Longing for intimacy in our relationship with God
Wieslawa Lewandowska talks to Fr Dariusz Cichor, a member of the Pauline Order, guide of the Warsaw Walking Pilgrimage, about the meaning of Christian pilgrimages.
Fatigue creates favourable conditions for deep prayer. In this aura of prayer and the fatigue God comes to man and shows him what is most important; he exposes all superficiality.
Wieslawa Lewandowska: - We are living at the beginning of the 21st century, the time of a big rush of events, and here, in the middle of Poland, in hot weather or in rain, huge crowds of people cover hundreds of kilometres, they walk slowly, reflecting on their lives, to reach the shrine and stand in front of the Miraculous Picture. Can we say that pilgrimages express one of the oldest and permanent religious needs?
Fr Dariusz Cichor: - Certainly pilgrimages belong to the earliest ways of human behaviour; in the very beginning they expressed the inner need to move, to find food, other people or something unknown. Today we call this search for holy places, connected with some deity's revelation and intervention, the natural religiosity of human being. Felling anxious, being aware that the surrounding world was overwhelming, people intuitively went towards the highest mountain. They imagined a mountain to be the dwelling place of some almighty deity. They built altars there and erected sanctuaries. Every religion has holy places, connected with the revelation and intervention of the deity, which have drawn crowds of pilgrims who seek help there.
- And this is the essence of pilgrimages in Christianity?
- Not quite. Christianity, like Judaism, from which it was born, does not originate from people's search but from the very revelation of God. It was not the people who found God on the mountain but God revealed himself to the chosen nation. When the Samaritan woman asked Jesus on which mountain people should worship God, whether in Samaria, on Mount Garizim, he answered that 'the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem' because God wants to be worshipped 'in Spirit and truth.' It means that the Christians' worship is not visible to the world since people worship God with all their lives in accordance with the Gospel.
- Does that mean that the early Christians did not have the need and obligation to make pilgrimages?
- That's right. However, they made pilgrimages because of their natural bonds with Judaism. The people of the Old Testament walked to places connected with God's revelation. They built altars there, marking the presence of God who came to people at that very place. And people walked to those places to be close to God, close in almost physical sense...Christians continued pilgrimages. The Holy Family went to Jerusalem every year. Furthermore, early Christians did not have any temples, any sacral areas because they believed that the whole world was sanctified by the presence of Jesus Christ... The community celebrated the Eucharist wherever they could gather.
- So Christianity does not need customary, traditional pilgrimages to 'the mountain'. They fail to express its deepest essence?
- Pilgrimages are needed, and with time it occurred how much we needed them. The first sanctuaries of local martyrs appeared as early as in the times of Constantine (in the 4th century). The young Church worshipped those places of martyrdom and people made pilgrimages to them believing that even the bones of the saints were full of the Holy Spirit. People walked to draw the Spirit from the lives and attitudes of the heroes-martyrs and they counted for their intercessions.
- So they meant a concrete interest and not only worship?
- Well, they did... And soon, after Constantine the Great, when the Church developed some Fathers of the Church had doubts whether people could make such pilgrimages.
- What were their accusations?
- In those times pilgrimages to the Holy Land, to the places connected with the life of Christ and the Mother of God, were very popular. People connected those pilgrimages with visiting the hermits who settled in the Holy Land, Egypt and Syria. Some Fathers of the Church acted against those pilgrimages since they originated from the natural religiosity.
- And they contradicted the very essence of Christianity that the whole world is God's temple, that one can meet God in all the places where even the smallest Christian community meets?
- And even more! Then people firmed believed that the very life of Christians was the holy land, that God revealed himself in every human life through his Word and concrete events, that God reveals himself in the sacraments of the Church, that one does not have to look for him in distant places... And the area of the earthy existence of every man is exactly this holy land.
- So actually pilgrimages could have disappeared if the discussions of theologians had followed a different course ...
