Two days ago, one of my brother monks and I completed an 18-mile, eight-and-a-half-hour pilgrimage from St. Louis Abbey in the outskirts of St. Louis to the Shrine of St. Joseph downtown. We did it to mark the beginning of the Eucharistic Revival. We decided to make it a penitential pilgrimage for sins against the Holy Eucharist. We were joined by over a dozen college kids and even a few priory boys who hiked along singing Latin chants and waving the papal flag like they were storming the Bastille. They seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves.
But for me, it was hell.
Or rather, it was purgatory. The first two-thirds of the hike was fun. But at mile No. 12, my feet started to hurt. Then my back. Then my calves. Even my fingers started to hurt. (That part I can’t figure out. At no point on the pilgrimage did I walk on my hands. And yet, somehow, even my fingers hurt.) And at Mile 15, I completely lost track of time and space. I remember seeing the famed Gateway Arch in the distance and thinking, “It doesn’t look that far away, so we must be close.” But was it a mile? Three miles? Did we have an hour of hiking left, or was the shrine just around the corner?
And the worst of it was my brother’s friendly “advice,” shouted over his shoulder to me as he loped along at the front of the line: “Hey, next time, consider wearing two pairs of socks. … This is all a lot easier if you stretch first. … You know, that headache might go away if you hydrated ….”
The thing was, at a certain point, I quit caring. Believe me, I wanted it to end more than anything, but I was so delirious, one step just felt like the other. Five steps or five hundred steps? What did it matter? I was going to die anyway.
And that night, after it was all over, I started to wonder if perhaps that was how Isaiah felt when he looked into the future and saw Israel’s redemption on the horizon. The Messiah was coming. He knew it. He could see it. But his people had been waiting for so long, they must have been exhausted. And maybe some of them didn’t really care anymore; so that his exhortation might even have sounded a little trite: “Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths”(Mi 4:2).
“More climbing?” I can imagine them saying. “More walking?” As if the first 40 years in the desert didn’t count. Hadn’t they done enough of both?
Which may explain why so many missed the Messiah when he finally did show up — and that in spite of Jesus’ warning: “Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. … Be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (Mt 24:42, 44).
Oh well. Easy for us to look back and say, “They should have known.” But how often do we fail to recognize Christ in our midst?
Three years ago, I was giving an Advent retreat in Bremerton, Washington, when, right in the middle of one of my talks, the door at the back of the church slammed open, and a homeless man walked in. He walked straight down the center isle, plopped himself in the front row, kicked out his feet, and gestured for me to continue. So I smiled and picked up more-or-less where I’d left off. But just as I started to get back into the rhythm of my sermon, he let out an enormous yawn. And another. Finally, he stood up, turned around to the congregation and shouted “Booooring.” Then walked straight out again.
There was a bit of nervous laughter, and I started over. And the homeless guy didn’t come back. And, by and large, the retreat was a success. People came up to me afterward and thanked me. They said they had learned stuff — the usual nice things that people say. But that night, I suddenly woke up with this quote from Mother Teresa running through my head: “You will know Christ when you see him in the distressing disguise of the poor.”
And then it occurred to me: Jesus Christ had come to my Advent retreat — and had found it boring (as of course he would, since it was all stuff he already knew). And then it really hit me — I mean, the full force of the opportunity I had missed. Jesus had come to my talk! And I didn’t ask him to say a few words. I didn’t ask his advice. I didn’t even ask for his blessing. No, I had smiled politely and waited for him to leave. Which he did.
“You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (Rom 13:11).
It might come like a thief in the night. Or it might come like a screaming child. Or an annoying family member. Or a homeless person. But of this we can be certain: At an hour we do not expect, the Son of Man will come. So, in spite of our aching feet — and fingers — let us climb the Lord’s mountain. Let us climb it all the way to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.