Looking for what is sacred in our lives

Traditionally, summer provides the opportunity to look for what is sacred in our lives, a time for a pilgrimage, either individually or in a group. One of my best memories from the 1980s is of a weeklong 100-mile walking pilgrimage for vocations to the shrine of Chimayo, a sacred place in New Mexico.

Four groups of walkers — some as young as 10 and men and women in their 60s — converged on Chimayo from the north, south, east and west. Parishes provided food and lodging for pilgrims. We slept on the hard concrete or wooden floors of chapels and churches.

The days passed singing hymns, praying the rosary and other prayers. After the first day, blisters covered the feet of many pilgrims, but they endured the pain and persevered to the end that brought a joyous Mass celebrated by Archbishop Robert Sanchez. The sacrifice of the pilgrims inspired all.

More recently, I went with my friend, Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, N.M., to celebrate the feast of St. Joseph at a nearby village. After the Mass, the bishop and parish priests led musicians, dancers, old and young people and even a few people in wheelchairs through the village. A meal and other activities followed in the parish hall, a sacred occasion demonstrating the faith and unity of the community.

In my youth, growing up in rural northern New Mexico, every parish and even isolated chapels had their festival honoring the patron saint. I recall going several times on July 16 to Mass at a chapel near Mora for the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. There were food stands around the chapel and many activities, including horsemanship contests.

Many of these religious feasts are not celebrated anymore, but sacredness is everywhere. As the late Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote in a beautiful book on Hispanic and indigenous culture for the fifth centenary of the discovery of the Americas, the gifts of Spanish America include "not only Catholicism but a deep sense of the sacred, a recognition that the world is holy, which is probably the oldest and deepest certitude of the Amerindian world."

Summer is the time to look for those holy places where we can feel close to the divine. For many cultures, the mountaintop is one of them, but all of us have our favorite places, which envelop us in awe of God’s creation and in overwhelming peace. For my mother, it was the mountains and every time I visited her in Colorado, she would say: "Take me to the mountains."

Yet, there is one place we often overlook in our search for sacredness: the very center of our being. That is what Oliver Wendell Holmes referred to when he wrote: "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." Along the same vein, philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote: "Direct your eye inward and you will find a thousand regions of the mind yet undiscovered."

We do not need to travel to the distant mountains or far seashores to find God. All we have to do is look for him in stillness, solitude and meditation, dwelling not in the past or in the future but on the present. "In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime," Thoreau wrote. "But all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of the ages."

Sandoval is a columnist for Catholic News Service.

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