A COLLEAGUE of mine is overseas as I write this.
Along with many others, he is now caught up in the precautions to limit the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
We are not going to see him for a while, although he conscientiously keeps in touch via email and phone.
We miss having him around – his quirky, faith-filled presence would be appreciated as we attend to the ever-changing landscape we find ourselves in.
He headed off a while ago with a group to make a pilgrimage through the Holy Land.
I didn’t see him on the afternoon he left so sent him a message – a few words of ‘wisdom’ reflecting on something a number of people have told me about pilgrimages over the years.
It comes down to this – if a pilgrimage is real it hardly ever turns out precisely the way you’re anticipating.
That’s because, like a retreat, a pilgrimage is about you and God.
If it’s not, it’s actually not a pilgrimage – it’s just a jaunt overseas.
Specifically I wrote: pilgrimages “often have unanticipated outcomes – where God asserts his presence through, in or often in spite of what is going on around us. Saying ‘yes’ to God is almost invariably trickier than it initially seems.”
A true pilgrimage is never about a journey to a place: it’s a journey into God.
I may have over-egged that particular custard.
Shortly after arriving in Jordan the pilgrims learned that Israel had closed its borders.
It turns out their encounter with the Holy Land would be reflective of the Moses experience (Deuteronomy 34: 1-4) – able to see it in the distance but destined not to enter.
Lent is another opportunity for God to assert himself, if we let him.
We can have our plans – the acts of penance and self-sacrifice we intend to make – only to find that God has something else in mind.
I always tell people, ‘intend to make a good Lent, but do it knowing that God will give you the Lent you need and not just the Lent you’ve planned.’ That can be disconcerting.
We like to think that we can assert control in our spiritual lives, and that we won’t be led where we would rather not go (John 21:18).
It can become something of a shock to discover that God has his thoughts about the road we are on and, given even the smallest chance, will step in to lead.
I think of it this way – God looks at our attempts to open ourselves up to him (whether it be through a pilgrimage, a retreat, or the desire to enter into the Lenten experience) and perceives our willingness to allow him in a little further.
That’s all he’s waiting for – the invitation.
He knows who we are, how we operate, the experiences we’ve had, and the burdens we carry.
Not content to skate over the surface of our lives, he takes the opportunity to “get in there” and take us beyond what we were anticipating.
We are having a quite disturbing Lent.
This is no longer just about fasting from coffee, praying a little extra, or skipping the odd glass of wine.
This is about learning that we are not in control.
If the Covid-19 experience is teaching us anything at all, it is this: that our propensity for believing that we are in control of our world and our lives is a fiction we tell ourselves as a buffer from the realisation that, in the final analysis, each of us is powerless.
To go back to the earlier metaphor: we can turn all our energy to getting into the Holy Land, only to encounter the One who says: “this far, and no further.”
Lent has become real.
Taken out of our comfort zones, each of us is on a journey where the only authentic response is to care for the afraid and the sick, the elderly and the vulnerable.
We have to be loving, peace-filled and attentive to the needs of others.
We are to keep our eyes on Christ and share what we have.
We are getting the Lent we need, as God leads us ever-more deeply into becoming the people he is calling us to be.
Shane Dwyer is the associate director of Adult Formation for Archdiocese of Brisbane.