When our pastor announced the 7-mile pilgrimage from our home parish of Sts. Anne & Joachim Church in south Fargo to the Cathedral of St. Mary’s Downtown, I was all in.
Walking has become a favorite activity in the Salonen household, but I also love the idea of the spiritual quest. Too, I looked forward to passing through the holy door of mercy, set in place by the cathedral at the commission of Pope Francis.
But there’s more. Every time I’ve gone on a spiritual journey like this, something extraordinary happens. And I’ve learned to be open to the extraordinary to recognize it when it appears.
The evening we set off, July 13, rain was forecast the duration of our walk. And it did arrive, in gentle sprinkles that never became too daunting. Some of us agreed it was the perfect pilgrimage weather, preferred over 95-degree direct sun.
Our route took us through an historic residential area where character homes bedecked with bursting hydrangeas, and a wide array of other beautiful flowers and decorative yard details, beckoned.
We wound our way through the center of downtown, in time to observe vendors setting up their tents for the Downtown Fargo Street Fair, and clusters of Pokemon Go enthusiasts staring at their smartphones while meandering along other focused trails.
I looked for the extraordinary thing, and there were many indications that details of our walk were beyond ordinary, but I kept feeling that God had something else in mind, aside from pretty flowers and pathways.
It wasn’t long after we reached the Fargo Theatre that it happened — through the wondering glance of a young man, a stranger, walking in the opposite direction down Broadway.
As he stared at our long line of pilgrims, I spontaneously shouted, “Come on, join us!” Though I doubted he really would, before I could blink, he’d turned directions and slipped into our line.
At the cathedral, awaiting the rest of our group of over 100 journeyers, this young man began talking to another pilgrim, a cousin of mine. I grew curious. Where was he from? What had compelled him to join us?
Soon, I learned his name — I’ll call him L — and was shaking his hand. He seemed quietly intrigued with our rather out-of-the-ordinary quest. His kind eyes seemed to be searching with us.
As we all recited a written prayer together, L joined in, and as we began ascending the front steps of the cathedral, each of us dipping under the holy door constructed for this year of mercy, L stayed entwined with the crowd.
Kneeling in the pews, I couldn’t get my mind off L. Something had drawn him to join us, and I was beginning to feel it was less about my invitation and more about God’s. A divine thing seemed to be unfolding. I mused at God’s mysterious ways.
Sure, God was calling each of us, for we always need to be renewed in our relationship with him, and this journey was certainly about that. But it was also about L, the stranger who’d unobtrusively found his way among us, and now, couldn’t be told apart.
After some communal prayer and song inside the sanctuary, L and I visited briefly on the grounds in front of the church. It turned out that despite my drowned-rat look, L had recognized me, having read my column before. An inquisitive college student, he wanted to know why I write about faith.
I offered him a half-answer, but later, wished I’d said more. If given a redo, I’d tell him I do what I do because God has set my heart ablaze, and more than anything, I want others to discover this incredible love, too, and the peace that passes all understanding that comes with it.
I’d tell him it’s changed my life forever, altered the way I think about everything, and reordered how I live.
I don’t know if he will find his way to this column, but L, if you’re reading this, I want you to know that your willing heart inspired me that night, because I saw God’s hand in it.
I’m still convinced of what I told you — that the whole reason for our pilgrimage was for you. It was never so much about us, but God eyeing your wandering heart and desiring to draw you in close to his.
I’m still praying for you, L. Thank you for joining our rain-drenched group. We’re a bit of a motley crew, perhaps, not the most refined, but we’re so glad you felt, for a short time, welcomed.
God’s arms are expansive enough to hold the whole world, including you, L — especially you.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Aug. 6, 2016.]