I Walked into Suffering on the Road to Santiago

“For as long as humans have walked, they have walked to get closer to their gods.”

The words appear on top of a PBS website in white upon a black background—an over-simplified truth, smacking with arrogant certitude. At least that’s the way it feels to me when I stare at the screen just a few days after returning from pilgrimage on El Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, in Northern Spain.

“For as long as humans have walked, they have walked to get closer to their gods.” The phrase rolls over inside of me as I continue to integrate what I experienced while walking along that ancient path, where I felt how faith is mysterious and yet embodied. At some point between the meetings and the laundry and the catching up on email, I find my mind is nodding and expanding the assertion. Yes, we have been walking since forever to grow spiritually. But even more so, we have been walking to survive.

For 200,000 years we’ve been walking. A long distance walk, a pilgrimage on foot; it’s nothing new. It is common to human experience. We walk to find food, to find shelter, to find safety. We walk to escape fire, famine, natural disaster, war. I’m not special for having walked more than 80 miles on one of the routes of El Camino. Many have entered into similar journeys of inevitable suffering with hope for transformation.

The only thing strange about me, perhaps, is that…  [This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Sick Pilgrim at Patheos. Continue reading here.]

Pilgrims going into Santiago
Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Redefining faith on El Camino

Since high school, I’ve been teaching the Christian faith to others. In parishes, classrooms, and while camping in the woods, I’ve taught songs, explained Bible stories, instilled virtues and asked students to memorize definitions and lists. And, occasionally, over the years, a thoughtful youngster in one of those settings would interrupt my enthusiastic lectures and ask an appropriate question: But what is faith?

Oh, it’s a theological virtue along with hope and love, I’d say. “Faith is the realization of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), I’d recite. Or I’d offer a paraphrased combination of the words from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Faith is belief in God and all God has revealed through the church.

And even though I have confidently spewed out strings of words attempting to define the virtue, I honestly don’t understand what faith is. Yes, I know: Faith is a virtue. Faith is a principle. Faith is a force. I know all this, and I experience its power over my life.

But define it? My mind might as well be put into a blender of abstraction, turned to high and left on for a solid hour. I hate to admit it, but the racket of me aiming to contain the power of this word into a string of more words has likely been inadequate, and even possibly destructive over the years.

I only realized this recently. A few weeks ago, while…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Camino marker on the sidewalk in Ferrol, Spain. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Praying with my feet: called to El Camino

For over a thousand years, millions of pilgrims have walked across Spain to the Catedral de Santiago (Cathedral of St. James). During Holy Week, I will become one of those pilgrims.

This Lent, much of my energy and prayer has been focused on preparing for this pilgrimage. During this, I have found that God has taught me a lot about what it means to be called.

I’ll be walking the Camino Inglés with five other women, four of whom are Franciscan sisters in my congregation. The Camino Inglés is one route — the quieter, less-traveled one — of the pilgrimage that ends at the Catedral de Santiago in western Spain.

Our little group will arrive in Spain on Palm Sunday and begin walking on Tuesday. We hope to arrive at the Catedral de Santiago in time for the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. Each day, we will walk between 12 and 18 miles. Each night, we will sleep in very simple refugios. We will carry everything on our back and pray with our feet as we walk steadily over the trail that pilgrims have journeyed since the Middle Ages.

Nearly every day since Lent began, I have laced up my hiking boots and headed outside to walk several miles. I have been trying, physically and spiritually, to prepare myself for this journey. A few weeks ago, I even…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

“pack and poles” Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

As the insects, like the swans: Living the vow of obedience with a free spirit

I am in the woods on Mount Subasio above Assisi, Italy, at a sacred place of prayer called La Carceri. It’s July 20, 2014. I am on a pilgrimage, thrilled to be praying in this holy place where St. Francis and the early friars spent much time in contemplation.

I too am in contemplation on this holy ground. I am pondering what I just heard preached during the Mass, where our Franciscan pilgrimage group gathered around a stone altar underneath some tall trees.

Rays of Light through Tall Trees, La Carceri, Italy. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Rays of Light through Tall Trees, La Carceri, Italy. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

I was reminded that the path to holiness is a journey of struggle. Even though we’re living a religious life, we’re just as human as everyone else. And, when we’re real with ourselves, we can admit that much of our life is spent wrestling with the reality of our own frailty, our own sinfulness. St. Francis spent more than 200 days in hermitage each year, even while admitting that…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report.  Continue reading here.

