In the summer of 2009, six friars set off on a 300-mile walking pilgrimage that attracted national media attention. That journey has continued to shape their lives.
Our pilgrimage 10 years ago was amazing. I had just finished my first year as formation director, part of a team for the Temporary Professed in Chicago. Little did I know then that my life pilgrimage would take me to becoming the Provincial Minister for St. John the Baptist Province. I remember the surreal feeling in 2009 as we began the seven-week journey that seemed to stretch to infinity. But it all began with a single step of faith. There were certainly parallels as I was elected in 2017—first, that deer-in-the-headlights feeling—then the first step. The lesson: We do seemingly impossible ventures, one step at a time.
The Virginia pilgrimage strengthened the importance of “accompaniment” as a value, the actual walking and reflecting with people on a journey. While we walked together those seven weeks, we were learning together about each other’s strengths and weaknesses. During that time when we would stop at a rest area picnic table or sit on a log and talk about what was going on, we began to experience the deeper meaning of depending on God, or what it was like for the poor to go without a meal. And when we celebrated Eucharist together on a rock or at someone’s dining room table, we had the experience of the Risen Lord walking with us. We saw Him in the breaking of the bread and in the telling of our hopes and fears. We literally experienced His accompaniment of us!
Sometimes in my visitation with a friar, I feel blessed to be used by God as a catalyst, igniting ideas or self-examination in both of us. Simply by accompanying the friars in their various ministries and in their joys and hopes and fears, there are moments when the Risen Christ is so present. I suspect that many of our Guardians have similar instances as they help all of us in our lives when they know they’ve seen the Healing Lord touching one of us.
There are many stories from the walking pilgrimage, but the main point of the journey for me was not the attainment of our goal of arriving at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C. (although that was a very joyful experience!). What I actually discovered is that the Holy Land was always under my feet. When I take a moment as Provincial, I discover the same and am grateful even in the midst of various stressors that come with this office.
The hunger, the sweat, the ticks all served as minor irritations or even humiliations to unseat my addiction to being in control. We ran into physical black bears on the pilgrimage, but I needed to face the bears that were scavenging in garbage cans in my dreams, corresponding to my undealt-with anger. I spent some time in the hermitage at the Poor Clares when I returned, and the healing began. I still find it important to have places of healing and quiet, as well as a spiritual director who monthly accompanies me and my life. Commitment to God’s transformation, where “God comes to you disguised as your life” (as Paula D’Arcy says), continues to be part of my pilgrimage with this band of brothers.
I am amazed today at the Providence of God. God cared for us all along that pilgrimage. We passed copperhead snakes without injury. People were generous. We ate at tables that were loaded with God’s goodness. As I look at my own life and see the many strands that I thought were totally unrelated, I can now see that Provident God weaving a tapestry with my life which has brought me to the undeserved ministry of Provincial. I hope to live as generously as God has been to me—and all of us on that pilgrimage!
(Fr. Mark Soehner is the Provincial Minister of the Province of St. John the Baptist.)