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By Eric A. Clayton

This past weekend, I started watching Netflix’s live-action adaptation of the much-beloved Nickelodeon cartoon series, “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” It’s a lot of fun.

If you’re unfamiliar with the premise, let me catch you up: The world of “Avatar” is comprised of four nations representing the four elements: fire, earth, air and water. Within each nation live “benders,” individuals who can manipulate (aka bend) their given element through mental discipline and physical prowess. Only the Avatar can bend all four elements, and by doing so, the Avatar maintains peace throughout the land.

Except, as we learn in the opening sequence of the show, this generation’s Avatar — a 12-year-old boy named Aang — finds himself trapped in a block of ice for a hundred years. With the Avatar neutralized, the Fire Nation wages war across the land, and whatever peace there was is lost.

You can imagine Aang’s confusion and dismay when he emerges from his frozen slumber, rescued by a waterbender named Katara and her brother, Sokka. Aang is trying to get his head around this new, violently fractured world and the harm inflicted upon it by the Fire Nation.

“I had friends in the Fire Nation,” Aang says sadly, the shock and sorrow evident in his voice. “I used to visit them.”

Katara shrugs, shakes her head. “No one visits other nations now,” she says. “We’re only friends with our own kind.”

Of course, Katara will soon disprove her own words as the adventure unfolds and our heroes travel from one nation to the next, making friends along the way.

Still. This bit of dialogue stood out to me. It makes a promise to us, the viewers, about what we can expect from the story. But more than that, it struck me because it offers a simple yet powerful path to peace: pilgrimage.

I know — no one used the word pilgrimage. But think about what that line of dialogue implies: Because walls — figurative and literal — have been erected between different people, different cultures and different places; seeds of hatred, distrust, and oppression have been allowed to flourish. In an era of violence and war, the very idea that you would travel to a place not your own, that you would be friends with people that are not your “kind,” is anathema.

Any heroic journey requires travel: physical, emotional and spiritual. But I wonder how often we think of our own travel as a form of peacebuilding. When we travel for work or go out of town on vacation or even pass through the airport or the train station, do we think of ourselves as emissaries of peace?

Probably not. We likely think of ourselves as “on a work trip” or “on vacation” or “too busy to bother with others.” That’s why the word pilgrimage is essential. Because pilgrims tend not only to their destination but to their journey — and to the people they pass along the way. A disposition of humility, of curiosity, of wonder and awe is essential for a pilgrim.

In this way, the pilgrim is prepared to encounter, to make room for newness, for the stranger, for a way of life that may be radically different from the one left at home. And when we welcome the stranger, when we recognize that we ourselves are strangers in others’ homes, we prepare our hearts for peace. We weave together threads of story that bind us together.

We see ourselves as members of God’s one family.

Spring break is nearly upon us: a time of travel, vacation and meeting new friends. As we go out into the world, let us do so with a disposition of curiosity and humility, pilgrims of peace.

This reflection is part of the award-winning weekly email series, “Now Discern This.” If you’d like to get reflections like this one directly in your inbox every Wednesday, 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.