Heaven and Earth: Lessons learned in Assisi

This past summer I had a profound experience that helped me to remember that heaven and earth are one.

I was in Assisi, Italy, on pilgrimage. I was there with other Franciscans who were preparing for (or discerning) final vows, and participating in a study pilgrimage sponsored by Franciscan Pilgrimage Programs. As a Franciscan sister, it is understandable that my heaven-on-earth experience occurred in Assisi, as the village is holy ground for those of us in the Franciscan family.

Sacramental graces

After a morning Mass with our pilgrimage group at the tomb of St. Francis, I went into the upper church of the basilica of St. Francis.  I then found myself praying with Giotto di Bondone’s vibrant frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis. Much was stirring in my heart as I examined the scenes depicting St. Francis’ life of conversion and penance.

Specifically, I was feeling very uncomfortable with my weak and imperfect …

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report.  Continue reading here.] 

 

4 photos from Assisi

I have been back from Assisi for a few weeks now, after spending over two weeks on pilgrimage there. The effects of the experience are still sinking in. Slowly, I am coming to know what the after-effects of my Assisi experience actually are.

It has occurred to me, though, that certain images and experiences linger more loudly, causing my Assisi memories to stay very alive, even though my life here has built layers on top in my mind.

It’s very difficult to really articulate what I experienced, so bear with me. I hope that the photography I’ve chosen helps.

1.) The art within the Basilicas

Photography inside the Basilicas of Assisi is not allowed, so I can’t share actual images with you. I’ll just say that seeing the originals of art that I have studied and prayed with since my entrance into FSPA was truly awesome. It was a thrill for me to pray with the actual San Damiano crossthe larger-than-life and vibrant frescoes by Giotto in St Francis’ Basilica, and the beautiful, simple Porziuncola where Francis lived with many of the early brothers. Somehow, the art in each of these sacred spaces caused me to encounter Christ in a way unlike I have before. I felt connected to Francis and Clare, to centuries of pilgrims, to the shared tradition of prayer.

This image of Francis is on the outside wall, above the door into the lower basilica of St. Francis.

"The Francis who greets" photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
The Francis who greets by Julia Walsh, FSPA

2.) The valley below Assisi

Apparently, during the time of Francis and Clare the Spoleto Valley was a marshy land where few people would venture. It contained leper colonies where members of Francis and Clare’s communities would serve. One hot and sunny afternoon, I tried to walk across the valley from the place where Francis lived with the early brothers (the Porziuncola) to where Clare lived with early poor ladies (the Chapel of San Damiano). Even though I got overheated and never made it to San Damiano that day, I was in awe about how the land felt somewhat familiar. Perhaps my Iowan roots help me to feel comfortable in any agricultural setting. Or, perhaps praying with the stories of Francis and Clare during the past few years allowed me to feel at home.

I took this picture when I was walking through the valley.

"Assisi and the field" Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
Assisi and the field by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

3.) The dancing colors across the sky

Nearly every day I was able to take in the magnificent sunrise and sunsets over Assisi. The scenes were like bookends of the blessed days. In between the sun coming up and going down I would encounter the way that this small town of peace offered hospitality to people of all types; to all sorts of colorful characters from all over the world. Some of us were tuned into the Spirit and sacredness. Others were joyful about what was quaint and calm. No matter where we are all of us, whether we believe it or not, are God’s children sharing space under the beautiful sky.

This is from the sunset the first night I was in Assisi.

"the wonder of color" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
The wonder of color by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

 4.) The joy of being Franciscan

I mentioned it earlier, but I am happy to say it again. In the land of St. Francis, I felt very joyful and like my truest self. I would randomly sing hymns and find myself muttering prayers, more than normal. I am so thankful that God has blessed me with this vocation and made me part of this wonderful Franciscan family. Now that I am home again with many more sisters from my community, I understand why so many eyes sparkle with deep gratitude when the talk shifts to our Franciscan roots. I suspect that my eyes do that too. I hope we help others know God’s goodness through our joy.

In this picture, one of my pilgrimage companions lifts up his arms in Assisi.

"joy in the journey" photo by julia Walsh, FSPA
Joy in the journey by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

Thanks be to God for the way that this pilgrimage continues to enrich my life! Pace è Bene!

God’s teaching tools in Assisi

It’s my last morning in Assisi. Soon I will depart and go on the next leg of my journey before returning home. I’m restless and nervous, for transitions and travel challenge me.

