Some years ago, a fellow Jesuit gave me a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a gift from his visit to Mexico City. He knew of this personal devotion and a reproduction would be the closest I could get to the dream of visiting the shrine. I could not imagine that in a short time I would be at the feet of the original in the Basilica in Guadalupe, at the foot of Tepeyac Hill in Mexico City.
In this very place, through the presence of Mary, God came very close to an oppressed people shortly after the arrival of the Spaniards and the fall of the Aztec Empire. He appeared to a native Indian, whose Christian name was Juan Diego. She appeared to him some time after his baptism, requesting for a church to be built at Tepeyac hill where she could show her maternal love and compassion to the people.
She said to Juan Diego, “¿No estoy yo aqui que soy tu Madre?” (“Am I not here, who am your Mother?”)
I hinged my life into those words of love and compassion. The pilgrimage to Our Lady of Guadalupe was foremost a spiritual journey.
At the brink of exhaustion from years of work, I knew it was time to take the final stage of Jesuit formation called Tertianship. It is a time to do a “major homecoming to the Lord” – to recoup my energy, return to the original inspiration of vocation and Jesuit priesthood, revitalise my whole being with the grace of the Lord and dispose myself to final vows. And what could be more appropriate than to walk on the road to the apparition site, the place I desired for many years.
The difference between a tour and a pilgrimage is seen in the effect on the traveler. The sightseer’s goal is the destination. For the pilgrim, what matters is more the going than the coming. What happens interiorly while on the journey is important.
That is why some pilgrimages take years. I have begun my pilgrimage at the foot of Our Lady of Penafrancia in Naga City in 1985. It is there that I embarked on a spiritual quest for a heirophany or an experience of the presence of God, which is also be an interior experience. Before I entered the Jesuits, I have visited the Basilica of our Ina or Mother. There I have prayed for my vocation, to make me a good Jesuit or at the very least a good Christian.
Since then, every turn in the journey have demanded a letting go: of possible exclusive relationships, of becoming settled and stable, of having something to own. The years in formation is what St. Ignatius experienced as being taught by God “as a school master to a child.” God taught me a radical way of living: establishing inclusive relationships, being mobile and available, and having to depend on God alone. I have not graduated from His class. Not yet. I have been delinquent!
The pilgrimage focuses the heart to what it desires.
Every step in the journey is crucial. The pilgrim on the journey faces several questions. Is this what you want to do? It is a long road; it would take time and often, finances. Are you willing to invest in this undertaking? Some pilgrimages are organized with a long walk, like that of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The pilgrimage is like an obstacle course for the spiritual traveler. The evil spirit will move you to disobedience, doubt, cynicism, discord or resistance. The journey itself tests one’s fervor for God.
Moreover, some people have been asked by God to give all as a vocation: Is this what you want to be, forever a pilgrim? The packets of little pilgrimages, such as my journey, are all part of the larger and lifetime enterprise. But in a wider sense, are we not all a pilgrim?
In a pilgrimage, the focus is not what we are doing, but what God is doing. It is important that one prays as one makes the pilgrimage. It would even help if various forms of prayer are employed. Some do the rosary, and then devote some pauses for silent reflection. Others who do this spiritual activity with a group, punctuate it with songs or a reading from Scripture or the life of a saint for inspiration. In everything, the disposition of “recollectedness” is crucial to avoid being distracted. Unfortunately, those who feel obliged to “fill up” every single moment with an activity to avoid getting ‘bored’ are missing the point. Pilgrimages are not about enjoyment, though one may enjoy it.
The past three-week pilgrimage in Mexico was in emulation of St. Ignatius of Loyola‘s initial journey. He often refered to himself as the pilgrim. Just as Iñigo, as he was called, ministered to the poor, we, Jesuit Tertians, ministered to alcohol and drug dependents who were also homeless. In the morning, we gathered in one of the buildings outside the grounds of the Basilica to share life stories in a prayer setting. In the afternoon, we would go to where they stayed such as parks, side streets or even under the bridge.
The focus of the experience was clearly not in what we could do for them (there was nothing we could do for the limited time except for our presence), but what happened to our hearts as we shared our lives and time with them.
While reading the Autobiography of St. Ignatius, we hoped to be as close as possible to the heart of Christ as our founder was.
Finally, when the pilgrim reaches the destination, one’s whole being becomes so intensely, deeply and profoundly wrapped in one’s desire for God that one’s senses become more receptive to the Spirit. The pilgrim becomes so disposed to God that experiences of the Divine are greatly felt and absorbed.
Many serious pilgrims have immersed themselves so much in the going that the story of the holy event is owned and becomes part of their lives. They find themselves deeply connected to the story. Such is the feeling of the devotees of Our Lady of Guadalupe. They identify and regard Juan Diego as their own, that the mission of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is also regarded as theirs.
You can feel it when everybody sings in unison at the Basilica in Mexico City:
Desde el cielo una hermosa mañana,
Desde el cielo una hermosa mañana,
La Guadalupana, la Guadalupana,
La Guadalupana bajo al Tepeyac.