Then he hears the voices.
It’s 2:00 a.m. The bars are closing, spewing their patrons onto the streets, and three drunken men are sauntering his way. Their voices grow louder as they get closer, and he begins to hear their words. They are shouting obscenities at the Catholic Church. Afraid, Lieser begins praying that he won’t be discovered. But as the voices continue to get louder and closer, Lieser begins to wonder: “Where’s God?”
The 67th paragraph of the Jesuit Constitution directs all Jesuit novices to do a month-long pilgrimage “without money… begging from door to door… to grow accustomed to discomfort in food and lodging.” The tradition is a lesson in trust that began with the order’s co-founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, whose own experience of pilgrimage transformed him from a warrior into a man of God.
In America, each of the nine provinces practices its own unique version of the pilgrimage, and none is closer to Ignatius’ original directive than that of the Wisconsin province. Novices are sent off with $35, a one-way bus ticket and an order to be home for dinner at 4:00 p.m., exactly 30 days later. The cash and the ticket get them only so far. The novices, most in their 20s, must rely on their faith, their wits and the generosity of others to make it through.
It’s an experience that frightens some and energizes others. But the lesson is always the same—personal vulnerability and complete trust in God. Lieser can bear witness.
“I was scared,” Lieser says, recalling his encounter with the drunken men in Portland. “That was the low point of my pilgrimage. I thought, why am I doing this? Where’s God? But it opened my eyes to the fact that a lot of people have to deal with this.”
Lieser, a 2003 graduate, is not alone. Several other Xavier alumni—Jeff Dorr, Julio Minsal-Ruiz, Ryan Masterson—have all wandered through city streets or rural villages on their way to taking their vows. All are now in the First Studies program of academic studies at Jesuit universities in the U.S.
And all are wiser for their experiences. Here are their stories:
Two days later, at 5:00 p.m., he checked into Spokane’s Union Gospel Mission, where he was required to take a breathalyzer test before being allowed to participate in his required evening chores and chapel. Then he was handed a bundle of pajamas and told to get in line for a group shower. Petrified, he thought of fleeing to the safety of the Jesuit residence at nearby Gonzaga University, but in deciding to stay, he met Chuck, a homeless man in a wheelchair who lost a foot to frostbite. Chuck wanted to visit the cathedral in downtown Spokane. With nothing on his agenda the next day, which began with a rude wake-up call at 5:00 a.m. and an order to leave the shelter, they took off, Lieser wheeling Chuck the two miles to the cathedral and back.
While there, Lieser got permission from the priest to speak at the morning Mass. His talk focused on his pilgrimage and so captivated the congregation that many waited in line 40 minutes to speak with him afterward. He received invitations of places to stay, money, a rosary and a small diamond ring to keep him safe. It’s inscribed “In Christ Always.”
The gifts made it difficult for Lieser to stick to his goal “to encounter discomfort materially and to learn to trust in God’s will.” In planning his journey with his spiritual director, Lieser chose to challenge himself by experiencing homelessness and poverty. He would stay in homeless shelters in every city on his journey, but he would not ignore God’s generosity from the people he met.
“In every city, I met people who took me out of the shelters and gave me food and offered me money,” he says. “I ended up making over $2,500 from people’s generosity. One lady bought me a plane ticket.”
From Spokane, Lieser traveled to Portland, Boise, Denver, Chicago and Cincinnati before heading home to Detroit, using the money people gave him to pay for bus tickets and an Amtrak train trip to Chicago. In Portland, he visited his cousin, a Catholic priest, and worked at the parish in exchange for a few nights’ stay. People he met at a church in Boise practically fought over the chance to take him in. And in Denver, he spent the night at a shelter that did not screen for alcohol or drug use with people who were “high, drunk and fighting.” Frightened, he moved to a cheap, dirty hostel for a few days and then to the Jesuits’ Regis University to rest up before moving on.
