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On Pilgrimage and the Three Magi

Migrants Following Refugee Holy Family
Artist:  Angel Valdez

“So now tomorrow I start off again ‘on pilgrimage,’ for we have here no abiding city.”   [Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage, Eerdmans]

Over many decades, Dorothy Day’s column in The Catholic Worker was entitled “On Pilgrimage.” It seems that she viewed her whole life as a pilgrimage. In her columns and in her book, On Pilgrimage, she writes not only about daily occurrences at the Catholic Worker, but weaves into those narratives reflections on the all-important pilgrimage of growing in the spiritual life. In her account in that book, as she prepares to go back to New York after spending some time with her daughter and her family at their farm in West Virginia, she writes: “So now tomorrow I start off again ‘on pilgrimage,’ for we have here no abiding city.” The liturgy (the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, the calendar of the Saints) was at the heart of Dorothy’s pilgrimage.

Dorothy traveled often, in the United State and even in other countries, giving talks on the Catholic Worker movement, reaching out to many who would not become full-time Catholic Workers, but who might become fellow travelers along the way. She often rode the bus on her trips, along with other ordinary people. And she wrote about those trips in her “On Pilgrimage” column. She described the experience of riding the bus in Robert Coles’ book, A Spectacle Unto the World, “I love riding the bus; I can listen to people talking, learn what they are thinking and hoping to do.”

Dorothy often quoted St. Catherine of Siena: “All the way to heaven is heaven because He said, I am the Way.” In On Pilgrimage, Dorothy added to Catherine’s saying, writing of the Lord’s own walking journeys, “He was a carpenter and wandered the roadsides of Palestine and lived in the fields and plucked the grain as He wandered with His disciples.”

Peter Maurin, co-founder of the movement, also exemplifies the pilgrimage aspect of the Christian life. As Robert Coles wrote, “He was the wandering scholar, the man seeking a means of offering a lifetime’s accumulation of knowledge and experience to others. In him were to be found the European Catholic Church: he had been a Brother, and also part of an important lay effort. He was also the teacher, the restless social observer, the man who had not only ‘worked’ with the poor but been one of them.” A key moment in Peter’s pilgrimage was seeking and finding Dorothy Day and their founding of the CW movement.

Both Dorothy and Peter were seeking a way to live out their faith in the tradition of the Saints, the Fathers of the Church, and the Prophets of Israel. They were looking for answers for the important questions in life. For them, the daily pilgrimage of the Catholic Worker was one of simplicity, poverty, personalism, nonviolence, discipleship and the fourteen works of mercy, untrammeled by bureaucracy. As Coles put it, “From the start Peter Maurin had talked to Dorothy Day about hospices or houses of hospitality, places where ‘works of mercy’ could be offered and acknowledged in a person-to-person fashion, free of the faceless, bureaucratic procedures that govern the ‘welfare-state’ notion of what ought to be done for (and to) the poor. But like everything else that developed out of the Catholic Worker movement, there was no grand design, no elaborate program that envisioned x ‘centers’ located in y cities at z cost…” It was the simplicity of the Gospel, following Jesus, living out and sharing his message.”

The Feast of the Three Kings

The journey of the Magi to Bethlehem can be a guide for our faith journey, Sometimes people think of specific pilgrimages, for example, of going to Lourdes or perhaps walking the Camino of St. James. Those pilgrimages are a wonderful opportunity for reflection and prayer on life’s journey. One does not have to go long distances, however, to follow in the steps of the Magi, following the bright star, the light that Jesus brought to humanity.

In Pope Francis’ homily for Epiphany this year, he relates the journey of the Magi seeking the Child who has been born to the Christian journey, the faith pilgrimage for every person, leading to the encounter with the Lord.  The Magi follow the star: “Filled with yearning for the infinite, they scan the heavens, find themselves marveling at the brilliance of a star, and experience the quest for the transcendent that inspires the progress of civilizations and the tireless seeking of the human heart. The star left them with a question: Where is the child who has been born?”

Epiphany is a very special feast day. Many countries celebrate the day of the “Tres Reyes Magos” on January 6, with Mass and with gifts to celebrate the momentous occasion when the Magi came from afar to find the child Jesus.

Restless Questioning About Things That Matter

Pope Francis reminds us in his homily to listen to the restless questioning in our hearts, to ask the important questions about life and death, about transcendence. He suggests the question, “What hidden opportunities are present in the midst of my crises and sufferings?” When we are frustrated or even desolate about big questions, it helps to set out on a spiritual journey, with the star, the light of Jesus to guide us.

