As a young 30-year old clergyperson, I received a wonderful and perhaps rather rare calling—to go on pilgrimage.
It was to be an around-the-world pilgrimage, visiting ecumenical Christian communities, parishes and institutions, and historical holy sites on six continents and in some twenty countries. My only other encounter with pilgrimage had been an undergraduate course in which my professor dressed up as a pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela. I thought I was simply in love with medieval church history.
There were, of course, numerous conditions that predisposed me to discern such a decision. Yet, the point is that the calling seemed to come out of the blue, and I was able to embrace my first foray into pilgrimage with commitment, discipline, and unabashed enthusiasm. I ventured into the act of religious journey, metaphorically, without any pilgrim baggage.
I have read and listened to Protestants speak about pilgrimage. Even among advocates, there is often an underlining apologetic to their words. It’s inevitably linked to their images of Catholic pilgrimage, though largely from of a medieval past. It is the same critique (different context) which I have heard from Christian Bible students in Nepal as they speak about pilgrimage in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions—pilgrimage as the veneration of images, pilgrimage as the forgiveness of sins, pilgrimage as salvation. All rightfully suspicious in the Protestant tradition.
During my around-the-world trip, not only did I live out the role of pilgrim, but I read about pilgrimage, wrote about pilgrimage, and spoke about pilgrimage with those I met along the way. I did the same two years later as a walking pilgrim to Santiago, and then devoted myself to the subject with further graduate studies focusing especially on Celtic Christian and Jerusalem studies.
There are, of course, commonly regarded elements of pilgrimage—namely, the triad of sacred time, sacred space, and sacred journey. However, what I quickly encountered was a myriad of Christian images, diverse and distinct, that were at the same time comfortably recognizable as pilgrimage.
There is no single definition of pilgrimage. Rather, pilgrimage is a larger rubric of varied and nuanced expressions of the Christian life.
Thus, Sister Giovanna, a pilgrim nun from Italy, can tell me stories of pilgrimage as a means of social protest again war, talk about daily spiritual discernment as the “third-eye of the pilgrim,” and move the conversation towards the virtue of compassion by listening to “the cries of those who have no choice to be pilgrims.” She describes the three great moments of life as community, hermitage, and pilgrimage, with pilgrimage here simply meaning the street.
The late Scottish Jesuit priest, Gerard Hughes, went on a walk from London to Rome in which daily he reflected upon the events of each day (In Search of a Way). God is in the facts, he states—a concept, I believe, that is foundational for any modern spirituality of pilgrimage.
Anglo-Saxon monks, and even a few kings, left England for Rome in the eighth century where they lived a life of discipline, stability, and community in proximity to the tomb of Peter, and though they lived a sedentary life, they referred to themselves as “pilgrims for Christ.” They, like Abraham, the bible’s prototypical pilgrim, left their country and went to the land that God showed them.
Irish monks had the same notion. That is, pilgrimage is not about travel; it is simply about serving God in another country. It is about being a stranger and an alien. Pilgrimage, then, is about vulnerability. Pilgrimage is about ministry with ex-pats and global migrant communities.
As with those called by Jesus into mission, pilgrims take very little with them on the journey. Pilgrimage is simplicity as well as ascetism.
Speaking of Jesus, he himself was a pilgrim—attending Temple festivals on one hand, while reminding people that he had no place to lay his head.
Certainly, pilgrimage is still about the journey and destination. It is about two-week trips to the Holy Land to walk the steps of Jesus, to pray in the holy sites and to encounter the land of the gospels.
Pilgrimage is extremely physical, real, incarnational. There is a physicality to the spiritual life that pilgrimage embraces.
Yet, pilgrimage is also what Protestants have been saying all along. Pilgrimage is a metaphor for life itself, and also of such concepts as sanctification, the movement of the soul towards greater love of God. Then at death, we cross the “Jordan” into the Promised Land leading up to New Jerusalem. In the meantime, why not walk a labyrinth?
I have hardly exhausted the images and expressions of pilgrimage. The first point in approaching pilgrimage as a practice for faith formation, though, is to realize its resourceful complexity and to simply approach it as one of many beautiful expressions of the Christian life. Like perseverance, pilgrimage is a virtue.
Rodney Aist is course director of St. George’s College, Jerusalem.