I came here as a pilgrim two weeks ago. I experienced this city as a pilgrim. Now I understand that I also leave as a pilgrim, for I am always on a journey of faith.

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and sojourners to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against the soul. -1 Peter 2:11

I can trust that God will take care of me and remain my trusty companion, for sure. For me, a certain worldly desire wages against God’s invitation to be a disciple who take leaps of faith: I long for a sense of certitude about where my life is turning. I realized this here in Assisi. This is one of many lessons that I will bring home to integrate.

Indeed, God has utilized my time on this holy ground to teach me lessons that I need to learn.  Overall, my experience in Assisi has provided many graces.

To teach me these lessons, God has used many teaching tools. There’s the tools you might expect: liturgies, homilies, readings, lectures, silent prayer, meditation, religious art, tombs of saints, and churches.

God’s truth has been revealed in other ways too: through people, places, music and in random moments in caves, on mountain paths and busy streets.

In particular, God has spoken through the wisdom of other pilgrimage companions, all who are Franciscans. I’ll feature one:

David Hirt, OFM Cap.

"Br. David Hirt" Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Br. David Hirt” Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Age: 36

Entered Religious Life: 2007

Solemn Vow Profession: 2013

Hometown: Terre Haute, IN

Current Ministry: Campus Minister and Spiritual Director at Mount Lawrence High School Seminary, Mt. Calvary, WI

My Question to Br. David: What have you learned about the messiness of Franciscan life during this pilgrimage? 

Br. David’s AnswerFranciscan life is like any one of the old churches here in the Spoleto Valley. It’s old and rough and broken and beautiful, but built to show that one perfect sanctuary that is the reign of God. Franciscan life is the mix of ideals and the nitty-gritty reality of what you have to deal with in the world, and the ideal and reality don’t always meet. 

Another teaching tool that God has utilized is the beauty of the scenery.  It has frequently felt as if every direction I look gives me a picture worth contemplating. Many sights feel as if they are pictures right out of a European photo book or off a postcard. And, I get to be part of it! The beauty and God’s goodness has given much to ponder, much opportunity to do as St. Clare has instructed: gaze, consider, contemplate, and imitate.

Here is a photo from my time here that I offer for your own consideration and contemplation. What of Christ does this photo invite you to imitate?

"Basilica of San Francesco, Assisi" Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Basilica of San Francesco, Assisi” Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

As I journey onward, I am carrying some solid intentions and hopes about how I will integrate what God has taught me into my ordinary life.

Wisdom and beauty is propelling me into mystery blessed with trust. While I move, I pray that I shall imitate The Great Teacher and the lessons I’ve learned here in Assisi. Amen!

The Language of Assisi

I’m in Assisi, in Italy. I’ve been here for over a week now.

As I mentioned in my last post, I am here on pilgrimage, participating in a program with Franciscan Pilgrimages. It’s an incredible 24-day program. We are a group of newer Franciscans who mostly are discerning/preparing for final vows. Basically, each day has a format: a guided tour of a certain Franciscan site, mass, free time at the site, lunch (pranzo), free time and naps (repossa) in the afternoon, a lecture about Franciscan history or spirituality, a prayer service and supper (cena) and then maybe an evening walk or sunset viewing.

The rhythm of prayer, learning, community, solitude, and adventure that we have fallen into is drastically different from my normal pace at home. Typically I try to cram too much into my days. Here, I have had to adjust to the slower pace and the experience of being a pilgrim who is on a migratory retreat. It’s been a great adjustment! I feel much more relaxed and joyful. Plus, each day has been very thought-provoking, stunning, exciting, thrilling and prayerful.

My experience ranges from the fun and exciting (like my first time in an actual castle and a discovery of a new chocolate pastry) to the more profound and significant (like the impact of prayer at the tombs of Sts. Francis and Clare). In short, a lot is going through my heart and my mind, and my journal is quickly filling.

