Earlier this month, my parish hosted its annual pilgrimage to the San Antonio Missions. We gather at Mission Concepcion and then folks can choose to ride a bus, drive their car, ride a bike, or walk to Mission San Juan or San Jose. My role on the pilgrimage committee is to lead the walkers on the Mission Reach of the San Antonio Riverwalk from Mission Concepcion to Mission San Jose. Each year I tell the walkers the same thing: it is about a four-mile walk, up and down hills, in full sun. I warn them if they are not normally walkers, this is not the the time to start. I ask them to bring sunscreen, water, and comfortable shoes. At the start of the pilgrimage, they have the brightest smiles and are eager to start. And then they start walking...
Generally I lead the pack. This year I brought up the rear to ensure everyone was okay and be available to call for a car if needed. As it became apparent later, the Holy Spirit was determined for me to slow down, look, and listen.
The end of the pack consisted of a couple who joined us late, but were well prepared, so I walked with them. They were traveling at a good clip, just a bit slower than my normal walking pace. The heart starts pumping, the sunshine was warm but not yet hot, the breeze was refreshing. They were doing just as they were told and all was well. Not much for me to do but walk.
As the walk continued, we caught up to two women in our group. They were nicely dressed for Mass, but not for a four-mile hike. They carried very large and seemingly heavy purses. They walked slowly, very very slowly. I am certain they are not members of Fitbit Nation. The couple zoomed on past and I dropped my speed to stay about five yards or so behind the women-- well below my normal pace. I can't say I was surprised, because every year there is a group which starts the walk and cannot finish, but I was aggravated -- after all, I had warned them. And then I started looking and listening...
In the world around us, a part of our beautiful city which seems almost overlooked and is perhaps underappreciated, nature rules in an unencumbered way. There were many types of birds and wildflowers along the way, and a healthy number of turtles. The river flows in several permutations: slow and still waters gliding across broad, flat places; jagged, swirling cascades splashing down sharply dropping spillway squares; streams trickling over rocky bars as if too fatigued to catch up to the rest. I saw water coming out of a rock and thought of Moses at Meribah. It was quiet and still in a way the city above and around us can never be. It was quiet and still in a way that the heart and soul yearns to rest. My frustration eased, and I keep walking, looking up ahead at my two charges.
I noticed they were chattering away with each other, about what I did not know or need to know, but in a way which appeared familiar. I knew instinctively that they were hard at work solving the problems of friends and family, and sometimes the whole world, as we women often do in conversations with one another. I smiled. I noticed they were shifting their purses from one shoulder to the other every so often, like the burdens of life which never seem to leave us and which we attempt to get a better grip on, always. I nodded. I noticed one walked straight as an arrow, along an unseen path. The other meandered from her friend's side to the other edge of the wide walkway, pointing to the wildlife every so often. Unfortunately, she often did this right across the path of swift runners and zooming cyclists -- not quite understanding the etiquette of the shared road and the shouts of "LEFT!" Consequently, as she would begin to stray, I would call out (hopefully gently) for her to stay on the right. I chuckled. And then I saw and heard...
I chuckled sheepishly, not because it was funny or because I was mocking her, but because I got it. I got what I was supposed to see.
The pilgrimage was life, and the path was discipleship, and the walkers were you and me, and the bikers and runners were obstacles, and at the back of the pack... at the back of the pack is always God making sure everything is ok. I saw what He sees -- precious children, walking with each other, making our way through obstacles, most times oblivious of His presence and certainly His will. When we do His will, there's not much for Him to do. When we stray off of His path, through grace and guardian angels and other earthly messengers including our clergy, he prods us back on track --always the Good Shepherd. And yet He does not need to make His Presence known to us, because He is filled with nothing but love and mercy for us. Even when we stray from the path or completely ignore His warnings, He is there. The constant connection of His presence to us as His body was palpable to me in that moment and I simply thanked Him, having little to offer in return.
My reverie was interrupted by a phone call, another group of walkers had pulled off the path and requested a car for pick up. I shepherded my chatty lambs up to a park pavilion where two other women waited with a pilgrimage leader and the couple with whom I walked earlier. I sent the leader along with the couple to finish the walk, and stayed behind with the four women to wait for a car. There was ample venting about the length of the route ("You said it was less than two miles." -- Not so.) and the weather ("It's much too hot for us to be out here." -- Maybe.) and how long the car was taking to arrive ("Maybe you should call him again, I think he's lost." -- Sure, I'm happy to.). But in my seeing-the-walk-with-new-eyes view, I thought this as prayer. Those voices we raise up to Him -- desperate, raging, frustrated, lost, defiant, but also joyful, grateful, open, certain, and confident. I consoled, and listened, but mostly I just stayed with them. I assured them (perhaps not blessed assurance, but certainly honest assurance) that help was coming and they were fine. I did not say Do Not Be Afraid, but I tried to model it. The car came, and as they climbed in we realized we were one seat short. No worries, I told them, I'll keep walking and meet you there. I can make sure there is no one else on the path who needs help. They expressed concern I'd be on the path by myself now, but I knew I wasn't alone.
Through grace and not any character trait on my part, there was no disappointment as I stepped back out on the path. There was deep gratitude and joy. I felt almost as if the pilgrimage was starting anew. There was a spring in my step and a purpose in my soul -- and to be fair, I was a bit happy to finally be walking on my pace, just me and my God.
I rounded a corner of the Riverwalk and saw a circular viewing spot to my left. I walked over to it and stopped to just appreciate the rugged beauty of the river and the thought that for centuries the faithful have walked a path between these two ancient bastions of faith. I thought of the untold number of people who have lived, died, and worshiped in our Missions, and created our city around them. I offered up a prayer for them all, and for those on the path with me that day, and for all those to come. I thought of my children, their husbands, and my grandchildren, and hoped they may be able to walk this path with me some day and share this spot -- as my sweet husband has done. I prayed thanks for allowing me to be present in this moment, and although it has taken me several weeks to get them out, I prayed for the words to adequately express it to you.
Here is a video of my view from that spot on that bright day, I invite you to add your own prayers to mine. Hopefully the quiet and stillness will spill out into your world as you watch. Take a deep breath and press play:
May God be with you on your path always, fellow peregrinos.