The Practice of Pilgrimage
Over the last few months I have been writing about the ancient spiritual practices of the church for today. Most of them so far have been obvious – giving, worship, the sacraments. The idea of pilgrimage, however, is not an obvious spiritual practice, at least for Protestants, even though Presbyterians going to Scotland to play golf may describe it as such. But even then, always careful, they call it a “pilgrimage” (i.e., with scare quotes around the name). While all major religions of the world have pilgrimages as part of their practices, including most Christians, Protestants do not. In good part, the Protestant shunning of pilgrimages is because a significant element of ancient Christian pilgrimages was visiting a site made holy by the relics of a saint – James in Santiago, Peter and Paul in Rome, Jesus in Jerusalem, for example. Protestants do not do relics.
Yet, the idea of a pilgrimage is not beyond us. John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress, an arch Protestant book, is the allegory of young Christian’s pilgrimage to the Heavenly City, a sort of map of the spiritual life. It has sold more copies than any other book printed in English except the Bible. As a result, we regularly think of the Christian life as a pilgrimage, and often describe it as such. Here it is important to understand, though, why pilgrimage is a spiritual practice. We often describe our faith as a journey, but, I am afraid, when we do so we sometimes treat it as if it were aimless wandering, picking up interesting experiences here and there. We treat it as spiritual tourism. Pilgrimages, to be sure, have all sorts of surprises, and lots of opportunity to wander and discover unknown territory. (See the recent film with Martin Sheen The Way, which is the story of a modern pilgrimage to Santiago, Spain. There are wonderful surprises in it.) But where pilgrimages differ from mere journeys, or wandering, is that they have a goal, and getting there sooner or later is the point.
That difference is what made Pilgrim’s Progress such an important book to generation upon generation. If there is no goal, then falling into the “Slough of Despondency” or tarrying too long at “Vanity Fair” makes no difference, and can even be sort of interesting. If there is a goal, then such things may completely undo us; what might have been deemed “interesting” becomes either a distraction that waylays us or an outright temptation to fall away. It is for that reason that pilgrimages can be important. To take one is to get in a compressed period of time some sense of what you are doing with your life – or not doing, and whether or not you have lost your way, even if things are interesting.
As we move into Lent this month, it is worth thinking about pilgrimages as spiritual practices. No one here may actually set out to Santiago, Rome, Jerusalem, or Iona during this time. But it is worth recognizing for each of us over the course of Lent that we are headed for a goal, namely, the Resurrection and Easter Sunday. To get there, we have to go through a lot, including Good Friday. And we do have a lot of interesting, and sometimes very distracting, attractions along the way. Which of the two they are, distracting or interesting but a mere way stop, as is the case in life as a whole, well depends upon whether or not you have a goal. Set Christ’s Kingdom as a goal, and set out for it this Lent. Bon voyage!