It’s 3 a.m. and I wake to screaming.
Bleary-eyed, I fumble around for the baby monitor. I can’t see a thing in the sunbright display, so I close my eyes and listen: “Waaaaaaa!”
Which baby is that?
I still can’t tell. Was that a raspy and sweet cry, or a shrill and loud cry?
Shrill and loud, shrill and loud! That’s our 2-year-old, Georgie. That means it’s my turn.
I roll out of bed, and my body mounts a familiar protest. I stumble through the hallway to his room and, sure enough, he’s up and crying. It’s the scared cry (as opposed to mad, hungry or confused cry), so it must have been a bad dream. I take him into my arms and hold him. Sleep training went out the window when the world stopped, so if I’m lucky he’ll fall back to sleep quickly. If I’m unlucky, it’ll be a long night.
I wake up to birdsong and a creaky neck. He’s drooled on my arm. My alarm is going off in the other room. I got lucky. It’s morning. Time to go to work.
I can say without hesitation that parenting is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s also the best, strangely: equal parts gift and duty, joy and sorrow, heart-expanding ecstasy and bone-weary exhaustion. And during the pandemic it got even harder, as most of our go-to strategies for rest, relaxation and family fun went out the window.
Before the pandemic, I used to take friends, family and other folks on pilgrimages to Italy. It too had its share of the sublime and the stressful. But as this pandemic continues to unfold, and I sit grounded here at home, I’ve begun to look at my own life, as a married father of three sons, in the light of what pilgrimages can teach us.
In the Middle Ages, when a person wanted to go on pilgrimage, perhaps to walk the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome, or the Camino de Santiago to the Compostela in Spain, the first thing they did was get their affairs in order. In fact, much of the documentation we have around pilgrimages are wills that outlined what to do with a pilgrim’s belongings should they die while on the journey.
And that was a prudent step. Pilgrimages were dangerous affairs. Pilgrims had to deal with illness, bandits and all manner of various dangers, not to mention the physical exhaustion of walking around 20 miles a day. Along the Via Francigena, particularly in Siena, hospitals were founded to care for sick and dying pilgrims and banks were created to care for the money entrusted by pilgrims on their way to Rome. Those who died while on pilgrimage were said to be making a “pilgrimage to eternity,” completing their earthly pilgrimage to heaven in the process.
That’s all to say that pilgrimages were not for the faint of heart. They required grit, endurance, physical and mental fortitude. They also required faith, for to be a pilgrim meant you walked intentionally towards both a known and unknown future. Often you sought healing or a divine encounter, either at your destination or somewhere surprising along the way. As such, there was a certain catechesis happening on pilgrimage that created an enduring sense of trust between pilgrims and God, and a deeper sense of God being on the journey with you.
Every one of our lives is a pilgrimage, of course, regardless of our particular vocation. Married or single, religious or lay, we each respond as best we can to God’s calling: to walk with Christ in whatever state of life we find ourselves, discerning how to love more deeply and more consciously, consecrating the world around us as we deepen our communion with God in Christ.
At Mass, we pray for the pilgrim Church on earth, underlying the dynamic, temporal nature of our community, but also the eschatological nature of our faith: We live and move as a community of disciples with a particular end in mind, that is, union with God in Christ in God’s kingdom. But we move together, with Christ at our head, going where he leads us, supporting each other along the way.
If we are called to marriage, our spouse becomes our companion on this journey. Together, we grow and develop in new ways, balancing the needs of everyday life with our own God-given hopes and desires. When and if children arrive, our cozy little worlds turn upside down.
Sometimes, I find myself in the middle of a living room torn apart, littered with toys and sippy cups, spilled goldfish and all manner of unsightly plastic junk, wondering, “Who are these people?” Sure they’ve got my hair and my eyes and a certain charm about them, but they are absolutely nuts. Some days, we laugh and rejoice together, at a new word learned or a new dance performed, while on other days we grit our teeth until bath and bedtime, the last great hurdle before my wife and I can enjoy a quiet hour or two together.
But the difficulties are mixed with love and, even more than this, with wonder. From the moment I first saw my son William on the sonogram screen, a tiny 8-bit blip, hopping about and kicking, announcing the great mystery of life, I became aware that I was standing on holy ground, and that every step from this moment to my final breath will be on Divine Love’s terms, and not my own. A few sonograms later, and even through a heartbreaking miscarriage, that pilgrim intuition has held true: God is walking alongside us, each and every step of the way.
Looking at our family lives together as a pilgrimage, we can rediscover that each step, each moment of our lives (even the 3 a.m. wake-up calls) is a potentially sacred encounter. For each step awakens us to the joy, the wonder and the love that are the clear marks of God’s presence. We endure through the hard times, and we celebrate the good, recognizing God in the emerging personalities before us. And each step brings us closer to our destination, the One who called us into being and who is always inviting us to journey back to Divine Love, our eternal and beautiful home.
Michael J. Sanem, “Pilgrim Parents,” from the Summer 2021 issue of the Catholic Key https://catholickey.org/2021/06/04/pilgrim-parents/