Advent is just around the corner, and with its arrival comes the return of one of my favorite new traditions. No, it’s not setting up the Nativity scene with the kids, or hanging the Jesse tree — though I do love those things. I’m talking about the return of my favorite Advent and Christmas pilgrimage: “Oriens.”
If you were anywhere near me last Advent, you probably heard me talking about it. Father Joel Sember’s book journeying from the First Sunday of Advent to the feast of the Presentation was an unexpected and delightful gift that I cherished every evening throughout the season. It was structured enough to hold me accountable and help me know what I was getting into every day, but also offered enough flexibility to invite a daily encounter with Christ through meditation and journaling.
A little background: Father Joel Sember is a priest of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and an experienced pilgrimage leader. But he doesn’t lead just any type of pilgrimage: He is drawn to walking pilgrimages. He got his start walking the Camino in Spain when he was in seminary, and now he leads annual five-day walking pilgrimages to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wisconsin (the only Church-approved Marian apparition site in the United States).
“Walking pilgrimages are a much different experience from a bus pilgrimage,” Father Sember writes in the introduction of this year’s “Oriens” (OSV, $18.95). “When you ride a bus to a shrine, it’s mostly about the destination. Pilgrims look forward to a big ‘Aha!’ moment waiting for them when they arrive. Walking pilgrims, on the other hand, learn the joy of the journey.”
That is certainly the case for walking the “Oriens” pilgrimage during Advent and Christmas. Every day offers a chance to slow down in the busyness of the season and to contemplate where you are on the journey to Bethlehem and beyond. Father Sember offers a suggested calendar, including when to put up your Nativity scene, when to put up your Christmas tree and even when to light it! But the real joy of “Oriens” is found in the daily guidance he gives for a pilgrim’s prayer life. Each day offers a Scripture passage on which to meditate (printed right in the book for easy access), and questions for reflection and journaling. There’s also room right within the book to write down your thoughts, so by the end of your journey, you have a tangible reminder of how far you’ve come.
Father Sember also walks through the basics of lectio divina, imaginative prayer, relational prayer, helping the pilgrim develop tools to break open the word of God in new and meaningful ways. Each day, you are not only being guided in prayer but guided in a very specific way that educates and illuminates. This is especially helpful, as many of the Scripture passages this time of year are familiar and can be brought to life in new ways through different methods of prayer and contemplation.
One other note: One aspect I really appreciated during my pilgrimage last year was how, if I missed a day, it wasn’t dependent on moving forward. In fact, Father Sember says in the introduction of “Oriens” that if you miss a day, just keep moving forward and don’t look back. While I tried very hard to stick with the plan, some days, between work and kids, it just didn’t happen. Knowing that missing a day here and there wouldn’t destroy my journey as a whole was not only reassuring, but it kept me motivated to continue.
I’ve already got my copy of “Oriens” for this year, and I’m very much looking forward to beginning the journey. Join me?
Gretchen R. Crowe is editorial director for periodicals at OSV. Follow her on Twitter @GretchenOSV.