In today’s reading from Acts, Paul and Barnabas go on a journey from city to city, proclaiming the good news to all whom they meet. The reading emphasizes their being “on the road” as they evangelized, but a good part of it must have been more properly “on the sea,” as this map at Loyola Press shows: St Paul’s travels
I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of life as a pilgrimage. My oldest is about to graduate from college this year, and will be moving out of state for graduate school. My youngest has one more year of high school, so we are moving toward being “empty nesters.” Two key relationships in my life have recently ended: one by my own choice but with sadness, and another acknowledging that another really ended friendship a long time ago. I find myself really resistant to the notion of life as “on the road” especially when it is as bumpy as being “on the sea.” I have worked hard to build up a family of my own; long-standing friendships with women, some who are chosen family; and a community in which I am rooted.
Yet I have found to my own surprise, as I move into spring and all of the signs of new life in it, that there are a lot of freedoms associated with pilgrimage, too. I love to travel, and am probably never happier than when I am living out of my mini-roller suitcase or just a backpack. My husband and I recently went through some household things to donate to a yard sale/ fundraiser. Letting go can be a way of becoming unencumbered by things that no longer fit us or serve us well, and this can be as true of relationships as of material things.
Life-as-pilgrimage has a harder side to it, too. Joyce Rupp writes about it in terms of homesickness of the heart for a home toward which we are journeying, but never arrive at fully while in this life. She characterizes the “pilgrim heart” this way: “It is a part of us that is never home, that is always stretching and yearning to be home but know that we have not yet arrived. It is the yearning that was in Jesus, the broken one, as he was drawn home to be with his Father” (Rupp, Praying our Goodbyes, 56). We look for the place of “forever hello” in a world that is, more realistically, a mixture of hellos and goodbyes. Goodbyes remind us, sometimes painfully, of the incompleteness and not-yet quality of this life and our Augustinian “restless hearts.”
Even among our goodbyes, though, we can find places where new life is rising up to the surface. In the reading from Revelation, John writes of God, “Behold, I make all things new.” While my children are no longer small, I’m really delighted to continue to see them grow into adulthood with their own interests and distinctive vocational paths, and I enjoy the ways that they challenge me with different political arguments or encouragement to try a roller coaster at the amusement park that I might otherwise be too afraid to try. “Almost empty nest” also means a lot more “couple time,” something that was hard to find when our children were little! Our closest loves don’t so much come to an end, as shift in how we relate as well as who is relating, as our mutual identities shift both within and independent of relationship. Even for those relationships that come to a real end, what different memories mean and how they are incorporated into our life’s narrative shift and change, and there, too, there can be new life in the new meanings.
The Gospel readings gives us advice for how we live while on the road and in our pilgrimage. Jesus’ words are given just as he is about to leave the disciples, for a while. He tells them to “love one another”. Jesus is showing the disciples how he will remain with them even when he is gone to the Father–by remaining in the same Love that holds them all.