Pilgrims’ progress

A group of Xavier College parents recently walked the Australian Ignatian Trail. Their journey through the Clare Valley followed in the footsteps of the first Jesuit presence in Australia in 1848.

 SHOWING THE WAY TO GOD 

By Michael Jones, Head of Ignatian Formation, Xavier College

Ignatian journeys are not just characterised by distance or time. At their heart is a judicious mix of discernment and understanding.

I recently experienced this first-hand. As a member of a group of current Xavier College parents who travelled to South Australia to walk from the town of Kapunda to Sevenhill, we covered a distance of approximately 80 kilometres. We traversed dedicated trails and meandering backroad tracks to thread our way through the beauty of the Clare Valley. Walking the Australian Ignatian Trail is a pilgrimage following in the footsteps of the first Jesuit-led party to arrive in Australia from Europe in late 1848.

We began on 23 July as a group of individuals not knowing each other, connected only by the school our children attended. Over the next six days, we developed a deep rapport based on shared experiences and in-depth conversations. Using the memoirs of St Ignatius of Loyola as our sacred text, we slowly developed a much deeper understanding of his own life.

The story of the very first Jesuits was fully encountered by our group of pilgrims, embracing our own life journey as well as that of St Ignatius. There were days filled with deep conversation, supportive and caring companionship and at other times, there was meaningful silence. We travelled long distances and encountered challenges along the way but each of us completed the journey with the support and encouragement of one another.

As the sun shone, we deepened our relationship with our fellow pilgrims, even as we embraced our own spirituality in a much more significant way. As one parent said, echoing the thoughts of others: “The gift of this pilgrimage was to give me time. Time to think, time to discuss with others, time to reflect and time to better understand myself.”

Along the way, we were blessed to have beautiful weather. With the sun shining on our backs and a gentle breeze to accompany us, the conditions were perfect, allowing us to soak in the beauty surrounding us. With fertile crops on either side and livestock as our companions, the long and winding tracks allowed time for solitude and reflection.

Photo courtesy of Michael Jones.

Many pilgrims took the opportunity to journal during the week, recording the movements of the heart. After a long day walking, we would gather in the late afternoon for a spiritual conversation. We reflected on the day, articulating the joyous moments from both perspectives – head and heart alike. After everyone had had a chance to share, the group was invited to pause for a few minutes to reflect on what resonated the most, as well as what was the most powerful in what had just been shared. The dialogue continued and these conversations were rich and deep.

Each evening concluded with a social gathering, often in front of a roaring fire. There was a well-deserved drink, a hearty meal, much laughter and more meaningful conversation before a good night’s sleep.

On the final day, the pilgrims walked into historic Sevenhill, the site chosen in 1851 as the Jesuits’ first abiding home in Australia and now an idyllic retreat centre. This was the perfect location to reflect on the graces we had received during our week on the Trail. The beauty of the vineyards allowed each of us to find places that encouraged solitude, rest and contemplation. The pilgrimage culminated with the Eucharist celebrated by Fr Iain Radvan SJ, one of the retreat directors based at Sevenhill.

One of the Xavier parents said: “This pilgrimage struck just the right balance between reflection, spirituality, companionship, connections and physicality. We gently challenged ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally as we explored and reflected on the pilgrimage of St Ignatius, the man who went on his own journey of self-discovery. Our guides helped us peel back the layers to reach the soul of the story and of ourselves. Our conversations deepened as our journey progressed, as did the strength of our new friendships. This pilgrimage was divine food for the soul, and I hope others are lucky enough to partake.”

Another pilgrim observed: “This was much more than ‘just a nice walk’ through idyllic countryside. This was a guided journey that was immersive, inclusive and a lot of fun. It provided the perfect opportunity to reflect, recharge and connect.”

In the words of another parent: “For me, it was watching the growth of my fellow pilgrims’ connection with their own spirituality and their connection with God. It was also a joy to watch their connections with each other grow. I also saw an appreciation and a realisation of the ethos of Xavier College and the experience their sons are having. This cemented for me the importance of involving parents, not only in their children’s academic education at a Jesuit school, but also involving them in experiences that help them understand the ethos of Jesuit schools.”

Australian Ignatian Trail

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Photos courtesy of Michael Jones.

The opportunity to challenge oneself physically and spiritually was cited by another pilgrim as a major takeaway. “This gave me time to think about things I sometimes put aside. Most importantly, to do this in a supportive and caring environment. I feel like I have connected with people who will be friends for life.”

The group’s support psyche was especially significant for another pilgrim. “It was an experience of encounter and faith that was appropriate to my age and stage. I had become reluctant to talk about my faith, even with fellow travellers, in the last 10 to 15 years, but this was a group where it was safe to think about these things and to express those thoughts.”

Finally, the week was summed up by one participant who said: “This was a true gift provided by the College that I would highly recommend.”

When we arrived at Sevenhill at the conclusion of the pilgrimage, we knew that physically and emotionally, our pilgrimage was complete. But there was another aspect to consider – spiritually, the journey had just begun.

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