Northeast Mississippians share journeys of faith
BY GALEN HOLLEY
TUPELO – Children know that journeys begin in the imagination. They know also that journeys involve faith – that the destination is essentially what they’ve imagined it to be; a good place, worthy of an effort.
A pilgrimage is a journey that begins in the religious imagination and, for the person of faith, traveling to sacred places is profoundly meaningful.
People throughout the area shared their stories about how setting out upon the pilgrim road has changed their lives.
Called by God
Connie DeFazio of St. James Catholic Church is a world-traveled pilgrim. She believes that, unlike a vacation, which can be arbitrary, people embark upon pilgrimages after being called by God.
“I felt strongly that God was calling me to see these places,” she said. In addition to sites where many believe that the Virgin Mary has appeared throughout Europe, DeFazio visited Israel in 2000. “If I felt that the urge to go was coming from me, I probably wouldn’t have gone,” she said.
The Rev. David Langerfeld, associate pastor at Harrisburg Baptist Church, agreed.
He has led groups of pilgrims through Israel and the Mediterranean for over 10 years. “The pilgrim responds to that inner pull – to see where those stories of faith took place,” he said.
DeFazio said that trust is an important virtue for the pilgrim. She has undertaken most of her pilgrimages alone. “I traveled with people who I’d never met,” she said. “I just trusted that God was leading me.”
She said that, particularly after 9/11, traveling the proverbial pilgrim roads through Europe and the Middle East became more problematic.
“I just had this intense trust that it would be all right,” she said.
DeFazio said that, unfortunately, people sometimes allow fear to prevent them from going.
Nancy Carter of Tupelo said that the call produces courage. Carter has traveled to the ancient city of Ephesus, as well as England and Israel. She saw her son baptized in the Jordan River in 1996.
In the early 90’s she and a group were gathered on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, watching a Jewish bah-mitzvah. In the distance, a thunderous explosion shattered the joy of music and dancing. “There were some Vietnam veterans in our group and they recognized the type of explosion,” she said. “It was pretty disturbing.”
Carter said that following the voice of God through pilgrimage has permeated her whole life. When she undertook her first pilgrimages she worshiped in a Pentecostal church. Now she’s a Baptist. “We’re all seeking that deeper relationship with the Lord,” she said.
Langerfeld said that pilgrimage and tourism are very different.
The tourist, he said, travels, camera in hand, to witness spectacular sights. “The world is full of breathtaking things,” he said, gesturing to photographs on the wall – the Sphinx, the ancient city of Petra in Jordan – taken during his journeys. “It’s appropriate to admire these things.”
Langerfeld said that the pilgrim, on the other hand, travels with a sacred text, a story in which he or she has a deep, living investment. He spoke of how tracing Jesus’ footsteps through Israel has helped him connect with the events in the Bible.
“The stories come alive, almost before your eyes,” he said.
DeFazio said that before her pilgrimages she’s met with others to pray, to read scriptural passages about the places they’d visit and to talk about what to expect.
According to Langerfeld, that expectation is another thing distinguishing the pilgrim from the casual traveler. He said that the pilgrim carries knowledge and a set of expectations that transform everyday objects.
For instance, Langerfeld’s fellow pilgrims once discovered him sitting on the stone steps, leading from the garden of Gethsemane to the house of Caiaphas, rubbing the blocks with his hand.
“These are the original, Roman steps,” Langerfeld told them, with tears in his eyes. “Jesus walked on these steps the night he was betrayed.”
Langerfeld also said that the pilgrim’s experience is more participatory than the tourist’s. Thus, he said, the sense of awe for the pilgrim is much deeper, more existential.
DeFazio said that a pilgrimage isn’t simply a pleasure cruise but usually entails some form of sacrifice. Sometimes, she said, it’s an onrush of unexpected emotion.
“When we were in Rome for the beatification of Mother Theresa, we just began to weep,” she said. DeFazio experienced other such moments in her journeys throughout Europe. “Several times I began to cry and couldn’t control it,” she said. “These places are powerful.”
Carter also said that the pilgrim sometimes sacrifices by accepting the disapproval of other believers. “Not everyone is enthusiastic about visiting these places,” she said. “They’re at a different place spiritually and don’t understand why that would be important to someone else.” However, she says that the pilgrimage shouldn’t let that discourage her.
Langerfeld is also convinced that, unlike the tourist, the faithful pilgrim cannot help but be changed by the pilgrimage.
“I’ve never once seen a person come back from the Holy Land and it not bare fruit in their lives,” he said. He believes that the pilgrimage moves a person into a new state of being alive in their faith. Thus, he said, the outer journey parallels the inner journey.
Carter said that seeing the places where the stories of her faith took place opened up new things in Bible as well as her prayer life. “Smelling the air, touching the stones, feeling the lap of water against the hull of the boat really opens your mind,” she said. “I came back hungry to immerse myself deeper in Scripture.”
DeFazio said that, traveling to holy sites, she has become more aware of the brotherhood of all Christians. “When you hear people praying in Hebrew, Arabic, German, Italian, French, Spanish – it’s really a moment of realization,” she said.
She added that, beyond the spiritual insights that she’s gained, she’s also grown as a global citizen. “My appreciation of other cultures and the diversity of God’s world has been terrific,” she said.
She said that, upon returning, trying to relate the deeply subjective experience of a pilgrimage is almost impossible.
“You have the pictures in the albums, but it’s never sufficient to express what you’ve experienced,” she said. “You can really never relate what it was like.”