Within the richness of this blessed time, I have been trying to pay attention to the constants. What do I find myself pondering the most? One of the constants, not surprisingly, is the effect of being in a country where I don’t speak the main language. (And no matter how much I try to remember Italian phrases, they seem to just float through my mind. It’s frustrating, but I suspect it is because I have so many other things to think about.) Certainly, I am not the only one here who doesn’t speak Italian. Even so, here are my reflections:

  • Assisi is holy ground, a medieval Christian city on top of the ruins of an ancient Roman city. The layers speak of love, joy, peacemaking, history, tradition, humility, Gospel service and now, tourism. Beauty in frescoes, pristine mountain views, wildflowers and the mysterious stone all seem to have a message. There’s a strong spiritual vibe and I keep thinking a silly question: if these stones could speak what would they say? Even an artist that I spoke to one day admitted that she loves it here because there is a great spirit about the place. I am challenged to listen and tune into my surroundings more deeply.
  • I’ve learned that I tend to be pretty wordy or chatty with people like shopkeepers and waiters. Here, I am challenged to communicate with less words, and still express my gratitude and respect. Indeed, smiles and gestures go a long way, right with “grazie” (thank you). Related, even if someone does speak English like me they may not always be hearing what I am trying to tell them, just as I may not be listening too well.
  • Most importantly, I am in awe with the beauty of the universal language of prayer. One day I was sitting in a chapel and a couple came and sat next me to in a pew. Before then, I had never heard the rosary prayed in Italian. But it didn’t take me long to know which prayers they were praying. Similarly, no matter the language that mass is in, I can tell where they are in the liturgy. This is one of the reasons I love being Catholic. Likewise, it doesn’t matter where pilgrims originate that I encounter in any chapel; we understand each other’s reverent gestures and need for quiet and space. Respect is a language too.

Overall, the languages of love and joy are permeating my experience in Assisi. I am retuning my life to the love of God and the joy that comes from knowing that love. At times, I am bursting with song and laughter, for I am so grateful for the affection that I am experiencing. The beauty, the faith, and the strength that am gaining here are all affirming my vocation: I am totally Franciscan. We Franciscans are a global family that speaks many languages. Yet, we are united together in the language of faith, for we are faithful in our desire to follow Jesus Christ and live the Gospel in the style of Francis and Clare. Thanks be to God for the languages of Assisi! Grazie! 

"Assisi at sunset" photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Assisi at sunset” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

This Physical Faith

I am on pilgrimage now, in Italy. I arrived Monday evening and started having physical reactions right away. As I was leaving the Rome airport and looking around at the vegetation, it crossed my mind that the landscape I was seeing probably would have been familiar to St. Francis of Assisi, plus many other holy people I have studied and prayed with for years. My mind was full of wonder and my heart was vibrated with joy and excitement. At the thought of it all, tears filed my eyes. Before arriving at the hotel where I am staying, I was surprised to suddenly have this site fill the sky:

"St Peter's Dome at Night" Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“St Peter’s Dome at Night” Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica is something I have seen countless pictures of throughout my life. When I saw it all lit up and making such a statement about the power of faith, I gasped. Really loud. It didn’t matter that I was in a shuttle-taxi van with a bunch of strangers, it was like the sound came from the depths of me and surprised all of us. Physical reactions can be like that. Since then, I actually got to go inside of St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s enormous and filled with great art and devotion. It’s amazing to me what people create and do because they know and love God. Thousands and thousands of people from all over the world were inside praying, taking photos, and listening to guides share facts. Some were crowding around the sculptures by Bernini and Michelangelo to try to see the masterpiece with their own eyes, and maybe get a good photo. Some were in line to touch the feet of the statue of St. Peter, which were worn down flat. Some were in the adoration chapels off to the side. Others were praying with the non-corrupt body of Pope John XXIII. At one point, overwhelmed and trying to take it all in, I realized I was crying–another physical reaction to a spiritual reality. Most recently, I was able to visit the Vatican museums, which includes the Sistine Chapel and its masterpiece paintings by Michelangelo. I got to spend over thirty minutes in there, crowded among hundreds, in dim light, bending my neck back and staring up at the phenomenal art. For part of the time I sat, prayed, and people watched. I started thinking about all the prayer and pope elections that have happened in that place over hundreds of years, and all the holy people who have also been in that place. Then, I became aware that my shoulders were shaking and tears were streaming down my face. Another physical reaction. I’ve only been here three days now yet I am clearly being moved intensely by the experience already. The actual pilgrimage program began this afternoon and at our opening mass one of the guides, Father Rick Martignetti, reminded us that we are all called to be pilgrims and strangers on our journey through life. We pray with the physical world in a very sacred way. Places are “sources” that can speak to us, that can change us and that we can change–by our being and through our prayers. Many of the places that we are to encounter are places where heaven has met Earth, for this Christian faith of ours is a very physical faith. As I move on this holy ground I learning more every day about how the spiritual and the physical intermingle. I am amazed and blessed to be part of it all. For all this, I give thanks and praise. Amen!