(This is the fourth installment in the story of my pilgrimage, a year-and-a half walk across the country from Feb. 11, 2011 to Aug. 21, 2012)
The first few days were spent getting a feel for how to do this. I started up the road with at least twice as much weight as I could safely carry. For the first mile or so I stopped repeatedly and agonized over what to jettison. By the time I was settled, I had something less than 40 lbs. of weight left (I know this because I checked it at a scale at a truck stop before I made camp for the day). It was less than half of what I would routinely carry just a few weeks later but, hey, I was a soft, raw recruit at the time.
My method was simple. I walked to the Rosary. The Rosary is a Catholic form of prayer (though some Protestant denominations use it also). It is a contemplation of the life of Christ through four sets of mysteries; the Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful and Glorious. Each set of mysteries contains five specific areas of contemplation that are prayed through what are called “decades.” A decade consists of a very brief recitation of the mystery to be contemplated, an opening “Our Father;” 10 “Hail Mary’s;” a “Glory Be;” and an “Oh, My Jesus.” You develop a lovely rhythm, offering each “Hail Mary” as a sort of spiritual rose to Our Lady, whom you seek to pray with you and help you contemplate the life of Her Son. That is the shortened, simplified version. (My Methodist youngest brother, Ron, had asked me what my Rosary really was some years ago and I had given that basic explanation to him. When I was finished, he looked at me with no little bemusement and said, “Man, that’s one complicated necklace!” I howled with laughter and eagerly agreed with him.)
For me, the Rosary is the basis for much prayer, which can make my private Rosary seem ridiculously complicated. But I had a wealth of time and could enjoy the luxury of great generosity in prayer as I walked. I offered each Rosary up for a specific set of intentions – the safety and health of those I met along my way, for friends, enemies, family members, people I had not seen in decades, old school chums. old girlfriends, for the good and prosperity of each county I walked through….you name it and I prayed for it. I limited myself to three specific intentions for each mystery (set of five decades) I prayed. I dedicated each mystery to a specific saint and asked that saint to pray with me on my intentions, guide me, and walk with me a little way.
I had a ritual for each of the five decades of each mystery. Normally, I just pray one set of mysteries a day on a rotation. Besides the saint I invoke for the full mystery, I follow this sequence: I ask St. Therese, the Little Flower, to join in my intentions during the first decade. I concentrate deeply on some aspect of the specific mystery ahead, trying to enter into it and live it. I offer the decade for a whole bunch of priests I know by name, and then all the priests, ministers and religious in the world, that they will seek and embrace the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Then I enter the prayers. I end the first decade by asking Blessed Mother, Mary to join in my intentions and to guide and help me. For the second decade, I invoke the help of St. Teresa of Avila, offer it for a host of bishops I know by name and for all bishops throughout the world, that they will seek and embrace the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, and end by asking the Holy Spirit to transform me and the world. On the third I invoke the help of St. John Paul the Great. I offer it to the honor of John Paul the Great, whom I claim as patron, and for the intentions, person and immortal soul of the Pope, that the Lord will strengthen him to accomplish all He has appointed for him and that his papacy will bear much fruit (that prayer is currently offered for both Pope Francis and for Pope Emeritus Benedict) and end by going and spending some time together with Jesus. On the fourth, I invoke the intercession of the saint I have asked to walk with me for the month. I offer it for many friends and family by name, then for all God’s troops throughout the world, that we will be a visible sign of God’s presence and hope to all. I end it by communing with the Father. For the fifth decade, I invoke the intercession of the saint I dedicated the full set of decades to. I offer it for my work and for purity in my life, and for the spiritual and temporal good of everyone who ever was, is or will be part of my extended family. I end by spending some time in prayer together with St. Joseph, ever eloquent and profound in his silence, that I might be as quick to do and live the Lord’s will as he was. Then I offer the closing prayers and meditations. During my pilgrimage I generally prayed all four sets of mysteries each day, which gave me the opportunity for a lot of freelancing of intentions and invocations in the last three sets. It was wonderful. I have never been so richly endowed in contemplative prayer. I prayed constantly for our poor, bleeding world and that people would soon see that this was not an end, but a beginning. For that year and a half, I felt like a great philanthropist because I had such a rich store of prayer I was able to offer.
