In the course of their two-year noviciate Jesuits have to face what they call an experiment. Here is an example: Irishman Niall Leahy and Christian Keeley from Britain were given this brief: “Walk together from Dublin to Corrymeela, Co. Antrim, and then back round to Galway. You may do the Lough Derg pilgrimage on the way if you can manage (they did). Take no money nor tent. You have five weeks to complete the task. Good bye.” Niall and Christian made their way from Dublin via Drogheda, Dundalk, Newry, Portadown, Belfast, Larne, Ballycastle, Portglenone, Cookstown, Omagh, Donegal Town, Sligo, Knock, Croagh Patrick, Louisburg and Connemara to Galway. Here is Niall’s reflection on the pilgrimage.
TREASURE BEYOND MEASURE
Are you adventurers?” This is how my fellow-pilgrim Christian and I were greeted by a troupe of giddy children after their father had unexpectedly invited us in for lunch. Walking the roads of Ireland for five weeks without money or a tent is certainly an adventure. It is out of the ordinary. At the same time it has become a rite of passage for any young man who has intrepidly knocked on the door of the Jesuits and asked to join their number. It turns out that not long after they take you in, they turf you out on the street again, to continue this risky business of knocking on doors.
Novices on pilgrimage have no option but to rely on the goodness of strangers for food and shelter. So setting out, the goal was simple. Survival! I basically trusted that God would provide for us, and God duly delivered. About two weeks into the pilgrimage, my sister Facebooked me and asked if we were finding adequate hospitality. I replied that we had found so much that we didn’t know what to do with it all. There were many moments when I couldn’t see where the next instalment of providence was coming from. But inevitably a door would open and willing hands would beckon you to come into the kitchen. The sweet relief we experienced in those moments tasted every bit as good as the food that was laid on the table. Protestants were also welcoming and provided both food and accommodation. One Presbyterian lady was close to tears as she eagerly crossed the divide and made a beautiful picnic lunch for us.
To call it a tale of survival just wouldn’t do justice to this pilgrimage. While we depended on our begging bowl for subsistence, we usually left each house with our cup overflowing. Beyond sharing their table, our hosts graciously allowed us to participate in the intimacy of their homes and lives. On the occasion of his birthday, despite feeling the absence of his twin brother, Christian was overcome with joy when a special family from Donegal Town pulled out all the stops to celebrate the day (and night!) with irrepressible warmth and enthusiasm. Not far downstream at the feet of Ben Bulben, we joined three generations of a family who had drawn themselves together for Mass and rosary in the front kitchen of their farm house. I had a sense of being cradled in their prayer, as young and old reached out in trust to their divine guest who had brought himself nearer than the mountain. I also want to mention hermitess and iconographer Susie Smith who lives in Ballintubber, Co. Mayo. A pilgrim in the truest sense of the word, she maintains a small cottage next to her hermitage as a place of retreat for those who are seeking time and space for prayer and reflection. Hearing some of her experiences of journeying with God was a source of consolation and reassurance – real food for the road.
Looking back on all that was given to us during the pilgrimage, all I can say is that the people we met instinctively understood that man does not live on bread alone. Food was never served up without friendliness, nor lodgings provided without warm welcome. I’m uncomfortable now when I think of the praise that people gave us along the way. After all, they were the ones who did the giving. We were carried along on the swell of their generosity. All we brought to the table was our faith and our poverty. Thankfully these were the very things that forced us to open our eyes for just long enough to see something beautiful, and what we saw was a treasure beyond measure: the persistent presence of goodness in our world. Please believe me when I tell you that it is not going to run out any time soon.