WE FIND CHRIST TOGETHER

Author: FR. MICHAEL BYRON
April 28, 2019

Most of us, when we hear the word “pilgrimage” in a religious conversation, think of a journey to a particular place—maybe a town like Assisi, or a shrine like Fatima, or an experience like the Camino Real in Spain.  But it wasn’t until I was studying with and living among Jesuits in their religious formation that I became aware of their own required pilgrimage as part of their process of entering the full life of that community.  I learned that these young men discern with their elders a destination where they will go, and are then given $35 and a one-way bus ticket to get to that place, and a month to figure out how to survive and to get back home.  At first it sounded like a daring game of chance—or a cruel joke.  But it has a very deep spiritual purpose, which is why it is a necessary part of their religious formation—and why it’s among the many reasons that I’m not a Jesuit.

Clearly nobody could undertake a journey like that all alone.  No one could survive.  And yet, as far as I know, everybody does survive.  That’s the point.  There’s no pre-arranged plan of where they will travel, whom they will meet, how they will spend their days and nights, and what will be the resources for their return trip.  It’s an intensive course on how to become dependent on God and the goodness of others—and how to be in solidarity with all of those who live that way all the time through no choice of their own…the homeless, the immigrant, the social outcast.

If you ever have occasion to converse with a Jesuit, ask him about his pilgrimage.  No two are the same, and some are astonishing stories.  When he is in the midst of that experience, he either learns to find community and mercy, or he fails, or he dies.  Nobody finds God all by himself/herself.

We have the unfortunate experience today of being in a popular culture that tries very hard to convince us otherwise—to say that religion is a very private thing, a “Me-And-Jesus” thing—if in fact we choose to make it a thing at all.  We are actually encouraged to believe that the Christian life is able to be lived without reference to community, to others, and especially to the poor.  That’s just not true, and it certainly isn’t anything that one can read out of the bible.

It is important to take notice of the fact, on this 2nd Sunday of Easter, that the risen Lord Jesus never appeared to anybody all alone, as he sometimes did during his earthly ministry.  And in fact the surest way to mistake the truth of Christ alive was and is to try to do it all by yourself.  The gospel of John tells us so today.

We hear again the story of Thomas, the so-called “doubter.”  He simply couldn’t believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead, not because he was a cynic or an obstinately distrustful person—after all, resurrection is a pretty unlikely story for anybody to take in at first.  No, it was because, for whatever reason, Thomas had absented himself from the community of fellow disciples on that 1st Easter night.  He wasn’t there to see and to celebrate what everybody else saw and celebrated.  And so he refused to accept the truth of Jesus alive.   His frame of mind makes perfect sense for one who was trying to understand things all by himself.  Without community, we can’t do it, just as Thomas couldn’t.

And Jesus’ response was not to seek out Thomas for a private revelation.  No, it was to wait until Thomas came back to join his brothers in communion, where he appeared again—and this time Thomas believed. 

In the light of a gospel like this, it should come as little surprise that people who—for whatever reasons—are separated from the Christian community and especially from the celebration of Eucharist—have a much harder time holding on to Easter faith.  To look out over the state of the world and of the institutional church these days, such as it is, the easy response is to say “I will not believe until I can see the Lord himself.”  And that is understandable enough.  But it’s precisely here—in Eucharist and community—that the Lord discloses himself!  Here we are, as Christ’s body—wounded but very much alive.  And we too are on pilgrimage together, ever dependent upon God’s Holy Spirit and the compassionate mercy of our fellow travelers.  I guess the Jesuits have something to teach us all.  Who knew?!

We need each other, not only for the most physical necessities of life, but in order to recognize and affirm together the revelation of Christ in our midst.  May we not wander away to try that on our own, and may we be ever ready to welcome those who have tried and been disappointed in doing that, and who now seek a welcome here.  This is at the heart of Easter faith and Easter work.
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