Little things delighted me. Usually, when I was praying the fourth sorrowful mystery, the Carrying of the Cross, I would be on a hard, uphill slog. I thought the Lord was giving me the chance to walk with Him just a little way of His passion…a kind gift that tickled me. With each decade I prayed, I would walk between half and a full mile and then sit down and rest a while in the shade, until I was ready to walk and pray the next decade. As I got stronger and better, I would walk longer in silent contemplation after each decade before taking my rest.
I always walked against traffic; I never hitch-hiked. I had determined before I left that interaction with others, when the opportunity came, would always take precedence over everything else. So if someone stopped I figured God intended us to talk for a while and I would take a ride with them. It would happen three or four times a week and the average ride was about five or 10 miles – though occasionally my benefactor would stop at a cafe so we could chat longer. Though I believe God put everyone I met in my path, when I say I saw it as a sign we should talk, religion, itself, was always a small component of the talk. Many people evangelize directly quite well and fruitfully, but it is not my way. I kind of think each life is a story and that, when you speak with others about the ordinary things that delight you and find the things which delight them, well, the Author of all things comes and blesses your encounter. It’s hard to explain, but when you just laugh and chat with each other, God reveals Himself without even having to try. He enjoys those who delight in His creation. A fellow once told me, with contempt, that if it did not involve Jesus, he was not interested in talking about it. I was amazed and thought that, wow, the Lord must really be impressed: you love Him but hold in utter contempt all things He made. Not.
I am rarely criticized for talking about God too much. But I am frequently criticized by the pious for not pushing God hard enough. Even one of my priests long ago criticized me for not being evangelical enough. But he encountered some people who credited me for helping reconcile them to God and faith and, after hearing them, told me to keep doing whatever it was I was doing. Like I say, many people give very effective and fruitful overt witness, but it just is not my way.
That is not to say I do not speak quite candidly of God and my faith when the subject is opened and welcomed. Within the first few weeks, I stopped at a little gas station/cafe one morning. I was dying for a cup of coffee. I am a coffee junkie – and it had been a week with none. The gal behind the counter was naturally curious about my heavy pack and wanted to know what my deal was. I told her about the pilgrimage, praying, living in the woods, the Shrine. She was, as many later were, charmed – and insisted I sit a spell and enjoy all the coffee I wanted. Shortly after I sat down a middle-aged man came in who was apparently a regular. The clerk and he chatted, frequently looking my way. He came over, shook my hand and asked if he could sit and chat with me a spell. I said sure, I would be glad of the company. Smiling, he told me that before we started, I needed to know he was an atheist; that he would love to hear my story but he didn’t want a religious argument. I chuckled and said, “Ah, that’s okay. The way I see it, God reads hearts. If you have good will in your heart, God doesn’t get too worked up about a little confusion in your head. But if you have bad will, you can say ‘Jesus’ all you want. You might fool yourself but you won’t fool God with it.” He laughed and sat down.
The guy was interesting and funny. He was a semi-retired engineer. We talked about his work and mine. We talked about our kids, the foods we liked, what each of us liked to do for fun. We talked about politics because of my background expertise in it and he gave me some great insights on some energy issues because his work was heavily involved in it. We talked enthusiastically for about an hour and a half before I needed to get going. Except for the opening, we didn’t talk about religion at all – except the basic information of its relation to what I was doing. As we ended, he astonished me by saying, “If things are like you say, I hope there is a God.” I gave my cock-eyed grin and responded, “There is – and He is going to take your good wishes for me as a prayer.” With a little smile he said that would be nice.
That is how things usually happen with me. If someone is friendly, I like chatting with them. I rarely try to evangelize anyone. It doesn’t bother me at all that many good people believe different than I do. But people often come away from our chats about everything else evangelized. Truth is, it kind of befuddles me. If I was sending people out to win people to God, it is not the way I would recommend. But it is the way things happen with me and I like it, so I just muddle on.