I have never been fond of working out—except maybe swimming.
But now that I have reached a certain age, the idea of putting on a swimsuit doesn’t thrill me. I was never particularly fond of it. Shopping for a swimsuit has always been worse than buying new jeans. But now that I’m fifty, all I can say is give me the jeans, the dress with the knee-length hem, the timeless pieces that flatter rather than flaunt. I’ll pass on the swimsuit.
Swimming as a way of staying in shape has been taken off the list too.
If I had my own private pool, then maybe. But alas, I do not.
The last ten years, I have focused more on eating lighter. I’m blessed with good genes, so I have remained (almost) within the weight guidelines for women my age/height.
But something happened last year that changed my attitude about working out. Pilgrimage changes you.
At least, it did me.
I am a writer and I carry every tool of my trade with me—everywhere I go. My deluxe travel backpack includes my computer, iPad, iPhone, and Nikon camera. It has countless other essentials like a portable charger, charging cables, and pen & paper for quick note taking. And when I’m in flight, I have my Bose noise-cancelling headset. I usually have a good book to read, my Rosary, and a change of clothes just in case my suitcase is lost in transit.
I push the limit on weight regulations for a carryon bag.
After lifting that thing about five hundred times over the course of ten days, I realized that I needed to start working out or pilgrimages would be something I did once, back in 2014.
I certainly wouldn’t be able to meet the physical demands of being a travel writer into my sixties. No way.
Others travel lighter. Their backpacks weigh a fraction of what mine weighs. But every pilgrim has to have some degree of muscle tone. One still has to be able to lift a fifty-pound suitcase onto a scale, off of a baggage claim carousel, into a bus luggage compartment, over a raised hotel threshold.
And you have to be able to walk a mile—with ease.
So, there I was, after that May pilgrimage, staring at the calendar. My fiftieth birthday was right around the corner.
Would this be a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage, or would I say yes to what God was calling me to do, all of the places He was calling me to go?
That “yes” would require a change in lifestyle. I was still in that happy zone of life where I could make the change without too much effort.
I had made it through the Holy Land, but how much longer would I be able to do things like this? If things didn’t change, I had maybe five years before my body cried uncle.
I looked at my swollen ankles at the end of the ten-day pilgrimage and told myself that I was going to eat even better—and I was going to work out—not sporadically as I had done in the past. But with purpose. With intent. I was going to have a plan.
As with writing, working out has become a creative release and a prayer.
I have to share with you what I do when I step onto the treadmill, because I enter another place, and I realize that I should have done workouts like this years ago.
The treadmill incline goes to 15. The speed setting can accommodate the fastest runner (which I am not).
I tend to keep the incline between four and six for most of the workout. I keep the pace at the fastest walk I can manage without flying off the end of the treadmill.
I close my eyes, and I imagine I am in all those places I have been. I am walking through the gates of Capernaum. I am descending the Mount of Beatitudes. I am journeying to Shepherds Chapel in Bethlehem or walking through the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem.
Sometimes, I lower the incline and increase the speed. I am practically running—because I am trying to make my next flight, and it leaves in just fifteen minutes (in my pretend world). The gate is on another concourse. Speed is suddenly the key.
Then, I smile. I am in my favorite place of all. I’m at the foot of a Judean hill, ready to make the ascent to the Church of the Visitation.
I see the incline. There are steps, but this is not quite like a stair master workout. The steps are not steep, but they are numerous. You take a step, walk another step or two. Take another step. It’s more like terracing. All of the pilgrims make it to the top, but we each go at our own pace because it is a hill, and it isn’t easy.
I turn on my music, the song that fits the scene. I close my eyes and imagine that I have just passed through Ein Kerem, the town where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived. I am standing at the foot of the hill. My eyes scan the terraced steps. At the top, I see the Church of the Visitation.
At my side, I imagine the Blessed Mother. She is filled with joy. This is the end of her journey after the Annunciation. Soon, she will share the message with Elizabeth, the first time she will share this glorious news with anyone. And she is filled with joy because Elizabeth will understand. The rest of the world isn’t ready for this news yet, but Elizabeth is ready. And Elizabeth is right up there.
It’s time to share Jesus Christ.
My feet want to run.
I set the speed to the highest I can handle. It is the speed at which I take those steps when I am there and actually make that climb. I set the incline for 15—the highest it will go.
And then, I close my eyes.
And I climb the hills of Judea—to see Elizabeth with Mary.
This is no ordinary workout. This is contemplation. This is prayer. This is the way I have to do it. The reason I do it.
All for Christ. All for Christ. All for Christ.
Even a workout on a treadmill at Planet Fitness.
I feel the joy, the exhilaration, the surge of grace, the Presence of the Holy Spirit.
My mind and body know when I have reached the top. Having actually been there multiple times at this point in my life, I know how long it takes to get to the Church of the Visitation at this pace.
And I reduce the pace. Lower the incline. Because I am at the top now.
This is prayer! Who knew!
Then, I step onto the stair master, but only for a couple of minutes, and I take the steps two at a time to get a steeper rise. Now, I’m at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There are only a few steps to climb to get to Mount Calvary and the site of the Crucifixion, but they are steep, and when we are there, we always turn to help our fellow pilgrims up the steps.
I haven’t done it yet, but I plan to do a ten- or fifteen-mile stint on the stationary bike. I’m still working my way up to it because I tend to focus on the treadmill. But I have a journey in mind. It’s a spiritual journey by way of contemplation from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to Ein Kerem. It won’t be easy. I will have to set the machine to rugged terrain. Hills. The hills of Judea.
Or maybe I could do a ride to the top of Mount Tabor.
Or through the range of mountains known as Mount Carmel.
Eventually, I will hike to the top of Masada. It was the winter oasis for Herod, a fortress built on cliffs. It takes between 45 minutes and an hour to make that climb. But the vistas are amazing. The final chapter in the story of that place is sad, but there is something about being there—so high—looking down over the land surrounding the Dead Sea. I listen to music when I work out, which helps me to enter the contemplative realm. The song that fits what I felt when I traveled to the top of Masada is a song by David Kauffman called “Be With Me Lord.”
This year, I will be returning to the Holy Land and fortifying those memories, which I will carry back with me and into the gym.
I will also make pilgrimages to new places, to Mexico on a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Guadalupe and climb Tepeyac Hill. I will also travel to Poland and see places dear to Saint John Paul II and the Franciscan Monastery founded by St. Maximillian Kolbe. I will see the cell where he was martyred.
And I will carry these places and prayers back with me.
Pilgrimage changes you. It changes everything.
It can even change the way you approach the gym—because everything becomes a prayer when you begin to see every journey as a journey to the Heart of Our Lord.