From: Pilgrim Road
Imagine that we are in a church in Le Puy, up in the rugged central mountains of medieval France. The group has been gathering for an hour already and there is a growing feeling of festivity and excitement in the air; we are about to set off on a pilgrimage to the great shrine of Saint James, Santiago de Compostela, in northwest Spain. Many of the people in the church are carrying the walking stick and drinking gourd that mark them as pilgrims; some are wearing a scallop shell, the traditional badge of pilgrims on the difficult and dangerous 800-mile journey over mountains and across desolate uplands to Compostela. There is a spirit of joyful anticipation as we greet friends and check our supplies while waiting for the priest to send us on our way with some words of spiritual advice and encouragement, and, of course, a blessing.
Ash Wednesday and the three days following it were added to the six weeks of Lent in order to reach the symbolic number of forty days of fast and penitence (Sundays were not counted because Christians never fast on Sunday). These four days added on before the first Sunday of Lent now make a sort of “porch,” a place for us modern Lenten pilgrims to gather and prepare ourselves for the journey to Easter.
The meditations for these first four days start us on our way with some wise advice for the road. The first meditation, “Canterbury,” set in the famous pilgrimage city, sends us off with some encouraging words about staying the course and not turning back once we’ve begun. “The Channel Tunnel” reminds us that Lent is not a project to be accomplished but rather an opportunity to let God act in us. Next, “La Paz” introduces the important Lenten practice of introspection that we will explore further during the entire first week of Lent. Finally, “Rue de Sèvres” challenges us to make our repentance real by helping others through almsgiving and other works of charity.
The priest calls for quiet. We all fall silent and bow our heads as he extends his hands over our little group and reads from a beautiful old missal this blessing written about the year 1200:
The almighty and everlasting God, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, dispose your journey according to his good pleasure, send his angel Raphael to keep you in this your pilgrimage, and both conduct you in peace on your way to the place where you would be, and bring you back again on your return to us in safety.
In a loud voice he chants in Latin, “Procedamus in pace!” (Let us proceed in peace.)
“In nomine Domini. Amen!” we all sing in response. (In the name of the Lord. Amen!)
We all turn and walk silently toward the church door. We are on our way.