Traveling grace

Karie Charlton offers some advice for those planning a pilgrimage, including words of wisdom from her uncle, a Jesuit brother.  

Photo by corina ardeleanu on Unsplash

If you want a Pilgrimage story about where I went and what I learned, this is not that story. Of course, I went to amazing places (Florence, Assisi, and Rome), prayed in beautiful settings, learned about current culture and history, and had experiences I will never forget, but what I learned most was how to prepare for a pilgrimage — not just a short-term trip but a lifetime pilgrimage. In preparation for the short-term trip, I studied, created a notebook and asked for advice. And these things have had long-term effects.

During the pandemic, I began taking courses for the Spiritual Formation Certificate at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary to fill in some quarantine time with self-reflection and hopefully come out of it a better human. During this isolating time, I also began dreaming of places I would love to travel like the Ponte Vecchio Bridge in Florence I learned about while studying St. Catherine. When it became safe to travel, I connected with a couple of pastors who happened to be planning an Italian Pilgrimage and I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. I completed a class on St. Francis and St. Clare as part of the certificate program and to prepare for the Assisi stop of the Pilgrimage. I continued to study some basic spiritual formation practices too and used tools like the Enneagram for self-reflection. Some of the assigned readings were amazing and others were, let’s say, less than amazing. But even the sources I didn’t love I could find little gems or at least other suggested readings.

My advice is to start somewhere with a basic intro to spirituality class, then follow up with whatever interests you. For me, basic breathing exercises and knowing my strengths and weaknesses were essential on the pilgrimage. Travel tends to bring us out of our comfort zones, so knowing how you typically respond to stress and how to self-soothe are vital. For many, breathing practices are really centering on de-stress or bringing awareness of God’s presence, and these practices do not require equipment and can be done without others noticing.

The poppies were everywhere I looked, and they reminded me that my intentions were always with me on this Italian Pilgrimage. (Photo provided by author.)

The notebook became my devotional, my journal and my comfort item. Before the trip, I filled it with prayers, quotes, reminders, and even copied sections out of books I had read to prepare and glued them to the pages. I left about half of the pages blank for journaling during the trip. And I glued an envelope to the inside of the back so I had a place to stash prayer cards or other small items I picked up. During the trip, I filled the envelope and journal pages and re-read sections that were meaningful to me. This helped me to stay focused on what I had studied and wanted to experience, and it was comforting in the way rewatching a favorite movie can be. The bonus of it looking like I was studying gave me a few moments to myself when I was running out of social energy. I still flip through the pages occasionally and reread the very special letter that I tucked inside from my uncle Denny.

Uncle Denny is a Jesuit brother. Being a Jesuit, he was required to complete pilgrimages and he travels often. I wrote to him to ask for advice about pilgrimages and asked if there was anything special I could do or bring back for him. Of course, he didn’t need any thing but gave me a couple of prayer requests for him and his ministry and asked those to be said in specific places I was visiting. It was special to have a plan to light a candle and a specific prayer for those places.

My uncle sent a long letter, but the short version was to have in mind a grace for the pilgrimage, perhaps something regarding my ministry with women in Pittsburgh or praying for the women who are the recipients of the Days for Girls menstrual health kits. He used the word grace repeatedly in his letter. As a Presbyterian, I might translate Uncle Denny’s use of “grace” to “a special prayer request,” or “some clarity from God about a discernment,” or even “to ask for a blessing.” Inspired by Uncle Denny’s suggestions, I used time on this trip to pray for clarity in my calling and for all of the holy women in my life with gratitude. I kept all those prayers in mind during the trip, but at each place, I chose one or two to focus on in quiet moments. The best advice in his letter was for me to be open to the Spirit in prayer and to find God wherever I traveled. He reminded me that God can be found in interesting and mundane places, far away and at home.