In Chicago he visited a Jesuit community where he lived for six months before joining the order. He gladly helped with mowing,
painting and in the soup kitchen in exchange for three nights on the rectory floor. And finally in Cincinnati, he came full circle with the place where his discerning about becoming a Jesuit began, when he was a student at Xavier and an employee of Chiquita. He stayed at the Drop Inn Center shelter in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, visited his brother, gave away the rest of his money and shot back up the interstate to Detroit.
It was his experience in Portland, however, that sticks with him as the most traumatic and transformative. Finding every shelter already full, he went to the cathedral and pounded on the door. When no one answered, it dawned on him that he would have to sleep outside.
He didn’t get a wink of sleep, he says. But as he waited on the ground, wondering what would happen next, he got a glimpse of what life’s like for people who are always homeless and scared. It met a goal of his pilgrimage: “to be in solidarity with the poor and experience poverty but not to ignore God’s generosity… and his care will sustain you.”
The waterfall was a consolation, a gift in the middle of a journey into the unknown. Ruiz and two other Jesuit novices were stumbling their way through a forest in the western Dominican Republic, taking the advice of local villages that it was a shortcut to a nearby town. The waterfall offered them a shower, a drink and a chance to regroup, but they were not quite sure of the path beyond.
“That’s what pilgrimage is,” he says. “An experience of bare, almost nakedness of humanity without technology or big-city commercialism. All of that is left behind and all of a sudden all you have before you is a waterfall, trees, a mango in your hand and a path before you.”
The companions discussed going back to the main dirt road. Though long, it was guaranteed to get them to Río Limpio and the end of their 30-day pilgrimage. But no, they decided, they would trust the villagers. So they followed the path away from the waterfall, up and down hills, catching glimpses of Río Limpio in the distance.
After awhile, however, they didn’t see the village anymore, just mountains. They began to worry. It was late, they were in thick woods, and giant thunderheads were looming. Suddenly the mountains boomed. Lightning struck. Thunder cracked. The rain turned the path into a slippery slurry. At a point of confusion, fear and near panic, the young Jesuits began emptying their packs to lighten their loads. Finally, the path just stopped. They were stranded alone at the top of a mountain in the middle of a rain-drenched forest and had no idea where to go.
Thirty days earlier, their journey had begun with a simple admonition from their novice director to put everything they had in the hands of God and surrender themselves to the experience they were about to face. They were driven from the novitiate in Santiago and dropped off in the town of Dajabon on the Haitian border. From there they fanned out in groups of three along dirt and gravel roads to various collections of villages. Each novice then peeled off to stay a week in a different village.
They carried no money or cell phones, just a few clothes, a water bottle, a prayer book and a letter of introduction from the novitiate, which proved unnecessary as the people were long familiar with the Jesuit practice of pilgrimage and welcomed the wanderers. Ruiz found just walking into a town could set off an argument over whose house he stayed in, where he ate dinner and how he spent his days.
“Many times the poorest people in the poorest towns were often the people who were the most generous,” Ruiz says. “They would move mountains to make things appear, like putting food on the table.”
Ruiz approached each community with an offer to work. “Our experience was to work alongside them and experience the work of the rural farmer,” he says. But for Ruiz, who grew up in Miami and graduated in 2009 with psychology and philosophy degrees, milking cows and plowing fields involved steep learning curves. “It was very humbling.”
He stayed in homes of simple construction—cement block with zinc metal roofs. Cooking took place outdoors around an open fire pit under a roof of cooling palm branches. The women cooked rice and beans in a big pot with a single spoon. Sometimes they had meat. Always they had mangos, which, Ruiz learned, are never in short supply in the Dominican. He always carried a couple whenever he traveled between villages, wearing his wide-brimmed hat an older Jesuit gave him to keep the sun at bay. “You could never go hungry, because mangos were everywhere. Even traveling, there was always a mango tree,” he says.
