Photo: H.S. Bender (front, center) enters the Grossmünster in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1952.
Photo from the Mennonite archives in North Newton, Kan.; it appeared in a photo essay on Mennonite World Conference in Mennonite Life (June 1978)
My life of faith began in a setting where we sang, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through.” When I was a child, on one grand occasion, my siblings and others in our congregation acted out a children’s edition of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. This story reflected what I was learning elsewhere: The Celestial City was our goal, but we, like “Little Christian,” had to find our way, dropping our sin-burdens at the cross, then, struggling through the Slough of Despond, avoiding Vanity Fair with the help of Faithful and wrestling the fierce Apollyon, might reach heaven in the end.
As an adult, I was introduced to the language of the “pilgrimage story” for what had been, when I was younger, my “testimony.” Decades later, as a graduate student, I encountered the complex historical and anthropological questions about early Christian pilgrimage. While neither Greek nor Latin has a word for “pilgrimage,” the story of Israel begins with God’s command to go to the land God will show (Genesis 12:1). Later, Moses demands that Pharaoh let the people go to “celebrate a festival” (Exodus 5:1). Early Christians throughout the Mediterranean world traveled to visit the places where Jesus had walked. I learned about a graffito of a ship engraved on the wall of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem with the words “Domine ivimus” (Lord, we went). This Latin inscription adds a physical image to the lively journal of the Spanish pilgrim Egeria, sent to her sisters during her pilgrimage to Egypt and Jerusalem. She powerfully and repeatedly describes ways she visited and prayed at the places where Jesus and other biblical heroes lived.
During my years working within Mennonite World Conference, I traveled around the world. While visiting the Anabaptist cave in Switzerland and the first Brethren in Christ mission station in southern Africa, I began to see pilgrimage as more about visiting people than places. Still, the MWC record is full of descriptions, for example, of leaving a worship service in the Grossmünster in Zurich in 1952 and walking to the place where Felix Manz was martyred.
During that same period, my sister M.J. Heisey and I did research on a children’s colony sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee in southern France during and after World War II. In the village of Lavercantière, we visited the medieval chateau MCC had rented to house children who were refugees from the violence. Near Lavercantière was the monastery of Rocamadour, a point on the pilgrimage route of the Camino de Santiago. Marie-José Vilard, our host, described a required school pilgrimage she made as a teenager up the 300 stone steps on her knees. While troubled by the coercion, I also desired a chance to go slower, to name my struggles of faith, to wait for a breath of the Spirit where faithful ancestors had walked.
But my travel slowed, then mostly stopped, when Paul Longacre, my husband, became ill. At first we were told he had only months to live, but his physical and cognitive decline stretched out over seven long and painful years. As his needs for care became more demanding, my dreams of undertaking a long-distance pilgrimage faded. The Slough of Despond and the struggle with Apollyon became daily or repeated experiences for me. When I was able, I cried out to God for help. I walked labyrinths, a way into pilgrimage the poor and burdened had long undertaken. I learned about the discipline of “intention,” both “willing” and “straining,” a word that better shaped our journey than “prayer request.”
Because Paul had always been an outdoorsman, I took up the almost daily process of pushing him around the campus of Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community in Harrisonburg, Va., where he began receiving care in 2015. Round and round. Sometimes it was just the two of us. Often family members or friends joined us. A men’s Sunday school class from our congregation, Community Mennonite Church, began meeting every Sunday at VMRC, bringing Paul to join them. They became the “Faithfuls” of our pilgrims’ progress. As Paul’s physical strength and cognitive ability faded, his gift for noticing remained strong—squirrels chasing each other around the tree, cows grazing in the pasture across the road, a few wild raspberries that could be gleaned along the woods-edge, a goldfinch bathing in the birdbath, the waxing moon.
One day in February, when the weather finally turned for the better and Paul was eager to get outside after being cooped in for too long, I decided to wheel him to where I work at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. EMS students had planned a celebratory ice cream social, and I knew he loved ice cream. I also knew what a long uphill path we were undertaking. We bundled up and traveled slowly—up one hill, resting, then up the next hill, four rises, till we reached the seminary building.
Students greeted us warmly, offering Paul serving after serving of ice cream. He beamed, the students were gracious and I was exhausted but happy. As the afternoon waned, I asked a student to help me wheel him back down the first and steepest hill, fearing that otherwise the wheelchair might get away from me. We headed home. I took a picture of Paul outside the chapel. He was chilled when we got back, exhausted but content.
Paul died unexpectedly a week later. Remembering him now among the communion of saints, I also wonder if our slow labyrinth-like circles around VMRC were a special form of pilgrimage. And that challenging voyage up the hill for food and fellowship might possibly be among the most profound pilgrimages I will ever undertake—full of patience, struggle, companionship, attention, sheer simplicity. And God’s presence, not as solution, but as gift.
Nancy R. Heisey is a member of Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va.
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