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Reflections From the 2023 Three Hearts Pilgrimage


Three Hearts Pilgrimage attendees walking 35 miles to Clear Creek Monastery

An Intentional Change of Circumstances


Though it has been nearly eight months since the 2023 Three Hearts Pilgrimage, I relive the memories and experiences I had almost daily. My most pressing message is one of deep gratitude to all the volunteers who made the pilgrimage possible for us.

I took a group of four of my previous students on the pilgrimage. We drove up from Lafayette, Louisiana in a loaned Tahoe and spent the night camping in Hot Springs National Park. The next day, we left the land of turnpikes and interstates and began to wind down two lane roads with sharp hills that can leave one’s stomach about an inch out of place. I had been to Clear Creek several times before; I knew we were getting close. Seeing a group of kilted boys standing next to the road confirmed this. As we approached the field for check-in, we caught sight of a couple de-badged school buses. It was then that I remembered some particular characteristics of the community that surrounds the monastery. The condition of the buses (old, well used, and functional) spoke to three specific qualities: material poverty, resourcefulness, and tenacity of will. I looked back at our Tahoe’s leather, chrome, and digital dashboard and turned off the air conditioning.
 

"Modern society tells us that suffering is evil and to be avoided at all costs. Despite our best attempts, we fall prey to this way of thinking."

 
The organization of the check-in process (and the whole pilgrimage) was flawless. By nature, I do not organize particularly well, so I was amazed at how practiced the system seemed. Volunteers ran to us with packets unique to our group, briefed us efficiently, and I proceeded to follow the well-marked route to the monastery to park while my group set up camp. Later that night, friends were greeted, whiskey was shared, and songs were sung. I felt at home. After eating some delicious hot soup, we lay down to sleep full of anticipation for the next day.


The walk, I must admit, was a more humbling experience than I would have liked. My feet and legs hurt, and after a beautiful noon Mass the gravel roads simply seemed endless. However, complaining or grumbling was not an option. Not one pilgrim lacked cheer, optimism, and encouragement– I certainly wasn’t about to become a complainer, especially around the barefoot pilgrims (those are a special breed). When my feet started to really hurt, and there were miles to go before camp, I fell into a cohort of Gregory the Great alumni. Our songs kept my spirits high and my feet moving. I reflected as we sang and walked: discomfort is purgative. Modern society tells us that suffering is evil and to be avoided at all costs. Despite our best attempts, we fall prey to this way of thinking. It often takes an intentional change of circumstances to restore a true Catholic perspective. I felt grateful that the pilgrims were allowed to experience actual discomfort; it’s an experience that few organized events nowadays will provide for.

All through the day, we struck up conversations with each other, encouraged each other, told stories, sung, and prayed. Later that night, I limped into camp, set up my tent, ate two bowls of gumbo, and laid down for an hour. It wasn’t time for sleep, though– I put on my sweater and walked to a bonfire already circled by friends. More song was in order. We got up early the next morning, but the volunteer breakfast crew must have had us beaten by hours. Thanks to them, I began the hike with a belly full of granola and apples and a thermos of coffee. The Lord scourges and then has mercy. As we walked, and spirits began to rise, I saw something that struck me. I alluded previously to the organization of the pilgrimage, and how flawlessly the thousands of pilgrims were provided for. One less than pleasant reality is the number of bathrooms required for thousands of people. Wherever we pilgrims were, dozens of portajohns were always available. I didn’t question it– no doubt the rental company, in my mind, had distributed them to these checkpoints beforehand. However, as we walked that morning, praying the rosary, I saw a thirty year old Silverado with a gooseneck trailer hauling a dozen of these restrooms down the road. I was moved– no rental companies here. This was obviously a local volunteer donating his resources and time to serve us in the least glamorous capacity. My feet moved more lightly, and my heart surged with gratitude for these people. The amount of volunteer effort throughout the pilgrimage was staggering. From the check-in process, to cooking, to loading and unloading our camping gear, to supporting us along the route, to moving bathrooms, to organizing and driving us pilgrims, to providing flowers for Mass, these men and women worked around the clock to give us the chance to suffer. They themselves did not get the opportunity to walk with us, to share our conversations, songs, and laughter, but certainly sacrificed much more than we did. With these men and women supporting us, I felt especially grateful for the opportunity to walk the pilgrimage. I extend my heartiest thanks to the volunteers who made this possible.


 

"We were not mimicking a pilgrimage, nor merely imagining the suffering and experience of pilgrims before– no, we were simply living this reality."

 
The final approach to the monastery was unforgettable. As we silently trudged, all footsore and weary, past fields and cows and gardens, listening to the tolling bells, I reflected on this living tradition. We were not mimicking a pilgrimage, nor merely imagining the suffering and experience of pilgrims before– no, we were simply living this reality. The unspoken sentiment was that we were doing this because it’s what Catholics do, not did. Much of our contemporary Catholic identity has to do with imagining days past, and trying to grossly imitate ancient or traditional practice. However, as we knelt in the chapel, and the schola’s beautiful chant echoed through the vast space, and I saw His Eminence processing towards the altar to begin the traditional liturgy, I gleaned a small part of what it must mean to be Catholic without our hideous sense of modern self-consciousness. We were not gathered here as a large dress-up party, or to reenact a make believe ceremony. The pain in our legs and the joy in our hearts were both too real to allow any of that cynical self-reservation peculiar to us moderns. In that moment, we were not “traditionalists” or even “counter-cultural,” we were simply Catholic– and that confirmation has buoyed my spirits many times through the past few months.

The oddest thing about the experience, in a way, is that it had to end, and soon enough I was back in the Tahoe headed home. In no time at all, I was going to be back on the familiar battlefield full of distractions, differing ideals and opinions, and the cacophony of headlines pertaining to all things secular and sacred. However, I wasn’t intimidated by that. I had a suspicion the fruits of this pilgrimage would be lasting, and I was right. Eight months after the pilgrimage, I continue to benefit spiritually from it, and the memory of those few days has been a great consolation to me.

There are a few months left before the pilgrimage begins again. I would like to thank the volunteers from last year again, and encourage them for this year: it is unlikely that they realize the enormity of the fruits of their efforts. I would like to thank personally the Robinson family for their unyielding efforts, the monks of Clear Creek Monastery for their hospitality, and the owners of the fields who so graciously allowed us room to camp. Finally, if you are thinking about joining the pilgrimage, I wholeheartedly encourage you to discern it with an open mind and heart. It might be the case that you feel called to join the Three Hearts Pilgrimage in 2024. If so, welcome aboard– I’ll see you there.


Peter Fay
Professor of Humanities and Latin,
John Paul the Great Academy


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