trade or hobby, writing a book, or teaching our children the Our Father, to name a few. And as we travel, the road is marked with temptation and suffering—the struggle against sin, for example, or the loss of a child or loved one—whereby we wrestle with and cling to God. It is also marked with feasts and joys—“pleasant inns” along the way, as C.S. Lewis calls them—teaching us that we are the children of a Good Father who loves us very much.
Since a pilgrimage is a journey uniquely characterized by the traveler and his or her destination, there is no one right or prescribed way to conduct a pilgrimage. Some people travel on their knees to a holy site; others on foot; others by horse or car or plane. Some seek an answer to a very specific prayer request; others carry more general intentions; others, like Chaucer’s pilgrims, journey in thanksgiving for graces received. Some beg for alms; others give alms; others carry what they need to live simply as they advance. Some pilgrimages last an afternoon; others a few days or a week; others can take months or years to accomplish. Some pilgrimages are taken to popular sites, following well-known routes; others make lesser-known churches their goal. Still others may be no longer than the distance between one’s own back door and a backyard shrine. The important aspect, as the Directory reinforces, is that the beginning, middle, and end—indeed, each moment of a pilgrimage—is marked by prayer, perhaps especially the Psalms of Ascent (120-134), which Christ himself would have prayed as he and his companions journeyed to Jerusalem.
For Nick and me, the goal was Holy Hill, the Basilica and National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians, first sanctified by a stone altar and cross placed by a Jesuit missionary or early convert in the late 1600s, now graced with a magnificent neo-Romanesque church, retreat center, Carmelite community—and echoes of the prayers and footsteps of 500,000 yearly pilgrims. Our means of travel was on foot, attempting to cover 20-25 miles each day for six days of pains and pleasant inns, through which Our Lord and Our Lady were undoubtedly guiding us.
When Izabella drove up, we were coming to the end of the first full day of our pilgrimage. It was 5:40 in the evening, and not two minutes prior to meeting Izabella, I had said to Nick, “At 5:45, we’ll start knocking on doors, searching for a place to stay.” Meanwhile, Izabella, who had met Nick on a Love Begins Here mission he led a year ago, passed us on the road, recognized him, and called her mom. “Could I have just seen Nick Vande Hey walking on the side of the road?” she asked. “I don’t know, go find out!” came the reply. When Nick explained what we were doing, Izabella’s next question was, “Where are you spending the night?”
I jumped in. “I think we’re staying at your family’s house!”
An hour later, we were riding with Izabella’s dad, Tom, to their house, where their family prepared us a steak dinner. After eating, we sat in the living room and talked for two hours, exchanging stories and expressing our shared awe at God’s providence. We realized that everything had to align in order for our paths to cross. For instance, that morning, Nick and I had made a last-minute route change, and that afternoon, because of road construction, Izabella and her sister took an alternate way to shoot trap. As the evening came to a close, Izabella’s mother, Sarah, reflected eagerly with words I will never forget. “I feel as if you two are the disciples on the road to Emmaus,” she said. “As you walk, it’s not just the two of you; Christ is walking in your midst, explaining the Scriptures and opening your minds and hearts to things divine. And when you show up to someone’s house, you bring Christ with you. We are hosting Christ himself.”
From our perspective, the verse from the Gospel of St. Matthew, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (25:40), took on new meaning. For Nick and I truly were during our pilgrimage the “least brothers” of which our Lord speaks. We were beggars—a burden—interrupting strangers’ lives with nothing to offer. And when Tom, Sarah, and their four daughters encountered the lowliest brothers, they knew they were encountering Christ. And they gave Christ their best: their food, their time, their conversation, their prayers. That night I resolved that when Christ shows up in my life—in my neighbors, in the poor, in the Blessed Sacrament—I will give him my best. Sometimes our best is the widow’s mite (or in the case of these two seminarian pilgrims, sweaty socks and stinky feet) and sometimes it is a little more, but whatever it is, we must give our all to God, the one who gave all for us.
The next morning, our hosts restocked our dwindling food supplies, drove us to Mass at the Carmelite Monastery in Denmark, Wisconsin, dropped us off where they picked us up 12 hours before, and wished us blessings for the rest of the journey. And just like that, Nick and I were wayfarers again, not knowing whether we would have a roof over our heads at the end of the day. We had been spoiled on our first night (Nick joked that it was because God knew we were soft); could it get any better than that? Were severe trials around the corner? Or would Our Lord continue to reveal his generosity and the gracious hearts of Wisconsinites?
Baffled by Poverty
All of the above, as Providence would have it. We certainly suffered setbacks along the way, including route changes, rainstorms, sunburn, blisters, and achy joints. But through the charity of many, Our Lord was kind to us. We spent a night at an Eastern Catholic monastery, a night in a family’s backyard where a heroic priest met us to celebrate Mass, and two nights at parish rectories, sharing meals and fruitful conversation with each host. While walking our route, Nick and I talked with hikers and bikers along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, a 675-mile route that roughly follows the path of edges of the last continental glacier in North America. Each time we rested on the side of the road, we would ask the property owners for permission to sit in their shade for a few minutes, also seeking bread or water if our supplies were low. The owners often joined us as we reposed, leading to some of my favorite conversations about local history, life in general, and faith in particular.
Earlier I said that as we were walking, Nick and I had nothing to offer. That is not entirely true. “Each stage of the pilgrim journey,” the Directory states, “should be marked by prayer, and the Word of God should be its light and its guide, its food and its sustenance.” In each encounter we experienced, temporal goods were not the only goods exchanged. We recalled the scene from the Acts of Apostles when Peter encounters the crippled man outside the Temple gate begging for alms. “I have neither silver nor gold,” he says to the man, “but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise and walk.”