But standing at the top of the mountain, lost, Ruiz’s mind whirled with thoughts of hopelessness, even death, and the very real possibility that they would never be found. “When the path ended, we really kind of lost everything. We had no hope of anyone finding us. It was a very critical life or death situation.”
They had to do something. Hearing a river below, they decided to make their way down the mountain, follow the river downstream and hope it would lead somewhere. After about an hour, they came to a little shack with a well-tended garden. The farmer was helpful, pointing the way to Río Limpio—past oak trees and across fences, fields and more rivers in the distance.
Three hours later, at 8:00 p.m., they arrived—12 hours after they had set out that morning. They were greeted with warm food, dry beds and the company of their Jesuit colleagues. Ruiz realized that even though he had despaired, he’d been determined to complete the pilgrimage and had found hope in the process.
“We’d almost completed the objective of the pilgrimage which is to put everything we had in the hands of God,” Ruiz says. “Even the path we first thought we had was taken from us. The clothes were lost, the food was gone, but somehow God was there and leading us. All these things we thought were ours, but actually they’re things He has given to us. Everything we have is a gift, and that’s the main objective.”
Within minutes, however, his plan vanished.
The first person he stopped on the street to ask for directions had just gotten out of prison. They talked for a few minutes, and Dorr was so moved that he gave the man $10 for train fare. A few steps farther on, he met Kenny, a homeless man with health problems. They talked, too, and Dorr ended up giving him the remainder of his cash so he could eat. He also dug a pair of socks out of his backpack to give him.
That’s when it hit him.
“I realized that I felt drawn to a new focus,” Dorr says. “I knew what homeless people looked like and sounded like, but I never knew experientially what it meant to be homeless. I thought maybe that’s where this should go. Something of that experience of being on the street and being without was what I was meant to be doing.”
So Dorr shelved the security of the monastery and took to the mean streets of Atlanta. He checked into the Atlanta Union Mission where he discovered that life at a shelter is unpredictable at best. Each day hundreds of Atlanta’s down-and-out check into the shelter, while across the street the Atlanta Aquarium welcomes the better-heeled into its underwater wonderland, and the World of Coca-Cola museum entertains the paying public at its “Home of Happiness.” The irony didn’t escape Dorr.
Among the dozens of people Dorr met was Vince, a big, tall friendly guy whose stories and engaging personality drew people to him. He hung out every morning at the CNN Center food court and sold cell phones he bought off the black market. Dorr tagged along, and when he asked where the phones came from, Vince simply said, “I don’t ask questions.”
Vince, a former drug dealer, was also fighting lung cancer. One night—after a man tried to pick a fight with him—Vince decided to leave the shelter and go to the hospital emergency room where he could get a bed and a check-up. Dorr went along and slept in the waiting room. In the morning, the hospital gave Vince a free prescription for his pain and discharged him back to the streets.
“I looked at Vince as a real friend,” Dorr says. “He was there with me as I was being exposed to the shelter. I presume that 50 percent of what Vince told me was lies, but I hung out with him half the days I was there. We’d wander around the city together. One thing I gained from the shelter was a whole new appreciation for who ends up there.”
A lot of shelter residents have addiction or mental health issues. Others were like Vince—people who had houses and jobs and then something went wrong, like a divorce. “And now they’re here,” Dorr says. Mark was another example. His strong, fit build and decent clothes—as well as his cell phone—made him seem out of place. One day, Mark looked at Dorr:
“What’s your deal?” he said. “You don’t belong here.”
“What do you mean?” Dorr replied.
“Look around. You’re different.”
Dorr told him his story. The next morning Mark woke up Dorr at 3:30 a.m. to walk to a Waffle House. At breakfast, Mark told Dorr his story—he was a divorced father of two from Chicago and was in Atlanta looking for a job.
In all, Dorr spent 18 nights at the shelter—more than half his pilgrimage. He eventually reported to the monastery, spending seven days digging a ditch, mowing the lawn, eating lunch in silence, attending four of the five daily prayer sessions and learning how to chant. He also stayed in the homes of five different families he met at churches or at the soup kitchens where he volunteered.
