After more than a century-and-a-half of cloistered formation apart from the world, Jesuit novices today are directed to go outside the cloister and experience the world firsthand. For the novices’ parents and loved ones, this adventure is often the most difficult part of the Jesuit formation program, yet for the Jesuits themselves it is often the part most relished and retold.
The monthlong pilgrimage, as practiced in some U.S. provinces since the late 1960s, revives the intent of the Society’s founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, who wrote in the General Examen (No. 67), which is part of the Jesuit Constitutions:
The third experience is to spend another month in making a pilgrimage without money, but begging from door to door at times, for the love of God our Lord, in order to grow accustomed to discomfort in food and lodging. Thus too the candidate, through abandoning all the reliance which he could have in money or other created things, may with genuine faith and intense love place his reliance entirely in his Creator and Lord.
The wisdom of Ignatius is that one’s dependence on God’s love and one’s trust in God become especially real in a pilgrim’s circumstances; what one may have talked about in a theoretical way becomes rooted in the pilgrimage. One does not easily forget prayers answered along the road or one’s need for comfort amid discomfort. Unplanned encounters in which God’s hand is shown keeps one’s heart on fire, and the freedom one feels as one’s love and trust in God deepens and replaces any fear that might otherwise immobilize a young man in such circumstances.
Each novice’s experience is unique and springs from his prayerful discernment, with the help of a spiritual director, of God’s call and the graces he wants to seek while on the road. Tossing aside the Fodor’s or the Michelin or the Lonely Planet guidebooks, a novice is guided in his travels by prayer.
For the novices in St. Paul, the timing of the pilgrimage experience is a key factor. It comes in the wake of a 30-day period making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in silence and immediately after a six-week “hospital experience” in which the novice gives hands-on, personal care to those who need help because of sickness, mental disability or old age. The Exercises and hospital “experiment” help foster a novice’s trust in God and his deeper companionship with Jesus Christ wherever he goes. The pilgrimage tests a novice’s trust and sense of companionship further, just as gold tested in fire becomes purer.
Voices From the Road
“While the challenge of the pilgrimage experiment—venturing into the unknown with $35 and a bus ticket—is what grabs most people’s attention, the real drama of the journey is to be found in the relationship between the pilgrim and God,” wrote a novice whose pilgrimage in 2007 took him to Mexico City and the nearby shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Worries and anxieties about money, logistics and the details of travel plagued him throughout, but just as constant were hospitality and generosity wherever he went. By the time he wended his way back to St. Paul, by way of El Paso, Los Angeles and Denver, he wrote: “I had no reason to worry and faced only the slightest hardships. In many ways the very gentleness of my path was a rebuke to my anxiety, for God is always watching, always leading and, perhaps, always testing. And the only sure path to true safety and comfort is to rise and follow and leave the rest to his providence.”
Another novice, who slept outside several nights during his trek, recalled his first night without a place to stay: “As I was sitting disappointed on a wall at an industrial mall next door, reading and waiting for it to get dark, I saw on a wall, written in graffiti, ‘Trust God.’ Staring at this I received new energy. It was the reassurance I needed.” He went on to spend other nights sleeping outdoors, but he also experienced the warm welcomes of many who invited him into their homes. After leaving the ramshackle farmhouse of a father and four children, whose generosity in the midst of hard times especially touched him, he recalled, “I was filled with all kinds of emotions, which I could sort out as I walked through a lot of deserted area.” He recognized himself many times in very generous people, but also in those who were suspicious and less generous: “Sitting in church waiting for Mass, it was very noticeable how people would sit away from me, at a ‘safe’ distance. How I feel regret for the many times I have judged people by outside appearance.”
Surprises Along the Way
The variety of pilgrimage destinations and the routes novices travel indicate the diverse ways God works with each of them. For one it may be a walking pilgrimage to a destination no farther than 150 miles from his starting point, for others a lengthy sojourn across borders, to the coasts and many points between. Specific destinations and carefully laid out plans work for some, while others leave almost everything to chance. As one novice noted afterward, however, quoting the writer Anatole France, “Chance is perhaps the pseudonym God uses when he doesn’t want to sign his name.”
