2nd Sunday in Lent
2nd Sunday / Lent / A
March 11-12, 2017
St. Thomas Aquinas, Ames, Iowa
Fr. Jon Seda
In a few hours, I will take five Iowa State students on a spring break trip to Conception monastery in northwest Missouri. We also have trips to Washington D.C., to Appalachia, and to Nicaragua. But I tell the students this is the hardest one, because it involves lots of silence and solitude, and I find that students are more comfortable with non-stop activity. We deliberately do not call them service trips, but instead call them immersion trips. The point of all of them is not to do for others, but to be with others, to learn from others, to encounter others in a different cultural context. If they are done well, they could be called pilgrimages. They go to encounter Christ in the poor, in silence, in fellow pilgrims. And they come back to us changed.
In a reflection for Dynamic Catholic a year ago, a priest named Fr. Bob Sherry wrote this after leading a pilgrimage to Rome and to the Holy Land. He wrote: "Is life a vacation or a pilgrimage? Tourists and vacationers usually plan their trips in advance, with most details figured out so that they are no unhappy surprises. In contrast, a pilgrim sets out on a journey without knowing the final destination or outcome. A pilgrim learns to trust God the whole time. Some of us live our entire lives planning things, as though we are in control, whereas others know that our lives are not our own."
The first reading from Genesis gives the story of the beginning of the Judeo-Christian story of salvation, and it begins with a pilgrimage. Abraham and Sarah are old and childless, but comfortable in their own home with their own people. They receive a promise that they would become parents of a great nation. They leave everything behind, led by an unknown God to an unknown place. This is the beginning of the story of our salvation, and throughout Scripture it is how God acts in our community.
We resist this because it means leaving behind the familiar and comfortable. The idea of leaving one's home resonates with me these days, as I am moving to a new rectory in a month. While this is the right decision for the parish and the archdiocese, I resist it because I am really comfortable living where I live now. I even know where all the light switches are!
But that seems to be how God acts in our lives, the call to leave behind the comfortable and predictable. Some choose to do this, and we call them saints. But many of us have to be pushed to do this by the circumstances of our lives.
This past Friday I had a conversation with a woman who works at the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown, where I served as chaplain for six years. I told her that what I learned from the vets was how to let go gracefully. The reason many, but not all of them, were able to do this is because they had turned the care of their life over to the care of God many years before, perhaps on the battlefield. Most at that time were World War II men and women, and they were so graceful in the autumn of their lives because they had already realized that their lives were not their own many years before.
To be like Abraham and Sarah is to be a pilgrim. It is to be humble and open enough to let go of comfort and control and be led by God into an unknown future. How we deal with illness and addiction now, how we deal with the loss of a job or a marriage now, and how we deal with our anxieties about the future of our lives and our family now is really a dress rehearsal for how we we will deal with the moment of our death. This is the ultimate experience of being led by God into the unknown. And we tend to die as we lived.
So we have two choices on how to approach life: We can be a tourist, with everything all planned out so there are no unhappy surprises, with the illusion that we are in control. And when things do not turn out as we planned, we become angry and bitter.
Or we can be a pilgrim, and set out on a journey not knowing the final destination or outcome, learning to trust God the whole time. It is more virtuous to be a pilgrim than a tourist. It is also a lot more fun.