"Faith is not a clinging to a shrine but an
endless pilgrimage of the heart."
- Abraham Heschel
What struck me upon reading this book is how it would not be the same if it were written today. If the young man wanted to find out how to pray without ceasing, he would no longer have to trek across Russia and Ukraine going from holy figure to spiritual leader to priest to pilgrim. No, today he would simply Google the subject. Yet how much is lost by not having to physically search?
Saint Ignatius of Loyola took a pilgrimage that was 340 miles long in Spain after his conversion. Many today still take that same pilgrimage on what is now called Camino Ignaciano. Many make pilgrimages to the Holy Land, to Lourdes, to El Camino de Santiago.
One of the most famous tales of pilgrimage was began in 1386 by a Controller of Customs and Justice of the Peace, Geoffrey Chaucer. When finished The Canterbury Tales was over 24 stories and 17,000 lines long and tells the story of pilgrims on the way from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral. This work is now regarded as one of the most important classics of English literature.
Ever since then, pilgrimages have been the subject of art, literature and films (including the 2010 film The Way starring Martin Sheen).
In 1986, English author Jennifer Lash (mother to actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes) was diagnosed with cancer. While the cancer was in remission, she found within herself the desire that is within all of us which "seeks and stirs, hides and yearns" that compelled her to:
Make a pilgrimage. Go to ancient places. Go wherever there are
contemporary seekers. Go in whatever way it works out. Just go!
Jini, as her friends called her, decided to undertake a pilgrimage to Lourdes, Lisieux, Taize, Saintes Maries de la Mer, and Santiago de Campostella. Her book became about both her physical, mental, and spiritual journey as she explored places, myths and legends, as well as encountered the natural elements, new places and experiences, along with the people and pilgrims she met along her journey. As she wrote:
As they talked together of The Way, the obstacles, the people, the signs . . . you felt the
great importance of the physicality of the quest. All of them stressed the power of silence:
the need to be alone and find oneself in the silence. Moving, with silence as the single companion,
seems a most profound means to register the natural balance of the world without, and world within.
There are also secular pilgrimages that people undertake to places like Elvis' Graceland.
The naturalist John Muir also writes about how many go to nature as a form of pilgrimage, about how even in places like the mountains or the forests one can go out to go in. "The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness."
Each year over 60 - 70 million people take pilgrimages.
There are many who would ask, "So what is the point of a pilgrimage? Isn't it just spiritual tourism?"
In The Way of a Pilgrim, the young Russian man is trying to understand how one is able to "pray without ceasing." As he encounters priests, starets (or spiritual fathers), and other believers, he is taught to pray what is the Eastern prayer of the heart or the "Jesus prayer" which goes, "O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." The narrative recounts his struggles and his spiritual development as he takes this physical and spiritual path across Russia and Ukraine.
I know there have been times in my spiritual walk when I found myself praying only "Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy" over and over again, including inwardly while I was at work or driving somewhere. It was one I especially prayed when stuck in morning traffic commuting to work. It was a prayer that helped me be at peace as I let the words and my breath and heart beat flow together so that they were all one and each breath I took or the beating of my heart became intentional with the words of this simple and profound prayer. In researching how one can "pray without ceasing" or "pray always" I learned that it literally translates into "come to rest."
The pilgrim is seeking wisdom or enlightenment. His desire led to a pilgrimage of prayer, as Colossians 4:2 tells us to devote ourselves to it. This is one of the many reasons that pilgrims undertake such a journey. This ancient tradition has many modern applications to those who enter upon the pilgrimage. It is a time and act of letting go of material things (technology among them) to draw inward as a way to find healing, forgiveness, and to draw closer to God. As one walks, one prays. This provides opportunity to seek God's will for one's life, to get direction and clarity. It is a time of purification as one prays and meditates on the things of God. It is as much internal as external.
It is also a rigorous physical act where one walks long distances in a contemplative frame of mind. It is replacing chaos with contemplation. A pilgrimage is not just about the travel, it's about the journey. By putting oneself in an unfamiliar landscape, one is also seeking out the unknown. It's about encountering God and finding transformation in that encounter. This is an act that is both physical and metaphysical.
Pilgrimages offer renewal and connection to those pilgrims who came before us. This is a deliberate and intentional act of spiritual growth where a person steps out of the busy, hurried lives and a refuge from the cares of this world. A time of surrender. It offers the opportunity for a thousand small moments touched by grace.
Pilgrimages also offers opportunities to journey along with others, to learn their stories, and to find relationships with others of the faith. This is communion of the saints as they are united in the expression of seeking out God through pilgrimage. Often its these interactions that can change us the most, as one opens oneself to how the Spirit moves among us on our different paths of life and yet have brought each one together on this single way. One sees this clearly in The Way of the Pilgrim where his development is often impacted the most by those who he spends time with, listens to and as they share in each other's stories. Pilgrimage is both a solitary and communal act of faith.
A pilgrimage is a time to find a sense of wonder and awe at the beauty of the natural world as one walks paths trod by many who came before us. As Thomas a Kempis wrote in his monumental The Imitation of Christ, "It is only the pilgrims who in the travails of their earthly voyage do not lose their way . . . they are guided by the prayers . . . "
Coming out of the Evangelical tradition, I couldn't help but notice that in the Protestant tradition there isn't any kind of importance placed on pilgrimages. Unlike priests, pastors don't undertake an extensive pilgrimage as part of their spiritual formation. In 1520, Martin Luther wrote, "All pilgrimages should be done away for there is no good in them, no commandment, but countless causes of sin and contempt of God's commandment. These pilgrimages are the reason for there being so many beggars, who commit numberless villainies." How would he have reacted to the fact that one can now go on a pilgrimage of his very steps from his childhood home of Mansfield to Wittenberg (now called the Luther Trail)? Or of millions of people who visit Billy Graham's childhood home and the library with his own personal artifacts?
It's more than going to a place just to see it, but going to a sacred site to experience that place and, more importantly, the Spirit so that all of the pilgrimage becomes a part of ourselves. Doesn't visiting a battle site help a person understand that part of history even more? This also draws pilgrims to such holy sites as the Garden of Gethsemane or Golgotha. As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote, "The human community yearns for a home, for place, for a 'storied space' because of the history lodged there." A pilgrimage is more than just understanding history it is a desire to be transformed by God in it.
Pilgrimage is biblical. It stems from Abram being told by God, "Leave your country and go to the land I will show you" (Genesis 12:1). This was the verse medieval pilgrims used to base their pilgrimages on.
This is not about tourism.
This is not a vacation.
A true pilgrimage is not about activity but spiritual disciplines. It's not about getting photographs or souvenirs. It's about obedience and sacrifice.
Pilgrimage is an act of faith. and, like all of faith, it is not about us but about God. He is why one goes on a pilgrimage, He is what one encounters along the road of the pilgrimage and He is the destination. As Boethius wrote, "Thou art the journey, and the journey's end." If this is what gives a pilgrimage meaning then how could one not be transformed and why would anyone not want to undertake one?