“It never gets easier, you just go faster.”
– Greg LeMond
Wind shear. Convection-induced air flow. Bow echo. As I sheltered in the barn of a friendly Wisconsin farmer, cycling shoes soaked through, skin sensitive from rain like nails driven sideways into my flesh, bicycle battered, I knew nothing of the science of weather. All I knew was that I had, perhaps, acted hastily in agreeing to a bicycle tour two-hundred and thirty miles through the heartland. It wasn’t all so traumatic, up to that point we had been traversing young, green corn along miles of unbroken pavement, steadily draining away calories and stopping only to silently pause in the interior of rural basilicas, have a cup of coffee, and eat as many eggs as possible. After that it was long steady climbs up and along the Mississippi River bluffs, following it north as it flowed in the other direction past fishing villages and summer cabins. Even here near its source the river is swollen with power, gathering up the rainfall of myriad lowly tributaries. This is all lovely. I, however, was not able to drift into a romantic reverie because I was busy hiding in a barn, lightning popping like gunshots across fields of bent over wheat.
As I stood there in the mud marshalling internal resources so as not to shiver to death, I took mental inventory of my past mistakes that had led me to such a moment. I had traveled to Cedar Rapids, Iowa (by motor vehicle) and met a friend. He took me to a local parish where the priest offered a Mass that was intensely still, as if at the moment of consecration all the world spun about the axis of the altar. The next morning we awoke with the sun and hopped on our bicycles. Over the next two days we spun our way north La Crosse, Wisconsin, enduring mechanical failures to our machines, a destroyed derailleur and shattered rear wheel, respectively, muscle fatigue, hunger, and summer heat. This list doesn’t even include the full-on attack from mother nature. Even after she wore herself down, she continued glowering as we were turned away from a now-stilled riverside town, sapped of electrical energy, temporarily dazed and succumbed, fallen trees across her main street as if oaks, like elephants, travel to a graveyard to die with the herd. My mobile phone signal had been lost and an odd feeling of emptiness sets in as a result, but we set out to summit the next hill, bellys empty, set adrift in the hinterlands of a mighty river.
There is an eddy and flow, a steady current that, if we consent to float upon, will be the end of us. Like a dead thing, flotsam, we shall be cast upon the wide expanse of sea. It is the pilgrim’s struggle to stand upright and thrash upstream with all his might. If my past is full of mistakes, they are all downriver, left behind on the pavement as so many drops of sweat from the brow. Most of my life is sound and fury and I cannot help but feel that I am wasting much of it, but those days in the saddle, the physical confrontation with nature and encountering the limits of the human body, these were not wasted.
We are now at the trail head to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe and began the final ascent on foot. This hill feels the highest of all. Sheltered at the end of the tree-bowered path, a piazza and the Shrine herself are dressed in the finest local sandstone. Inside, an order of Franciscan friars oh so softly chant vespers in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
I would have crawled on my knees through broken glass to partake in this moment.
Above the tabernacle, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe serenely listens to the chant as it drifts heavenward in gentle undulation. Although she is surrounded by the stars of the southern constellations, she has eyes only for her Son, head bent and eyes gazing down upon him and joining our adoration. I sit quietly in the pew. The tumult of the world that has tossed me like driftwood into this holy place could not present a more sharply defined contrast. Our Lord places a burden upon us, but the yoke is light and all who come to him will have rest.
I have found that, as a pilgrim, the physical struggle, the hilariously deflating setbacks (I mean that word literally, I seriously almost lost my mind), and the mortification of the flesh my life is forever different. Now, we do not all need to imitate Eddie Merckx on Alpe D’Huez in order to be true pilgrims. Those who have endured long plane rides, expense, and tiredness on your way to Fatima or Lourdes or Rome certainly know what I am talking about. At some point, after all the hassle and pains of traveling you wonder if pilgrimage is worth it. Perhaps visiting Rome isn’t so important at all! The papal Mass is on television at home, after all! But, in spite of the effort in getting there, in the end those pieces of you that are left behind turn out not to have been so vital after all. They are so many impurities to be discarded.
In fact, I believe that the struggle to simply get there is a vital part of the pilgrimage itself. The struggle experienced is but a minor reminder of the true spiritual struggle of a pilgrim. Perhaps it is our belief that to be a follow of Christ is to become comfortably happy and blessed in this life. This is not what the faith teaches. Our Lord offers not relief from suffering; instead he joins us in it. Will it make us happier to take our place next to him in his torment, to strive for greatness? My answer is yes and no. It will make us happier in the sense that our faithfulness is pleasing to God, will be rewarded in heaven, and we will live a more fully human existence, and yet, the disordered desires we all experience tend to remain and cause constant, unceasing pain begging for fulfillment. Which one of us, in some area of another, does not have a vice that we seem to be powerless to eliminate from our lives? This we call sin, and resisting sin and its pleasures doesn’t always seem to make us happy.
Life is a pilgrimage, and it entails struggle both physical and spiritual. We do not join the battle so as to earn God’s love; he loves us all very much, just as we are. We are struggling to break free from the limitation of sin. For this, God does not offer a quick spiritual release. He offers a Cross. To each pilgrim he provides a resting place, a Good Friday death. It is Our Lord who is the first pilgrim; the moment Adam and Eve taste the fruit, he begins his humiliating journey to earth, emptying himself of divine prerogative. With the Incarnation, he has already placed himself on the Cross. He makes his way to earth and now a massive pilgrimage ensues: the shepherds travel to his side, the magi see the star in the sky and make haste, Mary gazes on him in wonder, and soon billions and billions of people from every nation have made their way to him.
Life is a pilgrimage, a journey to heaven. Treat each moment as precious, for every breath we take brings us closer to the very presence of God himself. Our pilgrimage is attended by blessing and happiness, but also by suffering. This is the mark of sin but even suffering has been redeemed at the Cross, and so it becomes a sign of our total death to self and new life with God. If the government chooses to persecute us, perhaps we ought to thank it for the opportunity to imitate Christ. Our pilgrimage will have been made more difficult but ultimately of more spiritual value.
Each time you step out of bed, consider to where it is you are heading. You are made for heaven. Live in such a way as to prepare for eternal life. Make your journey to the side of Christ and there take your place. All the world streams to him, a vast pilgrimage to the holy mountain of the Lord.
It is odd, on the return trip from the Shrine everything was much easier. The gentle sway of my body over the frame of my machine, the poetic hum of the chain spinning, chasing the setting sun we fairly flew home.