Pilgrims on the Spiritual Journey
The idea of sacred travel runs deep in human religion, dating back to when early humans would climb hilltops to be closer to God or the sky, or go to a specific spot to dance around in circles. "One of the many great spiritual discoveries of Judaism is that we are all pilgrims, strangers seeking God. Even God's chosen had to wander the wilderness to get their souls right. Spiritual talk is full of the language of travel: walking the walk, leaving behind and stepping forward, processing and recessing (that is, moving in and out) from worship services, the way of Christ and wandering from that way, or following God's paths on our spiritual journey of life. And overall, we still haven't found what we're looking for, or going to.
Christians have had spiritual pilgrimages almost from the beginning, going to where Christ was born and where He died, where He may have spoken and walked, where His family lived, where the apostles spoke, where they died, where other key leaders bore their witness and where their work ceased due to martyrdom. The Roman Catholic tradition especially held to the importance of pilgrimage, with sacred sites popping up all over Europe and the Middle East. A lot of this was founded on bogus relics, phony sightings of Mary, fictional histories, and bogus saints that were thinly-disguised pagan gods/goddesses. It was often done with touristy public relations trappings, and (of course) obligations to give money to the Church. But the Catholic tradition also understood the value of true pilgrimage, and encouraged it at every turn. Today, people are seeking the spiritual connection that they sense is lacking in their lives. Many of them are turning to pilgrimages to help them make that connection. Many Catholics make pilgrimage to Medjugorje (in Croatia). Israel and the West Bank abound in sites of the Bible's events, including Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the Sea of Galilee -- so many sites that to Jews, Christians and to some extent Muslims, it is called 'the Holy Land'. Muslims do their key pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj, at least once in their lives. Which heaps all the more judgement on us when we think of how eager we are to murder and wage war, and live lives designed around hatred and fear in this land we call 'holy'.
Pilgrimage is a way God answers that yearning to physically travel to discover God and the truths about ourselves. By going to a specific place where God and God's own have moved mightily in the past, it sinks in that God really does exist, and really is at work among us. Trusting that, we can search for (and be eager for) what God is doing within us right now. The pilgrimage, done out of devotion and true eagerness, lets us answer a yearning to be intimate with God, and sends wisdom to soul and mind. It helps to set aside our doubts and make our surrender to God less half-hearted. In that way, it turns us into truer disciples of Christ and gives us a purer sense of mission and purpose.
The most common effect of a pilgrimage is that it solidifies something that is growing within you. Perhaps you're doubting what you're doing now with your life: the pilgrimage may end that doubt, or may give it shape so that you can change course with confidence.
Most places of pilgrimage have some sort of expectation of behavior and appearance -- there are actions to take and ways to behave that are specially appropriate to the place. For instance, it just won't do to arrive in Assisi wearing Elvis' stage clothes. In the Moslem Hajj, before the pilgrim enters Mecca, the pilgrims all wear the same all-white sheet or white dress with scarf. You can't tell if the person next to you is a beggar or a ruler. On most pilgrimages, that's the desired effect, because all pilgrims are equals before God.
In a few places, such as Rome or Jerusalem, there are so many places with historical significance on matters of faith that one can easily slip into a tourist mode, rushing from place to place to take in everything around you. True pilgrims, however, choose to focus on a few core sites and spend their time in devotions, readings, and meditations that mine them for deep meanings. Most pilgrimage areas have only a few specific spots to go to, but have a strong sacred sense in those few spots.
The key thing about a pilgrimage is that the pilgrim prays and meditates on the Word of God the whole way there - indeed, before they leave, in order to prepare the soul. And while they are there, and the whole way back. Hopefully, a hunger for prayer and the Word grows from what the pilgrim learns.
Some pilgrimages are best done with no one to guide you; the visit is for personal reasons and you may have to handle some matters for and by yourself. But more often, it helps to have a spiritual guide or short-term director who can help you keep focus and work through what you're discovering in the pilgrimage.
Common Pilgrimage Experiences
Often, there's some sort of wide-area circular action around the most sacred site. This may be a ceremonial dance (Native Americans), a worship service (Catholics), or a prayer or devotional walk (some Protestants; also the Islamic tawaf ). Moving or standing in a circle makes the pilgrim aware that their life revolves around God, and that they belong with others whose lives are also revolving around God.
Sometimes the pilgrim gets very nervous, agitated, snippy, full of blame or fast to use swear words. The soul is stirring; the devil is trying to sabotage the spiritual experience, and deeply-rooted misbeliefs are fighting to stay alive. The pilgrim may even experience pain or nausea. This sabotage sometimes succeeds, turning the pilgrim back or hollowing out the experience. It must be taken seriously.
A pilgrimage sometimes seems eerily quiet, when done right. No TV, no radio, no laptop, no wireless phones, no idle chatter, no touristy photo sessions, no store-hopping for knickknacks, not much fussing with money or travel details. The pilgrim's entire focus gets turned toward God. That may mean no talk at all for long stretches of time. Silent time is time to concentrate on opening to God, or for meditating on Scripture or on the significance of the sacred place. Yet it is an important part of the holy experience to talk with fellow pilgrims who are also focusing on God and the pilgrimage. Much can be learned that way, and a shared spiritual outlook may emerge from it.
Questions on Spiritual Pilgrimage
- All places are created by God. Noone knows if something happened there that God specially treasures. What is it, then, that can make a place 'holy' or 'sacred', or spiritually special?
- Think of a specific kind of doubt that stops you from living the life of a committed Christian. Look for a place where God or God's followers have addressed this doubt -- could it be a possible place of pilgrimage for you?
- You've probably done some traveling in your lifetime. Think of a specific trip that is important to you, that had positive impact on where you are now in life. What was the key moment of that trip, and why did it matter to you?
- In what ways can life itself be called a pilgrimage? In what ways do travel to holy sites stand out within a life envisioned that way?
- How do you think modern communication and travel technologies might affect the effectiveness of pilgrimages?