Lent is about losing your luggage. Or maybe it seems that way because recently I lost mine. But that’s not the start of the story, so let me rewind a bit. It begins in 2019, when I agreed to lead another pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The trip was slated for fall 2020. Fat chance, if you recall what happened in spring 2020.
Fall came and went that year, and so did hope. The pilgrimage got rescheduled for fall 2021. Then it was bumped to 2022. Many who’d cheerfully signed up to accompany me to the Holy Land quietly unregistered as months of delay became years. Good reasons supported those whose names disappeared from the registration lists. Some became too infirm to travel abroad. Some lost jobs and could no longer afford to go. Two people died. I knew them. It was a staggering loss.
I kept two lists. One of the new people, brave souls, who continued to sign up for the trip, making a down payment on a future no one could predict. The other list was of the folks who were no longer going with us. I wanted to pray for that latter group by name in the holy places—if and when the world ever opened up to safe travel again.
Meanwhile, I immersed myself in the history of pilgrimage. It turns out it was never a safe, simple, or inexpensive commitment to make. Pilgrimage was meant to be a journey of endurance, sacrifice, and purification. It’s not the getting there but the going that matters. The journey is the destination. Our own deceased pilgrims, and those who could no longer walk this path with us, affirmed that the road to pilgrimage, unlike the path to hell, is generously paved with intentionality.
In fact, one of the church’s most revered devotions, the Way of the Cross, was created as a spiritual pilgrimage for those who can’t travel to the physical landscape of Jerusalem. When we walk the Stations, Jerusalem comes to us. The Stations remind us that the Via Dolorosa—the “way of grief” along which Jesus struggled with his cross to his death—isn’t just a street in Israel. It’s a path each of us will travel, sooner or later.
All of 2022 I held my breath, hoping to honor the intentions of the persistent would-be travelers hoping to make pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I felt honor-bound to those getting on the plane and those who could not.
Sometimes it felt like I was holding the whole pilgrimage together in my breastbone. Each new difficulty or setback left its own tender bruise. There was the religious sister who’d been so excited to get permission to go along, then suffered a car accident and became disabled. Or the man whose wife died who couldn’t bear to take the planned journey without her. A religious brother’s younger sister had financial trouble. He determined her family needed the money more than he needed a pilgrimage. Each story became another prayer, another pledge, one more reason I had to bring these pilgrims, both present and absent, to the sacred places.
I reflect on these things now as the stories of Lent unfold. Jesus fasts and empties himself in the desert to prepare for his great mission. Abram follows an unknown God into an uncertain future. Peter, James, and John climb a mountain to discover that Jesus isn’t the person they imagined him to be. Israelites grumble about the security left behind in Egypt—along with their chains. A Samaritan woman abandons her water jug, having received living water she’ll carry forward in the vessel of her life. The boy David is summoned to leave his family’s flock and shepherd a kingdom. A man born blind exits lifelong darkness and steps into the light.
Each story reminds us that, despite any hyperbolic sense of responsibility for the world and all its people, in truth very little depends on our efforts. Following Jesus is about being led, filled, taught, and healed. All you and I have to do is get behind him. But still, we may carry an anvil on our hearts that heavily persuades us it’s all about us. The pandemic felt like my jungle and my will the machete that would chop through its treacherous obstacles.
The tour company gave the greenlight at last: Our pilgrimage was a go for October 2022. All that was left was to pack our bags and fly. I encouraged the final group traveling to Israel to consider leaving behind something encumbering their spiritual journey at this time. Write it down, I suggested. Then ritually burn it, bury it, or tear it to shreds and throw it away. It didn’t take much soul-searching behind my breastbone to retrieve the anvil I’d been carrying for three years. CONTROL, I wrote on a piece of paper and buried it in the yard before heading to the airport. I had to stop trying to be responsible for everything. Our pilgrimage through life is not something we get to control.
Then I lost my luggage. Technically, the airline did. The plane arrived in Tel Aviv without that suitcase. It was two in the morning and exhaustion doesn’t describe the condition I was in. But I was obliged to stay at the airport another two hours standing in lines and filling out claim forms. The airline assured me the bag would be delivered to the hotel the next day. It wouldn’t arrive for another three hotels, four cities, and five days.
Does this matter? Only if you’re trying to control things! That suitcase contained prayerbooks for the pilgrimage. Song sheets, carefully chosen for each site and every liturgy. I’d brought flashlights for subterranean places, multiple pairs of gloves for cold ones. Bags of cough drops, packs of tissues, umbrellas. I am the uber-mother of travel.
Weeks of frantic planning and packing had come to nothing. Literally: I brought nothing to Israel except the names of those for whom I’d promised to pray. You could say God was testing my sincerity in burying the impulse to control the pilgrimage. I wouldn’t say that, because I don’t believe God plays petty mental games with us. But burying control and losing the luggage did challenge me to confront the fierceness of my desire to be in charge.
Up and out at dawn every day forward, returning after dark, there was no opportunity to shop. After two days in the air and two more on the ground in the same weather-inappropriate clothes, I was prepared to surrender. “I need clothes,” I told the pilgrims on the bus. “I need underwear.” Bags of T-shirts and cargo pants appeared at my hotel room that night. Pilgrims handed me balled-up underwear in restaurants or covertly slipped socks into my pocket. Not all of it was the right size, but I was so grateful for clean clothes. I wore other people’s underwear and let myself be taken care of.
Losing the luggage became the greatest blessing of the pilgrimage for me. I’ve spent a lifetime being the boss of people and things. Yet the way of illumination requires relinquishing control, opening our hands, receiving what comes. Pilgrim lessons are life lessons, after all. Each day is a pilgrimage through a lifetime of holy places with the holy people all around us. You don’t need to go to Jerusalem to learn these things. Jerusalem will gladly come to you.
This article also appears in the March 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 3, pages 47-49). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: iStock.com/Ralf Geithe