Maybe you're thinking, "A what now? You mean like from Canterbury Tales? That sounds awfully ... Middle Ages."
Maybe you're thinking, "Oh yeah, a pilgrimage. Always a good time. I went on one myself, last month."
Either way, yes.
Here's the back story: Frank took the bar exam at the end of July, but he doesn't get his exam results until mid-October. He's anxious about them, as you can imagine, so he decided to make a pilgrimage (a time of intense prayer) after the exam to pray for his results. He invited me to join him and I was all for it. Conveniently we were able to time it to coincide with the day of prayer and fasting for Syria that Pope Francis called for on Saturday.
I've been on several pilgrimages before, most notably to Rome my sophomore year of college and to the Holy Land my senior year—both incredible experiences. But Frank had never been on a pilgrimage, and as it had been a while for me I didn't quite feel qualified to direct the expedition. We needed to do some research.
For some reason I had a really hard time finding anything online about how to make a pilgrimage. Do you know of any good resources out there? I really couldn't find anything. There needs to be a "how to make a Catholic pilgrimage" website out there, but right now there isn't. Finally I gave up and just asked my mom and her friends. Which worked out perfectly as we learned a lot from them.
I learned that a pilgrimage, as a journey to a holy site, is a microcosm of our life on this earth. The holy place symbolizes Heaven, while our journey—at times difficult yet imbued overall with a sacred, solemn joy—represents our life on Earth as Christians.
I learned that people have been making pilgrimages since long before the Middle Ages and Canterbury Tales. It's among the most ancient of human traditions—in fact Jesus, Mary and Joseph themselves went on pilgrimages (remember when they went to Jerusalem and Jesus got lost in the temple for three days? That was a pilgrimage.). I can't tell you how powerful, how beautiful, it is to participate in a custom so ancient and still rich with meaning.
I learned that you can pick any holy site you like for a pilgrimage. One woman told me that she makes pilgrimages to the grave of her little daughter who died in infancy. The little one is now a saint in Heaven, so her burial place is a perfect site for pilgrimage.
I learned that pilgrims typically pray aloud and sing hymns on their way to the holy place. For a short trip like we were planning, just one day, my mom recommended praying five decades of the Rosary on the way there, five more at the pilgrimage site, and five on the way back. She recommended praying the mysteries of the day at the site, the mysteries of the day before on the way there, and the next day's mysteries on the way home. (Since we went on a Saturday, that meant Sorrowful on the way there, Joyful at the site, and Glorious on the way home.) That worked out perfectly for us.
Armed with all of this knowledge, our next step was to pick a pilgrimage site.
There are plenty of spectacular holy sites near Chicago, from the National Shrine of St. Therese near my parents to Holy Hill in Wisconsin (where my dad takes my little siblings for annual father-daughter and father-son pilgrimages), and a little farther out there's even the incredible site in Wisconsin where Our Lady appeared to a young farm girl. We finally settled on the Marytown shrine in Libertyville, since neither of us had been there before and we'd heard great things about it.
We made it to Marytown just in time for Mass at noon. The church is modeled after St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, which just happens to be Frank's and my favorite basilica (sorry, St. Peter's). Such a neat coincidence.
We had a great time exploring the grounds—we were delighted to find a "Rosary walk" with little gardens designed around each set of mysteries.
On our way down to the Maximilian Kolbe museum, we were delighted to discover a sweet little exhibit of ... nun dolls. It was so random, but so adorable. Every major religious order was represented with a cute little doll dressed in the appropriate habit. I've never seen anything quite like it.
I kept thinking this would be a great place to bring a little girl who was learning about the different religious orders. I also kind of wanted to hug all the dolls ... and maybe even bring one home. They really were absolutely darling.
We looked extra-hard for the religious orders that my friends belong to. We found the Nashville Dominicans easily enough, where my friend Sister Angela Marie belongs, and then we looked for the Franciscan nuns, where my friend Marilis belongs (I can't remember her religious name—the perils of knowing someone well before she becomes a nun). Finally we looked for the Carmelites, like my friend Sarah (I also can't remember her religious name), but there were several different kinds of Carmelites and we didn't know which one was right so finally we gave up.
The Maximilian Kolbe museum was really something. Its official name is the Holocaust Museum, and that's fitting since the museum was only partly about Kolbe and mostly about the Holocaust as a whole. I kept thinking what a great place it would be to bring kids who are learning about the Holocaust in school (or doing a homeschool unit on it). It reminded Frank and I of the amazing Holocaust Museum in downtown DC.
One especially great item: this painting of Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man for whom Kolbe gave his life. According to his biography, Franciszek lived to a ripe old age and spent the rest of his life spreading the word about Kolbe's courageous sacrifice. Franciszek lobbied hard for Kolbe's sainthood and was honored with being present at Kolbe's canonization.
It was an incredible visit. After we got home and our pilgrimage was over, I asked Frank how he liked his first pilgrimage. He said he loved it, so I think the day was a success.
So, that was our little pilgrimage experience. If you've been a pilgrim yourself, do you have a favorite site to visit? How would you explain a pilgrimage to someone who's never made one? And if you've never heard of such a thing before, do you have any questions about it? :)