Nick and I did not have much, but what we had we gave: the offering of our prayers and our sore strides for the salvation of souls and reparation for sins. Each morning and afternoon, we read from a list of intentions collected prior to and during the journey. While walking, we prayed the Liturgy of the Hours, the Psalms, the Rosary, and the Stations of the Cross; we also spent time in silence. We met Our Lord daily in the Mass. And we asked everyone we encountered if they had prayer requests they wanted us to carry with us to Hubertus. Folks shared their intentions, ranging from the health of a friend, to the souls in Purgatory, to a family member fallen away from the faith, to “all those contemplating suicide and all those who will die today.” Often people we met would share part of their life stories, and we would pray with them on the spot. As the week progressed, Nick and I were humbled that our benefactors consistently expressed more gratitude toward us than we had toward them, even though they had just given us food or lodging.
We found that there was something baffling about our poverty that gave us the freedom to petition for daily bread more boldly and to love more generously. “Is this not our true condition?” Nick reflected one day. “Are we not fundamentally poor, and in our spiritual poverty free to ask and to give?” Joseph Ratzinger put it best, writing in his 1968 Introduction to Christianity, “A Christian is someone who knows that in any case he lives first and foremost as the beneficiary of a bounty and that, consequently, all righteousness can only consist in being himself a donor, like the beggar who is grateful for what he receives and generously passes part of it on to others.” Everything that comes to us is a gift, and everything we give is first given to us.
Just as a retreat comes to a close and we must return to the world and our respective states in life (albeit changed and converted), so must a pilgrimage reach its conclusion. We do not remain viatores forever; when we reach heaven, we will be comprehensores—those who comprehend God in all his glory—resting and delighting in the joy of attaining our end. So when Nick and I, accompanied by a few families and new friends we had met along the way, made the final summit to the Basilica at Hubertus, we rejoiced. We laid the list of intentions at the feet of Our Lady, entrusted our cares and the rest of our earthly pilgrimage to her, attended Mass in thanksgiving for the graces received—and had a party at a nearby friend’s house.
And just like that, it was over. With respect to Holy Hill, we were no longer pilgrims. We were, in a certain sense, more like comprehensores. We did not, of course, attain the beatific vision on our pilgrimage, but we did catch a glimpse of God in all we did and saw. But now, it was time, as the Directory suggests, to go home and ask God for the grace to live out our vocations more generously. Because there, in the joys and sorrows, the mundanity and extraordinariness of our daily labors, we remain pilgrims in statu viae. We remain poor in spirit, beggars who ask God every day for our daily bread—patience, strength, food, meaningful work, growth in virtue and holiness. And when we receive from his bounty, we give from what we have received, however much or little it may be.
So be a pilgrim! Be a beggar, a viator, poor in spirit. I hope one day you take the time to undertake a pilgrimage to a holy site, offering your prayers and sacrifices there. Perhaps you will have the opportunity to walk the Camino or the Wisconsin Way, or perhaps you will drive to a local shrine for an afternoon. Whatever the case, Our Lord is pleased to offer great graces on these occasions, so be bold in your requests. And then persevere in your earthly pilgrimage, living out the joys and sufferings of the Christian vocation and eagerly anticipating the day when we reach our final abode in the heavenly Jerusalem.
Kyle Lang is a seminarian for the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin. His home parish is St. Teresa of Kolkata in West Salem, and he is presently in his first year of theology studies at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. In addition to his studies and making pilgrimages, Kyle enjoys occasional farmwork, baking bread, writing, and running.
The Music of the Tarp: A Poem from a Pilgrimage
By Kyle Lang and Nick Vande Hey
We met a family, a lovely bunch;
They shared a meal, their joy, so much
Of their lives with us that night
As we walked on by Mary’s light.
We talked of family, school, and sport,
Of shooting trap and other sorts
Of joys and sorrows in their days.
We even spoke of Shakespeare plays.
And then the conversation shifted
To the daughters’ talents with which they’re gifted.
We spoke of music, poetry, and art—
Melodies divine of cello and harp.
Alas! The night was quickly gone,
And we knew we couldn’t stay for long.
For while some dance to the strain of the harp,
We march on to the music of the tarp.
For we were walking, two by two,
Sent by Christ with work to do.
To walk and pray and sacrifice,
And converse with others about God’s divine life.
We carried nought but bread and cheese,
And generous souls’ gifts—whatever they pleased:
Bits of chocolate or some blister care,
Or even a sock to complete the lost pair.
Our steps were helped by walking sticks—
Slow and steady (especially Nick’s).
Our spirits by our prayers raised:
Rosaries, Stations, and Office for each day.
We measured progress not by miles,
Since each stride came with its own trials:
Wind and sun and blistering heat;
Dry, chapped lips and swollen feet.
But with each stride came signs of headway:
Our walking sticks clacked ’gainst the pedway.
Our songs increased in expectant hope,
As the tarp we carried squeaked out its tropes.
When we stopped, the tarp stopped squeaking,
And thus it was time for eating.
We rolled out the canvas along the roadside
And thanked God for the gift of granola and clementines.
Like Mary’s light, received from Christ,
All that we had was obtained without price.
And is this not our true condition:
Graced by God to complete our mission?
For on a pilgrimage one comes to know
The greatness of the Father and the Good He bestows.
“Lord, give us this day our daily bread,”
And often he gives us steak instead.
He grants us “pleasant inns” along the way;
Lord, thank you for these families—
Foretastes of heaven, where we’ll be one day.
Their love and joy and company.
But for now, many miles have we still
On our pilgrimage to Holy Hill.
Source of Images: AB/Kyle Lange