Some years ago I found myself traveling down I-75 with my van loaded with wife and children. Our destination was some hours away in Georgia. The purpose of the trip was to travel to a place where someone was reportedly having visions (and messages) from the Virgin Mary. At about 100 miles down the road the question formed in my mind, “If God is everywhere, then why am I driving 250 miles to pray?” I had no answer for the question at the time. I just kept driving and finished the pilgrimage. Were there visions of the Virgin Mary? Was someone actually hearing from heaven? I never knew the answer to those questions. Part of me remains highly sceptical. But an answer to my first question began to come to me, and has become firmly fixed over the years.
We frequently speak of God in general terms. “I believe that God…” etc. The great difficulty arises when we turn to God in general. In general, you will find nothing, because God is Personal, and does not make Himself known “in general.”
When we look at the Scriptures, particularly in the stories of the patriarchs, we see stories of encounters with God. All of them have the hallmark in which the story occurs, God is encountered, and a sacrifice is made. And here is the particularity – the sacrifice is offered to El-Roi, or El-Elyon, or Yahweh-Yireh, or God (but always with a modifier). Sometimes the place of the encounter receives a new name, such as Beth-el in Jacob’s dream of the ladder.
As we come to know God, we cannot know Him in general (for the general can only be known by a category that shares similarities, as in “all chairs,” “all men over six feet tall” etc.). There is no category for God. Thus each encounter is particular, and personal (not “private” but free and marked by obedient love).
So our life in the Church is marked by many actions that draw us toward a particular encounter with God – physical gestures, feast days, disciplines, icons – all of these are given to draw us toward God.
I recall some years ago a man said to me, “I find that I can worship God better alone, walking in the woods.” Of course this banality didn’t mean that he actually went to the woods and prayed. I replied to him, “Yes, though it is a bit strange. God has an appointment to meet you here at Church at 10 on Sunday morning.”
We cannot use generalities to trap God into our presence. Thinking that since God is everywhere, he must be anywhere I want Him to be when I want Him to be. In such thinking there is no freedom, no love, only metaphysical bondage (which does not exist for God).
God is indeed, “Everywhere present and fills all things,” but for us, He is present only where He makes Himself known – and this is always a gift and a revelation. It is for this reason that a pilgrimage may have benefit. To drive 250 miles to pray is to say to God, “This matters enough to me that I will undertake the struggle.”
My family’s experience of our pilgrimage had mixed reviews. The events we witnessed were disappointing at best. What changed was my family. When we returned home, our family’s prayer life changed. What had been hard became easier – we prayed together. For me, that made the pilgrimage worthwhile. And it said to me that our struggle was met with grace and God gave us the gift of prayer.