How to Go on a Pilgrimage Where You Never Enter a Church

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My daughter invited me to meet her in Kearney, Nebraska. We would observe the Sandhill cranes on their annual migration north. The cranes fly to Alaska and Siberia, up near the Artic Circle, where they summer. They stop in Nebraska, along the banks of the Platte River, some half million cranes, to feed on waste corn leftover from the harvest.  Each bird will gain twenty percent of its body weight in the Midwestern fields, food — and fat — for the journey.

We wake at four in the morning and dress in layers of wool and goose down before heading out into the darkness. We drive to a bird sanctuary, pilgrims in SUV’s and mini-vans. We hear the murmurings of the cranes in the distance. In the sweep of our headlights we see cows lying in the ditches beside the dirt road. We join the others, a flock of crane followers, a gaggle of bird gogglers, and wait for our guides.

When the guides arrive, they speak softly and move slowly. Theirs are the voices of those practiced in listening, theirs the movementsof those schooled in stillness. They tell us to follow them. They tell us to be quiet. They tell us to watch.

In the earliest days of the church, catechumens had no texts to study other than the lives of the Christians whose community they meant to join.

We walk without speaking to a wooden blind. Once inside, we have been told, we may not to leave until the birds are well on their way, hunting for food. There are open windows cut into the walls of the blind. It is cold and dark. It is astonishing: A whole group of Americans not talking, not checking e-mail, not plugged in to headphones. A whole group of Americans: Still.  Silent. Waiting. Watching. Listening. In the darkness.

We are so still, and the stillness is our purpose. We have come to witness, not to exchange names or travelers tales. We are here to witness the cranes as they fly at daybreak, and we are united in our intention.

We stand, sentries at the windows, peering into a night that slowly lifts and lightens into day until we can just make out the shapes of the gray cranes against the growing dawn.

We wait. No one can say for sure when the cranes will rise and take flight. It is beyond our control. It is beyond our ability to command. The birds are not on our timetable; we are on theirs.

We can startle the birds and force a panic with loud noises or the flash from a camera. We can destroy, but we can neither force nor create the graceful rising we have come to see.

And then some alteration in the air, some change in the light unseen by me, but sensed by the cranes, rouses them. They stir and assemble and begin to fly, forming and reforming their wide, wavering v’s. They sing as they ascend, and something in me lifts with them.

In the earliest days of the church, catechumens had no texts to study other than the lives of the Christians whose community they meant to join.  Formation in faith was formation in life: A catechumen would accompany a woman as she visited the sick, a man as he brought food to orphans and widows. Catechumens learned to live as Christians by doing what Christians do, the works of mercy, the work of God. It is a posture, a walk, a way of speaking and acting shaped by the living waters of baptism.

Parishes will soon begin their RCIA programs. Seekers will be invited to talks and discussions and video presentations. The inquirers will be given books and Bible study guides. Leaders will explain “what we do at Mass.”

Take the money you budget for these program materials and charter a bus for Nebraska next March. Borrow warm clothes for everyone and reserve spaces in the blinds at the Rowe Audubon Bird Sanctuary outside Kearney. Everyone, teacher and student alike, will learn, and learn again, what it means to stand before a mystery.

Learn how strangers can be knit into an assembly by a call that has drawn them from sleep, drawn them to a place where men and women catch glimpses of glory. Learn how the short walk to a blind can become a procession, made so by purposeful movement, and the accompanying sound of the cranes’ morning hymn.

Learn how silence and stillness might be, not just the rubric, the required response, but the only possible response, the only fully human response to the divine.

Learn what it is to wait for something or someone not ruled by our clocks and schedules, our demands.

When will it happen?

When it happens.

Just wait.  Just watch.  Just be there.