Pilgrimage (A Novel)

by Christine Sunderland Reviewed by Francis Etheredge


Ask, and it will be given you” (Mt 7: 7)


Historically, pilgrimage was to a place where heaven and earth met; and, indeed, a number of saints travelled in the hope of the will of God becoming clearer as to whether or not to enter a religious order or to found one. There are a variety of pilgrimages in our own time, whether from a single parish to a particular shrine or place of priestly formation. Or, as with the case with St. John Paul II, he began with the youth and families of the world what he had been doing as a Bishop in Krakow, Poland. Thus the youth of the world being called to meet St. John Paul II at a specific venue, as at Denver, Colorado, or families travelling to a destination to be together with other members of the Church in the presence of the universal shepherd, as at Milan or Dublin. Many people go on these pilgrimages to experience the providence of God and to have, as it were, a meeting with Jesus Christ in His word and His sacraments; and, hopefully, to come to a clearer understanding of a vocation, such as marriage, the priesthood, the religious life or some form of the single life.


The book, then, raises a number of questions about the value of a pilgrimage for married couples, whether as part of a large group or not, but certainly with the impulse of spiritual direction inspiring it; and, at the same time, there can be many unexpected signposts illuminating an answer to prayer that is perhaps more of a zigzag than we would like but, as St. Teresa of Avila is reputed to have said,


“The Lord writes straight with crooked lines”.


Thus pilgrimage can be a more specific journey, a priestly prescription of an itinerary for a hoped-for remedy for an unabating crisis, assisted more by a chain of contacts with people who knew the priest who set the wife and mother in motion, as it were, because of a specific need to resolve what has hitherto been unresolved. Thus it is with this book, a married couple are set in motion by a priest’s response to the woman’s haunting grief; and, therefore, once it is clear what has happened, the book travels a labyrinthine, even tiresome journey through restaurants and shrines, perhaps communicating that irrespective of the purpose and the relative comfort – the elements of prayer and perseverance are still necessary and, just as we can weary of eating if we have overeaten maybe, if we have no habit of prayer, pressing on from place to place can almost exhaust our spiritual response and make it seem that, for all the abundance of good food and wine, interiorly it is as if we are in a desert.


The accompanying husband, then, discovers a limit to his endurance of his wife’s desire to visit one more shrine, one more place that turns up, almost like the gift of a child to a bereaved mother, but then disappears again – but having left, somewhat mysteriously, a note to another destination, another chapel to visit, the husband’s patience wanes. So there is a kind of duality to the husband and wife. The husband hopes for a cure of his wife’s ever-present distress and engages, somewhat ambiguously with a very attractive psychotherapist, as a default hope that if the pilgrimage does not work then there is another, more familiar remedy in the wings ready and waiting; except, however, the challenge of the wife’s distress seems, almost inadvertently, to tempt the husband to find relief from his wife’s unrelieved angst. Remember Abraham and Sarah who, in seeking to fulfil the promise of God that they would have a child. even though ‘it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women’ (Gn 18: 11). After what seemed interminable waiting they decided on their own solution that Abraham would ‘go in to’ (Gn 16: 2) Sarah’s slave girl, Hagar, and having a child with her which, as the story unfolds, shows the impossibility of adultery being the solution to the intimate life of husband and wife.


Having allowed the reader to share, as it were, the husband’s impatience there are pivotal moments in which, what seems so likely to be an account of a worsening situation adds up, little by little, to have a number of twists and turns which reverse the tendency to see everything as the wife’s “condition”. Their lives open out, towards the end, into a kind of conversion, because the wife now looks back to what cannot be changed with a new acceptance of the past and looks forward to what has opened up new possibilities and promises, for both husband and wife, filling them with the hope of life-still-to-be-lived – not in some vague and general way but in the concrete opportunity which arose in the course on their pilgrimage.


Madeleine, the protagonist, says: “I would not have sought … [Christ] as I did, had I not suffered”.


The wider question, to which we all seek an answer, is precisely this: “What is the point of our suffering?” On the one hand, there can be an abandonment of hope and a deepening helplessness in front of what we are going through, like writhing in a swamp and, with each weaker struggle, we slip, inexorably, deeper into the mire. Or, on the other hand, there is a quest for meaning which is almost like walking on water, in that what should destroy our lives has, mysteriously, provided an impulse to begin a search which, as it were, answers an invitation to seek, literally, to live out of the hope of answering the question which drives us, distraught as we are, to find an answer. In a way, Christine Sunderland epitomizes the contrasting help of psychology and spirituality. In the dialogue between husband and wife there is, as it were, the articulation of the problem on the basis that we discover ourselves in the communication of what is within us; and, at the same time, we discover the limits of human communication. So the spiritual help of the priest shows that there is a way beyond human help, although it can start through the humanity of the help of the priest, which takes us to where a different kind of encounter begins: the encounter with the saving love of Jesus Christ who meets each one of us to the extent that we are willing to meet Him.

Maybe this is a particular choice for our times: to accept the “darkness of faith” and to seek without altogether knowing what will answer our question or, by contrast, to be destroyed by the uncertain quest. What makes the difference? Perhaps you find the answer in this first book of a trilogy on pilgrimage: pilgrimage, prayer and the sacraments of the Church. At the same time, however, in the mixture of Christian denominations, and a certain sense of a semi-permeable membrane there is, in the visiting of Rome, a wider implication of the husband and wife’s pilgrimage being a part of a wider dialogue, between Rome and the Anglican Communion, or individuals within it, especially in view of St. John Paul II’s called to see the ministry of Peter as a ministry of unity (cf. Ut Unum Sint, That They May all be One).

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