Pilgrims and Students

solitary hiker
I’m ready to start teaching again. Syllabi are set, with handouts and lectures ready to go for the first week. And my hiking shoes are nearly broken in. I don’t need them to walk the halls, but to climb mountains. One of the courses I’m teaching includes going on a field trip to Japan, where we will walk some of the historic 88-temple pilgrimage circuit on the mountainous island of Shikoku.

If past trips are any guide, I’ll find myself helping students clamber up ladders over cliffs and trying to decipher the Japanese characters for trail names to be sure we are on the right track. I will carry a stash of snacks for the hungry and motion sickness remedies to help cope with rough ferry rides. I’ll encourage the weary to lean on their staffs, push the enthusiastic to peer around the next corner, and hope they will do the same for me. Because we must keep moving.

As I organized my classes this year I realized that I’m always setting off on a pilgrimage with my students, even if most of the time we never leave campus. Every year there are new faces; every class offers a new intellectual mountain to climb. I carry remedies for difficulties, coach them through quantum mechanical ladder operators, and push them to look deeper into their research. As much as I delight in each class, they must keep moving. On to the next course, on to graduation.

It’s a potent reminder of my own status as a pilgrim. St. Ignatius Loyola warns us against becoming attached to the places through which we pass, no matter how delightful: “We must always remind ourselves that we are pilgrims until we arrive at our heavenly homeland, and we must not let our affections delay us in the roadside inns and lands through which we pass, otherwise we will forget our destination…” Each year, a new class arrives; the old, much-beloved one gone on to their next destination. Teaching trains me to have a pilgrim’s heart, one that loves and delights, and yet again and again, lets go.

I pinned a snippet from poet John O’Donohue’s “Blessing for One Who Holds Power” to my bulletin board, to remind me in the dark days of November to pray for wisdom not only for my students, but for myself, as we walk together through the coming academic year.

When the way is flat and dull in times of gray endurance,

May your imagination continue to evoke horizons.

When thirst burns in times of drought,

May you be blessed to find the wells.

May you have the wisdom to read time clearly

And know when the seed of change will flourish.

Listen to the poet reading the full poem below. Click through to listen if you’re receiving this via e-mail.

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Michelle Francl-Donnay
Michelle Francl-Donnay is the mother of two 20-something sons, a professor of chemistry, an adjunct scholar at the Vatican Observatory, and a regular contributor to Philadelphia Archdiocese’s CatholicPhilly.com, where she writes about the joys and struggles of trying to live a contemplative life in the midst of everyday chaos. Michelle blogs at Quantum Theology.


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