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Contemplations on the true meaning of Memorial Day lead to a journey of mercy

A week before Memorial Day, I read an article written by a veteran who was bemoaning the “Happy Memorial Day” greetings and the start of summer festivities associated with this holiday.

It really struck me that I had been guilty of a flip attitude towards Memorial Day, with my focus largely being on picnics and gardening. I am also feeling raw from the loss of my sister and mom in a matter of nine months, so I understood his angst at greetings spoken at an inappropriate time.

I carried these thoughts with me as we made the very long journey to Washington, D.C. on the Friday before Memorial Day. The traffic was terrible, but it gave me time to think. I was so glad that we had decided to spend the weekend in D.C. to visit my daughter and the monuments and memorials on this very festive, though somber, weekend.

 Thankfully, my husband, a web designer has a client who owns and operates a tour company in the D.C. area. It’s really the best way to see all the monuments and memorials in one day. We learned so much from the guide’s stories and the background information.

With that veteran’s perspective fresh in my mind, I recognized that we were not celebrating the start of summer, but rather spending time in our nation’s capital to honor those who have died for our freedom. Their stories and the conflicts came alive as our tour guide framed the monuments and memorials with historical details which are not widely known. He said that the veterans memorials are a destination for many individuals and families who are seeking strength and closure in dealing with their own grief over the perils of war and the cost of freedom.

This trip became more of a pilgrimage than a sightseeing tour, especially because veterans and their families were pouring into D.C. The most moving experience for me was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There were cards and small gifts left along the pathway. People were weeping as they touched the names of loved ones and friends that were etched into the wall.

Memories of waiting for my brothers to return home from the war were foremost in my thoughts. As I walked the path of the memorial and witnessed the grieving families, I re-lived the day I ran home from school to greet one of my brothers who had returned home injured from the war. It was a most exciting and terrifying day; I was glad to see him home, sad to see him in pain and exhausted.

Still, I have had the pleasure of growing up watching my brothers move on and start their own families. The people I passed at that memorial, only had a name etched in the stone.

At the end of the walk, a veteran approached me with tears in his eyes. He thanked me for bringing my daughter Johanna’s service dog with us on our visit to the memorial. It’s not unusual for random strangers to approach us when we are walking with a service dog or a puppy in training. Like pregnant women and young children, dogs seem to give strangers the courage to approach and ask questions and, sometimes, offer unwanted advice. But this was different. This man was deeply moved by the dog’s presence and interactions with my daughter and me. As he spoke, tears welling up in his eyes, he recounted his own stories of loss and how he had a friend whose life was changed by a service dog. I reached out and touched his arm as he shared and then promised to pray for him as he too offered his prayers for us.

We stayed in Arlington that weekend, so my morning walks centered on the park at the Iwo Jima Memorial. The park borders Arlington National Cemetery. As I walked, I prayed for those families whose lives were forever changed by the ravages and cost of war.

From the steps behind and looking over the Iwo Jima Memorial, one can see the Washington Monument and the heart of our nation’s capital. As I sat there, with Arlington Cemetery to my right, the Iwo Jima Memorial ahead, and a view of the Washington Monument in the distance, the past, present and future hope of the United States seemed to linger in the atmosphere. It was a hope tinged with grief and sadness, requiring a tender touch of mercy, much like the brief interaction I had had with the veteran I met the day before. I found myself praying for the healing of our nation and desiring to do so much more.

This year, Pope Francis established a Jubilee Year of Mercy. “Merciful like the Father” is the motto he chose for the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. It comes from Luke 6:36, “Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.”

In the Catholic Church, we have some special pilgrimages sites, ministries and prayer services set up around the world to remind us of this motto and to help us grow in mercy. The Holy Father encourages all of us to make this the year we live out the call to be merciful like the Father. This weekend pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. confirmed for me another journey I feel deeply inspired to make.

Since Pope Francis opened the Jubilee Year of Mercy on December 8th, I’ve had a strong prompting to make a “pilgrimage of mercy” across the United States. When my daughter moved in January to work in California, I thought we’d take the drive with her. But she politely told me that she didn’t have that same longing to be in the car with me for seven days and nights. And, she assured me, it would not be the prayerful experience I desired.

But the Holy Spirit gave me another opportunity. This summer I have a few retreats scheduled, both to speak at and to attend. One of them is in California at the end of June. Rather than flying and driving, we have saved enough money to put a down payment on a new van. My old van had over 220 thousand miles on it and my mechanic warned me that it couldn’t handle my new travel schedule much longer.

Next week, I will be packing up Johanna, her dog Rae, one of Jo’s best friends and all our stuff to travel across the United States to California and back again. In addition to seeing the United States from the roadside and tourists’ view, we will be stopping along the way to visit shrines and churches and ministries dedicated to the service of others. Most of the trip we will be staying with families, some whom we know and some we do not know. Our goal is to pray for the United States and the world, to promote an attitude of love and compassion and to spread this message of mercy. We are calling it our “Pilgrimage of Mercy”, in honor of Pope Francis’ Jubilee Year call to be “Merciful Like the Father”.

We will be journaling our pilgrimage via social media and email. You can follow our journey on Facebook or send me an email and I’ll add you to the list.

While not everyone is called to make an actual “pilgrimage of mercy,” we can all strive to be merciful to one another and to receive the mercy of God freely given to us in Christ. Like the evidences of mercy I witnessed at the monuments and memorials in Washington, I believe we can all extend that same compassion to others in our daily lives. Maybe then they will experience the gentle touch of mercy and our nation and the world will come to know the healing love of God.

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Eileen Benthal is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a B.A. in Theology from Franciscan University. She is the author of Breathing Underwater: A Caregiver’s Journey of Hope.

Eileen and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Their youngest, Johanna, is a teenager with special needs.

Eileen can be reached at CareforaCaregiver.com.

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Eileen Benthal
Eileen is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Email Eileen