“When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root…
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage.”
– Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales prologue
Chaucer was one of the first authors to write in English, for all to share, rather than in the languages of the learned. Dear to the heart of his countrymen was the practice of pilgrimage: making an outward journey to transform the heart.
In Chaucer’s day, Canterbury was the most beloved destination of pilgrims. Walking to the Canterbury Cathedral challenged pilgrims to travel both over distance and through time, witnessing God’s faithfulness from generation to generation. No one knows exactly how the Catholic faith first reached Britain, only that the Romans brought the faith with them a thousand years before Chaucer.  When the Romans withdrew in the 5th century the roots of the faith suffered drought. Pope Gregory the Great sent St Augustine to Canterbury at the close of the 6th century to tend the seeds that had been planted so long before. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, had been martyred in 1170 for witnessing to the Church’s calling to challenge the conscience of kings. Chaucer’s pilgrims from all walks of life were still seeking Canterbury 200 yrs later. We are now the pilgrim church and can join that holy fellowship by planning a journey of our own.
A pilgrimage requires careful preparation of body and heart. We have to discipline our muscles: pushing them until they ache and teaching our hearts to recognize our thirst for living water, infused by grace. If we plan to walk 20 km on a sunny day, we can exercise the cardinal virtues of prudence and fortitude by working up to that distance from shorter hikes. But we won’t get very far if we don’t learn to bring water enough to match the distance! We cannot will away our thirst the way we can push our muscles. Nor can we grow in theological virtue without acknowledging our poverty of spirit, asking God to infuse faith, hope and charity like a cool drink of water.
Building up the strength to cover a day’s walk is straightforward. How do we chart a path for our heart? If we include a regular examination of conscience and confession in our plan of life, we can develop a map for inward growth. When we prepare to pray an Act of Contrition, the Holy Spirit will show us where we have developed blisters resisting God’s path for us. Have all our choices honoured “God, who are all good and deserving of all my love”? Say we were able to push ourselves to reach the 20-km mark for the first time by practicing fortitude. But say, during the long slog we wrestled with memories of past failures, and despite meeting the goal of the day we gloomily predict we won’t be able to match that distance when it counts. Our aching hearts will prompt us to slake, to lessen, our thirst for God as we pray an Act of Hope, acknowledging that we “rely on (His) almighty power, infinite mercy and promises” to reach our destination. We can never quench that thirst while we are still pilgrims. On some stages of our pilgrimage we seem to have wings on our heels; sometimes we seem to get nothing but blisters. Each day’s steps of prayer, work and suffering can be offered to God in love even if they are scuffed by dragging feet or soggy with tears. Step by step, we will be drawing closer to Him.
How do we choose our destination? Traditionally, a pilgrim journeys to a saint’s shrine, both to ask their intercession and offer thanks for their help. In May we are invited to honour the Blessed Virgin Mary. We could plan to travel to a Marian church or statue dear to us while asking our Mother for grace to grow. The Diocese of Calgary is planning a Marian Shrine in Canmore and already encourages visitors. Or perhaps we can plan a hike or cycle while praying the Rosary or meditating on Scripture, alone or with a companion, closer to home. For example, Calgary’s Cathedral can be reached by the Elbow River pathway and has many beautiful stained-glass windows that help us ponder Mary’s maternal care.
If you aren’t sure where to begin in planning for growth and fruitfulness in the spiritual life, is there a priest or spiritual director with whom you can discuss your goals? Is there a travelling companion amongst your circle, someone who would welcome the invitation to set some time apart for prayer and meditation? Let April’s showers pierce the drought of winter to the root. Godspeed thee!
 Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales: Prologue; available from https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/ct-prolog-para.html; Internet; accessed 12 March 2018.
 Chaucer’s Canterbury tales was published in 1387
 “Act of Contrition,” Handbook of Prayers, ed. Rev. James Socias, (Woodridge, Illinois: Midwest Theological Forum, 6th Edition, 2005), 62.
 “Act of Hope,” Handbook of Prayers, 42.