“The point of the pilgrimage is to spend the month letting go of our typical securities of home, money, community, and in doing that, come to trust more fully in God,” he says. “I realized how blessed I am, and that no matter what I do, I can’t experience life on the streets the way these guys do. It changed the outlook I had of what I was striving for and what God was calling me to. His message to me was to be with them, but you can’t be them.”
The bill was $17—half of the $35 he’d been given for his entire two-week pilgrimage. How was he supposed to get through the next 12 days?
Masterson was sent “to do time,” as he puts it, at the Trappist monastery, the Abbey of Gethsemani, south of Louisville. He’d been moved by The Seven Storey Mountain, a book by Thomas Merton, who left his position as an English professor at Columbia University to become a Trappist monk at the abbey in Trappist, Ky. So Masterson requested to spend time at the abbey connecting with the elements that had drawn Merton into a monastic, religious life. For Masterson, the abbey not only connected him to Merton, it became a door to his past—and the oddest place to run into old friends.
Although he arrived at the abbey unannounced, the monks let him in, offering him a room that contained a desk, a cross on the wall and a bed with a box spring “that was made before Patton took Germany.”
During his stay, Masterson ran into a woman who was there for a retreat whom he knew from his home parish in Columbus, Ohio. As they talked about his decision to enter the priesthood, Masterson began to feel an anxiety that gnawed at him in college about his career choice. “I was feeling the conflict of whether to continue on with the Jesuits or go back to medicine.”
The woman offered him a ride to Cincinnati, but he declined. He needed to experience the abbey. For the next four days he lived like a monk—prayers, chants, eating in silence. He thought about relationships he lost, about a cousin killed in Afghanistan, about friends from Xavier he left behind. He was feeling cut off from his world.
“Part of my second-guessing was boiling down to a lack of trust in God or a sense of being unable to trust in that way,” he says. “Our pilgrimage model was about trust but also about where are you lacking in trust and in your real ability to say where you put faith in God and his provenance, and for me that was in a sense of relationship with others.”
Then two things happened. One morning, while strolling the grounds, he walked into a graveyard, and the first grave he came upon was Merton’s. He knew Merton died accidentally in 1968, but he didn’t know he was buried there.
“It was a complete surprise to me,” he says. “I knew he left the monastery and died in Thailand. He was electrocuted, and his body was brought back to Kentucky, and he was buried with all the other monks. I actually got to pray next to where he was buried, and one of his things, his issues, was trusting.”
He also attended the funeral Mass of a monk who died of cancer.
“To see the care these men had for him and his fulfillment in his life was powerful for me,” he says. “They had different prayer periods during the day, and I went in at 3:00 a.m. and even then, I saw an old man reading prayers with a monk who had just passed. I gained a lot from being there for the funeral of someone who died in obscurity in the hills of Kentucky and was utterly happy with his decision to do that.”
When it was time to leave, he began walking down the road in front of the abbey toward Louisville. Just then, a farmer in a pickup truck pulled up and offered him a ride. Upon hearing his story, he gave him a $10 bill, half of which he spent on a modest sandwich at a nearby diner. Coming out of the diner, he looked across the street and saw John, one of his best friends from Xavier.
John offered him a ride to Cincinnati, and it was like a homecoming for Masterson. He saw all his old friends and stayed with a different one each for four nights.
They took him out to dinner and talked long hours late into the night. They not only asked Masterson to let them care for him, they told him they admired his choice of the priesthood. “One of them said, ‘Ryan, I am so proud of you, and what you are doing right now matters and needs to be done. You are happier now than I have seen you in years.’ ”
“It confirmed for me I was making the right decision, and I was ready to go back,” he says. “It was a very intimate pilgrimage through my own experience and learning to trust in the graciousness and charity of others and to trust the relationships I put so much importance on,” Masterson said. “It was a pilgrimage into myself really.”