Part 6 in a series; see other parts here.
Augustine famously wrote that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. (Herbert has a poem about that, too.) Our lives consist of so many cordial peregrinations as we seek to love and be loved, and while saying that all our loves are best founded in God’s love is easy, the practicalities tend to be messier. Devout Jews pray twice daily to love God with all their heart, soul, and might; so serious and difficult is the task of love that only that much prayer will do. In prayer we are pilgrims for love—a destination we never quite seem to understand.
Praying that we’ll learn to love God as we should clearly matters, and yet most of the work happens as we struggle to love other people. When our hearts go out in pilgrimage to people, they go out in pilgrimage to God. That journey, by turns exhilarating and frustratingly mysterious, comes with generous opportunities to acquire the need for an indulgence before the end. Wrestling with our own existential quandaries before God proves far easier than figuring out how to pray for other people. We can be well at peace with God, reveling in spiritual harmony, and still have no idea how to pray for the friend suffering heartbreak, the young mother with cancer, or even just the child stirred from sleep by a nightmare. These prayers are pilgrimages because, as Job’s friends understood at first, but promptly forgot, the only thing that really matters when people we care about face hard times is heartfelt presence: being there.
Being there is natural and difficult all at the same time. The instinct to hug someone who is hurting exerts its pull, but ego and self-interest do as well, especially when the other person’s hurt starts dragging on and the initial burst of compassion begins to fade. That’s when the pilgrimage stops being nothing more than a pleasure tour through the Spanish countryside and becomes a spiritual journey. Dangers abound: we can get caught up in playing the part of a “good friend,” portraying selflessness with Oscar-worthy aplomb, or we can discover that Job’s friends, with their comforting (to them) pictures of a world that makes sense, turn out to be easier to ridicule than to avoid imitating. Being there is simple, but, like most forms of simplicity, attaining it can be deceptively difficult.
Our heart-pilgrimages are thus fundamentally ascetic, in that they exercise us toward simplicity—which makes prayer the very essence of the journey. Every pilgrim knows the thrill of seeing the destination come into view on the horizon, because for most of the walk the road has simply stretched out for miles that might as well, for all we can see, be endless. Sometimes all we can see are the next few steps, never knowing what lies around the next bend in the road. The day will come when we will know as we are known, both with God and with each other, but until then the questing of prayer is all we have. Prayer, again, never quite manages to stay solitary, which means that breaking bread with someone whose path we’ve crossed amounts to a particularly precious kind of prayer. The brief conversation, even just the smile in passing—these can be prayers, as well, capable of giving great comfort to restless hearts along the way.