“I always had a dream of leading a pilgrimage but making it actually prayerful,” Father said. “If prayerful pilgrimage is what you are seeking, this trip is for you.”

By Nora Kenney

Father Ian VanHeusen is a diocesan priest in the Diocese of Raleigh. But his journey to the priesthood took an unlikely path—one that will position him to minister to pilgrims in powerful ways as they retrace Christ’s steps on the upcoming trip to the Holy Land.

Father grew up in an army family, living in different places around the country and world throughout his childhood. He describes his family as practicing Catholics—but Catholics who, like many of our families, met minimums and obligations without seeking immersion in the faith or taking on challenges.

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“I never got a sense of being challenged to be better Catholics,” Father said. “We were encouraged to be practicing Catholics but never to be saints or to really strive for holiness.”

Reacting against a faith that felt “watered-down,” Father left the Church in college and dabbled in a variety of different philosophies and contemporary mindsets like feminism, communism, and postmodernism. When he came back to the faith, he found himself captivated by elements of Catholic mysticism: contemplative prayer, monasteries, ascetical theology. He discovered what he calls a new “richness” in the Church which he had never seen before.

This background—the desire for challenge coupled with an interest in mysticism—informs Father’s excitement and vision for the upcoming Holy Land pilgrimage. He says that one of his greatest dreams is to lead a pilgrimage that weaves prayer into the geographical journey in concrete and intentional ways. He wants to encourage and instruct pilgrims to grow in holiness—to grow in their union with the Lord—through their encounter with beautiful places.

But is it realistic for lay people to pursue mystical union with the Lord? And if so, how can priests support their flock in mystical pursuits? And how can a pilgrimage enhance the experience? 

Father talks about how great Catholic thinkers like John of the Cross, John Paul II, and Pope Benedict provided him with a new vision for life, one that contrasted with the lukewarm faith of his childhood, and the postmodern interests of his college years: it was a vision that placed pursuing connection with the Lord as life’s primary goal.

The priest’s role, Father says, is to accompany people on this journey. To be with people, to hear their confessions, to walk with them. And the walk isn’t aimless. It leads towards a goal—greater conversion, and greater surrender to the Lord.

In addition, Father prescribes a variety of practices for enhancing the journey to mystical union, which fall under the theme of, what he calls “movement from structure to spontaneity.” In other words, by adopting monastic practices for an everyday life, lay people and diocesan priests alike can and should pursue union with the Lord. It’s not just for the Thomas Merton types, cloistered away in beautiful monasteries.

 The prayer structure, he says, can look different for people in different phases of their lives, but practices like a daily holy hour, daily Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, daily Rosary, or even sitting in a comfy chair with a mug of coffee and reflecting on scripture (lectio divina) can all be valuable.

 It is this approach—this movement from structure to spontaneity—that Father, who will be visiting the Holy Land for the first time, hopes to infuse into the pilgrimage. “There will be time to spontaneously reflect on your experience, and there will be structured prayer, like the Mass,” Father said.

 “I’m looking forward to being able to pray through the Holy Land and being able to visualize the places where Jesus walked and to be there,” he continued. “I want to orient everything towards prayer—to pray through the whole experience.”

 If you are thirsting for an encounter with Christ, or at least for some new insight about your status as a child of God, Father believes this retreat is for you.

 “A good pilgrimage is somewhat similar to a retreat. The experience of a retreat often opens a door in your heart or you have some insight about yourself and the world. The difference is that you’re moving, and that’s neat the part of a pilgrimage. Whereas in a retreat, you’re standing still.”

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 Along the journey, Father hopes to ask for the intercession of a variety of saints, including St. Ignatius of Loyola with his emphasis on imaginative prayer and prayer with the senses. 

 “The ‘Imitation of Christ’ means trying to imagine there’s a sense of solidarity—that Christ shares in everything that is ours, and he unites it with everything that is His. And so when we’re on this pilgrimage being able to walk in the shoes of Jesus—to imagine that he shared in our discomforts, he shared in our joys, he shared in our sorrows—[we realize that] everything that we’ve experienced, except sin, he’s experienced. And I think that sense of solidarity is an important quality that I think especially St. Ignatius can really bring out.”


For more information from Father Ian VanHeusen on pursuing mystical union with the Lord and Catholic mindfulness, visit Father’s website and YouTube channel.

Also, please consider joining for his upcoming pilgrimage to the Holy Land, May 11-20, 2020. For more information and to register, click the link below!

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Stay tuned for our upcoming posts on the other two Holy Land hosts, Dana Catherine and Sam Guzman.

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