The Iona Abbey is pictured in Scotland. (CNS/Jonathan Luxmoore)

Spiritual Vision

Seeing more clearly the power of a pilgrimage

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Bonnar (new)I have had to wear glasses since I was in the third grade. I knew something was wrong when I was having difficulty seeing things clearly from a distance. My parents made an appointment with the eye doctor for an exam, and it was determined that I was nearsighted. Thanks be to God, glasses corrected the problem, and I was able to go on with life. Future visits to the doctor over time resulted in tweaking the prescription. Like all those in middle age, I eventually had to surrender to the reality of progressive lenses. Nevertheless, I am so grateful that I can see.

Even with glasses, however, sometimes we can struggle to see, especially regarding our spiritual life. The work we expend in our spiritual life in large part is about coming to see as God wants us to see. Through committed prayer, the reception of the sacraments, spiritual reading and spiritual direction we seek to see, hoping to remove the blind spots and have the scales fall from our spiritual eyes. Another way we can come to see more clearly in our spiritual life is by going on pilgrimage.

Travel and distance can be eye-opening. A few months ago, in observance of the 80th anniversary of our diocese and in honor of our beloved patron, St. Columba, I led a 10-day pilgrimage to Scotland and Ireland. The highlight of the Scotland experience was taking two ferries to the island of Iona to celebrate holy Mass on St. Columba’s feast day in the abbey where he sought refuge. One of the things I came to see in that visit to the island, on which only 170 people reside, is that no one, except the monks of that time, knows where St. Columba is buried. Nevertheless, there are many people who make the long journey to this sacred space and view it as holy ground. As our tour guide mentioned, “Iona is a special and sacred place beyond words.” Indeed, one could not help but be caught up in the spirit of this saint. There is something to be said about walking where the saints walked and encountering others who have a devotion to a saint. I came to see that stories matter.

Shrine of Our Lady of Knock
Shrine of Our Lady of Knock. Shutterstock

The highlight of the Ireland experience was visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock in County Mayo and celebrating holy Mass on the solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The Blessed Mother appeared on this site in 1879 along with St. Joseph, St. John the Evangelist, angels and the Lamb of God. What is unique about this apparition is the fact there were no messages from the lips of the Blessed Mother. Mary was described as deep in prayer embracing silence. What I came to see for the benefit of my own spiritual journey is the importance of silence especially amid mystery. Sometimes, there are no words. All we can do is be silent and behold God’s grace. For us priests, given the demands of ministry, silence can be elusive. Nevertheless, it is so important.

There is one more thing I came to see in this shared journey. As I walked throughout the campus of the Knock shrine, I was repeatedly stopped by pilgrims asking for a blessing. While there were many petitions voiced to me, every person wanted a blessing. In this multitude of requests, I came to see ever more clearly the power and grace of the holy orders given to me. What is more, I came to see the expectation that in my life and ministry as a priest the faithful desire me to be a blessing bestowing again and again God’s favor. My sisters accompanied me on the trip and saw this same epiphany with their own eyes. They came to see something in their little brother that perhaps they saw before but not as clearly. It became evident to me that this experience was helping us all to see more clearly, even miles and miles away from home. It is good to be home. I brought back some souvenirs for family and friends but nothing more valuable than what I came to see. Thank God for the graces that come from being on pilgrimage.

BISHOP DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is bishop of the Diocese of Youngstown.

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