- It could have been so but for the strong biblical background of the meaning of pilgrimages. Since for the life of me, our modern pilgrimages remind us of the biblical exodus of Abraham who left everything to follow God, to listen to him. It reminds us of the Israelites' exodus in the desert... Today, man becomes susceptible to hearing God in the conditions and circumstances that are unfavourable to human perception, in hunger, fatigue, rain and uncomfortable accommodation.
- Oh, you are colouring the story!
- I know that from my own experiences. And I think it can be justified by what God made for Israel - he led them to the desert to speak to their hearts so that when people entered the Promised Land they would not be a group of nomads, wild people, but would be a new nation, people of the covenant with God. And if we make pilgrimages to Jasna Gora or other shrines we want to enter more easily into a covenant with God on this demanding way. If we can see elements of the natural religiosity in modern pilgrimages this is a challenge for the shepherds to proclaim Christ's teaching with zeal. And a pilgrimage can be an excellent occasion to make deep reflection on God's word.
- Why are Marian pilgrimages prevailing ones today? And this is not only true in Poland.
- Pilgrimages to the places connected with the icons of the Mother of God are front-runners in the pilgrims' movement. Certainly, the reason is that there are many miraculous pictures that are worshipped in local traditions and which are connected with extraordinary events. But we can witness the creation of new centres of cult, for example the grave of Fr Pio, the grave of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, the forgotten grave of Mary Magdalene in southern France where the Pauline Fathers are trying to organise worship in Spirit and in truth... We should not forget that today, like in ancient Christianity, we have pilgrimages to the graves of contemporary saints, pilgrimages to the Divine Mercy Shrine in Lagiewniki, to the grave of Sr Faustina.
- With time, especially in difficult periods, the Christian world developed many local sanctuaries, the 'mountains' that Christians began climbing...
- You can see that Lord God respects these early natural needs... The history of each shrine shows various motifs why it was spontaneously created as a holy place - both in the Christian East and West. And perhaps it was somewhat forgotten that Christianity means worshipping God with your life, humility, daily cross... that each of us is called to maintain intimate contacts with God... that the point is that the intimacy should be so deep that nobody knows about my personal relationship with Lord God, only God and I.
- Well, I want to be a teaser and dare to say that mass pilgrimages contradict this intimate relationship with God and they are rather only demonstrations of faith?
- Not so much demonstrations and not so much contradictions! The Jews did not go individually through the desert, they went as the chosen people, went as a community, a gathering. A pilgrimage does not absolutely contradict the depth of the spiritual worship but on the contrary: is a manifestation of the Church, of the community that pilgriming through the world offers their gifts of prayer to God. Since the contemporary world needs such a manifestation of the pilgriming Church very much.
- Every pilgrimage aims at reaching some place of worship so that people can pray there. What is the meaning of making a long and difficult pilgrimage if we can go to Czestochowa by car or train?
- The aim is to reach Jasna Gora and pray in front of the Miraculous Picture of the Black Madonna. And these nine days on the move, spent in prayer, examination of conscience, reflections on your life, are the best possible preparation to deep prayer in the sanctuary. The most important task of the organisers of any pilgrimage is that the word of God should accompany pilgrims at every moment, so that the word of God reaches every pilgrim.
- Are pilgrimages successful when people are tired, hungry, thirsty and their feet are covered in blisters...
- Well - they can think about the hardships on the way to the Promised Land... It is the fatigue that creates favourable conditions for deep prayer. In this aura of prayer and the fatigue God comes to man and shows him what is most important; he exposes all superficiality. I experienced that when during the last pilgrimage I told pilgrims that a Christian is the one, who gets up in the morning, opens his eyes and immediately begins blessing God for the new day... And when I woke up the next day my first thought was to use the bathroom before other people... Lord God constantly examines people's hearts and during a pilgrimage he helps us to see that in fatigue, in hard circumstances, we do not show love for our neighbours, that we want to feel comfortable... During a pilgrimage Lord God lets us see many things, which we do not notice every day.