If planning her life was up to Dr Anne Benjamin, an Honorary Professor of Australian Catholic University, who has written several books, travelled the world and worked at senior levels of education, she thinks it would have turned out quite uninteresting.
“I find my plans for myself are fairly unimaginative, and if I had the total say, life would have been quite dull,” she says.
Anne has recently published a book After All This Time: Reflections on Jesus sharing her inner pilgrimage, an idea that sprang from being on pilgrimage on the Camino in Spain. In the book, she calls on Gospel readings, deep insights gained through her many life experiences, and neat engrossing ‘tankas’ – short poems of precisely chosen words which set an otherworldly mood. The aim of the book, she says, is to help people look at Jesus in a new way and perhaps make connections with scripture they would not have otherwise made.
She was a young person when the Second Vatican Council took place and its message of a church that is engaged with the world resonated with her. It led her to travel to the USA to study religious education – the start of her life’s quest to seek experiences that enhance her sense of meaning.
Working with her husband in India for a number of years enriched her with the experience of being “an unknown” and an “outsider”. “When we returned to Australia,” she added, “I had a small taste of being a migrant, which is the experience of many people in our society.”
For Anne, pilgrimage is “seeking home and coming together in wholeness”. It helps her understand and feel closer to the scriptures she has studied to answer the question: “Who was Jesus?”
A trip to the Holy Land brought her in touch with the land that Jesus would have walked on. “To be in the land and to be on the soil, to be on the lake and to try and absorb the feeling of being on the hillside and to be alone in the desert. That was powerful,” she says. “You get an immediacy.”
“You think what it would have been like for Christ to be praying in the desert.“ Later in the discussion, she returns to the power of the desert, “To me the desert is an image of searching for God – a place of healing and redemption. It is a place where you can discover God.”
“Being there awakened in me the need to understand Jesus better, the need to answer the question “Who is this Jesus and how did He work out His mission?”
On the Camino, pilgrims walk at their own pace. You may therefore have several different walking companions along the way, and need to adjust your speed. “I thought that was one of the biggest lessons for me, to walk through life at my own pace,” she says. “As I walked, I would encounter different people for a couple of hours. They were wonderful encounters.”
For Anne, Vatican II was life changing, and encouraged her to seek further formation. She is now hearted by Pope Francis’ insistence on synodality as THE way of being church. “Today we are walking a synodal path – what’s that if not pilgrims searching, going forward together?”
Anne’s top tips for pilgrims
- Be open to possibilities – there is mystery and uncertainty in every journey. Without space for mystery, the search is cut short.
- Come with a mindset that the searching is more important than the answer.
- Be brave enough to walk alone.
- There is immense freedom in carrying only what you need on your back.
- Pilgrimages can be done with others – it doesn’t need to be a lonely journey. Those with you can help you find gems along the way.
- Keep a journal – you don’t have to write everything, just whatever you can.
- Read the daily Mass readings – sit with the readings each day and note the thoughts that come into your head.
- Invite others to reflect and pray with you – reflection together creates special bonds.
- Can’t go overseas? Walk where you can – and be present to your walk.
Dr Anne Benjamin is a parishioner of St Anthony of Padua Parish Toongabbie. She is a former Executive Director of Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta, and was one of the co-creators of the recently launched Biographical Dictionary of Australian Catholic Educators, a website for researchers and those wanting to learn about Catholic education. Her book After All This Time: Reflections on Jesus is available from Coventry Press.
This article was originally published in the 2022 Season of Creation | Spring 2022 edition of the Catholic Outlook Magazine. You can pick up your copy of the magazine in parishes, schools and offices across the Diocese of Parramatta now or you can read the digital version here.