The coincidences, chances and surprises that novices encounter often are instrumental in the graces each receives. For instance, a novice who wanted greater trust in God was picked up halfway between New Orleans and Arizona by a driver who typically did not pick up hitchhikers. The novice explained, after persistent questioning, what he was doing on the road. His response left the driver dumbfounded, because this good Samaritan tooling around in his pickup truck that day (with his kayak in tow) was wrestling with his own discernment: Was he being called to become a priest?
Another novice confessed to God as he shivered through a cool night with only a towel for cover, “I don’t know if I can do this another night.” The following morning a passerby found him and took him to a neighboring town, where he slept that night in a four-poster bed under layers of comforters and on top of mattresses “at least two feet thick.” God captured his attention.
Still another novice recalls how he experienced the grace of solitude every day while on pilgrimage. Mindful of his experience of the Spiritual Exercises a few months earlier, and how “one tends to learn a great deal about God and oneself when plucked from the busyness of everyday life,” he recovered that spirit of recollection and inner tranquility while on the road. It helped answer his query early on, “Could I find the grounding of my relationship with God when I am in a constant state of change and flux?” By the end of his pilgrimage he had slept in 21 beds in 28 days, had not run into a single person who knew him, met people and left them within 24 hours, and for four weeks was separated from those who could provide intimacy in his life. Yet God was there. “God had given me everything I had asked for and even some of the things I had forgotten to ask for!” he wrote. “The final grace of my pilgrimage was the recognition that God has never been outdone in generosity.”
The uncertainties of the pilgrimage experience—Do I have a place to stay? Do I have food to eat? Where do I go next?—offer novices a freedom new to most. “Quite simply, most of the time, I had no idea where I was going, both on the day-to-day level and the larger scale of the pilgrimage as a whole,” recalls one novice, whose pilgrimage took him to the southeastern United States. “So it became a requirement to simply trust that God would give me the grace necessary both to know where I ought to go and to actually find a way to get there.” A religious brother hosted him during part of his pilgrimage and helped him gain an appreciation for what was happening. While preparing the evening meal they were about to share, the brother said to him: “You know why this pilgrimage thing is so great? It makes you more aware of the present moment. And that’s where God is, so you have to be aware of it.”
What early in the pilgrimage is a fearful moment—the beginning of a day without knowing what comes next—becomes a moment of great liberation as the pilgrimage continues. Many novices say that they eventually enjoy not having a plan or a schedule to keep and, instead, trusting in what God might have in store for them. The same freedom often turns what was carefully packed for the journey into a burden rather than a help. Novices often jettison superfluous items along the way. Others experience freedom when the little they brought with them becomes enough.
“I remember vividly the point when I realized that I had made [the decision to take as few things as possible] more out of pride than any real discernment. That thought brought on intense emotions of sadness and also fear: What was I going to do now that I was already launched on my pilgrimage?” wrote a novice, who had packed one set of outer clothes and two sets of “inner clothes.” He asked God to help him accept that he would have enough to wear. “The regime of washing each night and dirtying each day became just another part of my daily routine—occasionally finding a machine to wash my pants or long-sleeved shirt. And by the end of the pilgrimage I had reached a level of comfort that at the beginning I never thought was possible.”
Comfort in the midst of discomfort, freedom in the midst of limitations and trust in the midst of uncertainty—these become commonplace for the pilgrim novices over their monthlong sojourn. The experiences are sensational enough that they remain vivid for years, often for a lifetime, as one U.S. novice learned when he was welcomed by another Jesuit in Mexico City. “He told me stories about his own pilgrimage as a novice in Ecuador half a century ago, but he was a bit shocked that novices were still going on pilgrimage today. ‘In today’s world?!’ he said with disbelief. ‘Your novice master must be crazy.’ Then he added with a smile, ‘But it’s a wonderful spirituality.’”