How could the Magi have known from afar about the child? Francis tells us that it was not from their own ideas: “The exciting adventure of these Wise Men from the East teaches us that faith is not born of our own merits, thoughts and theories. Rather, it is God’s gift. His grace helps us to shake off our apathy and opens our minds to ask the important questions in life.”

Many things, however sedate “our inner restlessness and suppress the important questions.” Francis mentions some of them: “New items to consume, empty promises of pleasure, non-stop media controversies, the idolatry of fitness…. “ As Pope Francis says, “We try to soothe our hearts with created comforts. If the Magi had done that, they would never have encountered the Lord.”

The Risk of Journeying

Our Holy Father reminds us that as we ask the important questions in life, we open ourselves up to both adventure and risk if we embrace the journey, seeking the face of God.

 As was true for the Magi, when we embark on a journey, we take risks, whether the spiritual journey or a physical journey. “The Magi in fact did not simply study the heavens and contemplate the light of the star; they set out on a journey full of risks, without safe roads and clear maps. They wanted to discover this King of the Jews, to learn where he was born, where they could find him. And so, they asked Herod, who in turn summoned the leaders of the people and the scribes who pore over the Scriptures. The Magi were on a journey…”

At Casa Juan Diego we meet people every day who have undertaken a great risk on a journey in their decision to leave their own land and search for a better way for themselves and their families.

Like the Magi, the migrants, the refugees who leave their own lands to try to go to a far-off place, begin without any assurance of safety on their journey, without a map, or even a clear idea of how to arrive at their destination. Today’s travelers face going through a dangerous jungle, wild animals, snakes, and then thieves, robbers, kidnappers, extortionists.

Pilgrims of the Absolute

Those who take seriously the lifetime pilgrimage to God in the tradition of the Magi sometimes have been called Pilgrims of the Absolute. There is actually a book about León Bloy entitled The Pilgrim of the Absolute.

Catherine Dougherty writes of the challenges of the faith journey of a person who is a pilgrim on the road of  life, seeking God, a pilgrim of the Absolute: “When you begin to be a pilgrim of the Absolute, you want to change everything around you. It takes long inner pilgrimages and much pain to find out that the first thing you have to change is yourself. Lots of people never get started, because they don’t even know that they are in an alien country, not their eternal home.”

Starts and Restarts.

Pope Francis emphasizes that the faith journey is a continuous one in constant dialogue with the Lord: ”Without attentive listening to his word, without perseverance, faith cannot grow. We need to become disciples, bringing everything to the Lord in prayer, seeking him in the events of our daily lives and in the faces of our brothers and sisters.”

It is encouraging to know that the pilgrimage is not accomplished in one big gesture, but filled with starts and restarts. We have to have the courage to begin anew on our journey, often after failures. Francis tells us that “From Abraham, who set out for an unknown land, to the Magi, who set out behind the star, faith has always been a journey, a pilgrimage, a history of starts and restarts.”

“Today, let us ask ourselves: Jesus, where are you calling me to go, and what are you asking of my life? What decisions are you inviting me to make for the sake of others?”

Worship God, Not Idols

In one of his Easy Essays, Peter Maurin recommended having “Easy Conversations About Things That Matter.” I quote here the ending reflection and challenge from the Epiphany homily to follow in the steps of the Magi to the deeper realities, the things that really matter in our lives, to the Father through Jesus and the Holy Spirit to guide us.

 “At the end of their long journey and tiring quest, the Magi entered the house, where ‘they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.’ This is what really matters: our restlessness, our questioning, our spiritual journeys and the practice of our faith must all converge in worship of the Lord…  Everything starts and ends there, because the purpose of everything is not to achieve a personal goal or to receive glory for ourselves, but to encounter God. “

“Today, the Lord calls us to imitate the Magi. Like the Magi, let us fall down and entrust ourselves to God in the wonder of worship. Let us worship God, not ourselves; let us worship God and not the false idols that seduce by the allure of prestige or power, or the allure of false news; let us love God and not bow down before passing things and evil thoughts, seductive yet hollow and empty.”

 “Brothers and sisters, let us open our hearts to restlessness, let us ask for the courage to continue our journey, and let us finish in worship! Let us not be afraid, for this is the path of the Magi, the path of all the saints throughout history: to welcome our restlessness, to set out and to worship… Then we will discover that a light shines even in the darkest nights: the light of Jesus, the radiant morning star, the sun of justice the merciful splendor of God, who loves every man and woman, and all the peoples of the earth.”


Houston Catholic Worker, January-March 2023, Vol. XLIII, No. 1.