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By Eric A. Clayton

And so, our Lenten pilgrimage begins. What images come to mind?

Some years ago, my wife and I walked the last portion of the Camino de Santiago, a very literal, tactile pilgrimage through the northwest of Spain. We arrived on the Iberian Peninsula with new wool socks, hiking sticks, lots of sunscreen and a whole kit full of things to employ when we inevitably found our feet riddled with blisters. We purchased the traditional scallop shells — the moniker of the pilgrim — and attached one to each of our backpacks. Then we set out.

Our journey took us through small towns and big cities, across farmland and rolling hills, past tiny churches and enormous cathedrals. And along the way we met people. As we walked, we talked. As we ate, we talked. As we scouted out our next stops, we talked.

It wasn’t uncommon to ask these strangers, or to be asked ourselves, why they — why we — had ventured to a foreign place simply to castigate our feet and burn through our bandages. Everyone had — has — a different answer.

There was one night at dinner where, in a conversation that took place across several tables, we learned that two women had embarked on the journey to honor their deceased husbands. Others were avid hikers; others still were just in it for the adventure. What better way to see northern Spain, some said.

My wife and I fancy ourselves adventurers; we, too, like to hike. We certainly enjoy northern Spain. But for us, for our part and our answer, the pilgrimage was inherently spiritual — a religious experience. It flowed from our understanding of God and toward that same God who was beckoning us forward.

We didn’t say all of that exactly when asked, but our answer to those strangers still glistened with our own journey of faith and spirituality, glimpses of Christ just over our shoulder.

And now we come once more to Ash Wednesday. The readings invite us into some creative tension; the liturgy is a paradox of sorts. Paul calls us “ambassadors of Christ,” while Jesus himself cautions us against letting “our left hand know what [our] right is doing.” In the Old Testament, Joel is quite clear that we are to “rend [our] hearts, not [our] garments,” and yet we leave Mass with dust and dirt marking our foreheads.

We are charged with clearly and confidently embodying Christ to the world, and yet we must do so in a way that is quiet, humble and unassuming. The inner work God calls us to may show no outward manifestation.

I wonder, then, what sort of disposition we should cultivate as we begin these 40 or so days of Lenten pilgrimage. We may think of an “ambassador” as one who is quite loud, quite vocal about his or her purpose. Can we be ambassadors for Christ in a way that instead demonstrates humility?

Ashes adorning our forehead would seem to fly in the face of Jesus’ instruction to “anoint [our] head and wash [our] face so that [we] may not appear to be fasting.” But perhaps our rent hearts so bubble over with joy that our ashes, rather than suggest sadness and sorrow, inspire in ourselves and others a spiritual desire for new life?

In the end, I return to this image of pilgrimage, of my wife and I progressing slowly, steadily across Spain. We didn’t grab anyone by their collars and shout to them about Jesus. Instead, as the moment invited, we drew near to our fellow pilgrims, each with their own holy purpose. We passed in and out of one another’s journeys and shared what we could of ourselves and our stories.

And for us and our stories, Christ is inexorably tied up in each chapter. So, as we begin this year’s Lenten pilgrimage, as we traverse the various landscapes of the Gospel, let us draw near to one another’s stories. We don’t need to force Christ into the telling; Christ is already there, waiting. Let us instead seek Christ out — in the people and the places we encounter.

And in our very selves.

This reflection is the first of our Lenten series, “Traveling the Landscapes of Lent.” If you want to receive subsequent reflections in your inbox on Monday mornings, you can sign up here.

a person smiling for the cameraEric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith and My Life with the Jedi: The Spirituality of Star Wars, an exploration of Star Wars through the lens of Ignatian spirituality (Loyola Press). He is the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America MagazineNational Catholic ReporterU.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, Small Wonders Magazine and more.  Sign up for his Substack “Story Scraps” here. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat.