Brendan McManus SJ, Peter Scally SJ, Bart Baele SJ, and Bart Van Emmerik SJ are among a group of six Jesuits taking part in a 100km walking pilgrimage in County Mayo over 7 days. The pilgrimage is part of an interprovincial project involving groups of Jesuits from the provinces of Britain, Flanders, Ireland and The Netherlands. They started off their journey in the Belgian town of Heverlee, at a meeting of the four provinces and then we all divided up into different groups. During the pilgrimage the group took a break from walking to spend some time of reflection in Ballintubber Abbey, a beautiful 13th century abbey and important sacred Irish historical site which will celebrate its 800 year anniversary in 2016. The abbey is located on an old pilgrimage route to Croagh Patrick which people have travelled for hundreds of years. There, cognisant of the history and tradition of ancient pilgrimage, they reflected on their own experience.
Brendan McManus whose Camino journey spurred him to write the book Redemption Road, explained what the pilgrimage means to him. “The main thing is about walking, about getting in touch with yourself, about getting in touch with where God is, getting in touch with your experience, about how you’re finding this, about how your life is, how your vocation is – is the big thing we’ve been praying the last few days”. Brendan said that the inclement weather was helping the group in getting to know each other. “There’s nothing like walking in rain to get to know each other, being on the road all day long, you’re getting wet, your hot, you’re sweaty, you’re hungry, you’re irritable, but you really get to know each other.” He explained how times of solitude and community were both important aspects of the pilgrimage. “We try to give each other space during the day. In terms of walking we try to walk alone and that’s a time of prayer because I think you need some one on one time with God, and that’s the walking on your own. Then typically we would have Mass in the evening and then we would have a sharing; people would share first of all how they are, what’s happening for them, where are finding God; and then we try to come up with commonalities like ‘what am I noticing about what people are saying?’, and ‘what is common about what way God seems to be talking to us?’”.
Brendan says that pilgrimage is all about meeting your limits “You come to your limit of energy, you come to your limit of tolerance, you come to your limit of cold or heat, or whatever it is” he says, and that it really tests your freedom. “Can I roll with this? Can I find God in this difficult situation? That’s the value of it, that’s the test to people, it’s also what people get out of it. You start to realise things, to get an insight about ourselves, tou get an insight about how we can relate to other people. It’s a great leveller, we’re all at same level, we’re all just walkers on the road, we’re all in movement, we’ve all got sore feet and we’re all trying to get to get to the goal, kept trying to get sometimes getting to the end of the day is enough”. He went on to describe how prayer was at the heart of the pilgrimage. “Two days ago in Knock we all lit candles, and we were offering an intention for the walk. Some people said what their intention was, other people didn’t. I suspect some of those intentions were really important for people, all those desires that people have inside themselves, all those things that people are praying for, and what they’re asking to be transformed, I think is the key thing because that’s what happens on a walk, on a pilgrimage. God’s grace kicks in big time because you don’t have much else, you’re kind of unprotected, you’re vulnerable, you’re out on the road, and that’s a lovely thing, that’s a transforming thing.”
Peter Scally SJ is a Jesuit of the British Province. As a scholastic he spent time working in Ireland and helped to establish the prayer website Sacred Space. This experience is new for him however as he never did a pilgrimage in Ireland before but he was looking forward to this time and was really grateful for it. “When I was here in Ireland for five years I didn’t really take advantage of all the things, like I’ve never been up Croagh Patrick for instance, so it’s going to be my first time, so I’m looking forward to that; and to appreciate again the centuries of tradition and spirituality of these places. We’re only two days into it, but we’re getting into it and I’m enjoying it”. Peter went on to describe a wonderful example of Irish hospitality that the group encountered. “We had a wonderful time yesterday when we stopped at this farmhouse. We walked in and there were three families that lived in adjacent houses and they were all related. The six of us were welcomed, a pot of tea was made and then bread was produced and cake was produced. Gradually more and more people appeared, there must have been eighteen or twenty of us in the room by the end of it, all gathered around, bringing in stools and chairs, and catching up. Somebody had a copy of Brendan’s book which they wanted him to sign and then we had Mass together. Brendan said Mass for the wole group of us all gathered together in the kitchen of this house”.
Bart Baele SJ is a Jesuit of the Flanders Province. He previously climbed Croagh Patrick in his bare feet during his Novitiate. For him the most important element of pilgrimage is the element of unexpectancy. “In my ordainary life as a Jesuit I can arrange everything beforehand pilgrimage but here on a pilgrimage it is difficult. Sometimes there is rain, sometimes there is sunshine, sometimes you are meeting people you don’t expect. The fact that so many things happened without being able to prepare it, that makes it beautiful. That’s for me where the Holy Spirit is present, it means I have to give my life a little bit out of my own hands, and to give it to God”. Bart went on to explain how the pilgrimage was similar to the experiences of the first Jesuits. “Ignatius told the first Jesuits to go out and try and be open for new experiences, just be open to be aware of the Holy Spirit and God in everything even in the weather, even in the social context, even when you’re walking, when you have sore feet, when you’re feeling well or bad. That’s where God has a place to live and that’s the most beautiful thing”.
Bart Van Emmerik SJ, a Jesuit from the The Netherlands province was enjoying the pilgrimage despite the rain. He considered that an important part of the experience is to receive the things that you are presented with and to find God in them, receiving the them as God’s gift. He reflected on how he felt the pilgrimage was connecting him with the first Jesuits and all Jesuits. “It connects me with the first Jesuits, or even before becoming a Jesuit. I think we have a challenge to refound as four provinces the Society Of Jesus in our own context and we need the inspiration of the first generations of Jesuits and they were at the time in Rome when they couldn’t go to the Holy Land, they were in the Rome area as well, involved in all kinds of experiments and they had deliberations together”, he said. Bart considered that the experience of the first Jesuits was similar to the challenge facing them. ”I have the feeling these days that they are we are in the same kind of situation and that’s moving me. It connects me together with the six of us (in the group) and together with the other Jesuits doing the experiments and with all the Society, he said. ”In prayer we are connected with them who are doing a prayer week or who are visiting those in prison or whatever, and that is making us a Society, he concluded.