The Makings of a Pilgrimage
What makes something a pilgrimage and not just a trip? This is a question we’ll begin answering at our J2A Parent/Youth Meeting this Sunday as our 9th and 10th Graders start planning their pilgrimage to Iceland next summer. How might you go about an answer?
If it’s a pilgrimage, there’s a specific destination in mind. We may discover that what happens along the way is at least as important as what happens when we get there, but fundamentally – a pilgrimage is not aimless wandering. We know where we ultimately want to go, even if we don’t know yet what it will mean for us when we arrive.
We choose our destinations for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, as with Jerusalem or Lourdes or Canterbury, our faith traditions choose them for us. We go to places where generations of believers have gone before us and find strength in their witness. We go to experience our membership in the communion of saints on this side of eternity by walking where they walked and praying where they prayed. Other times, as I’m suspecting is the case with our teens’ decision to go to Iceland, it’s less about walking well-worn paths and more about experiencing the wildness of God in nature instead.
That speaks to another aspect of pilgrimage. There’s usually an inner journey as well as an outer one. In the Christian tradition, we go on pilgrimage to come closer to God – as well as to others and our own deepest selves. We want to live closer to the Source of all truth and goodness and beauty, and pilgrimage is one way to do that. All of God may be everywhere, but the distance seems thinner in certain places. We train our spirits to sense God in these thin places so we have the awareness and tools to keep following when the paths are harder to trace.
In Sunday School, we tell our kids that a feast is not about how much we eat, but who we’re with and the spirit of thankfulness we bring to it. A pilgrimage is similar, in that our traveling companions matter a great deal – as does the spirit we bring. We bring a sense of expectation, that we’ll somehow find more than what we’re looking for, and a sense of gratitude – that anything we experience (even, and maybe especially, what feels like a detour) may be an occasion of God’s grace.
Psalm 84:5 (NIV) says: “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.” The literal translation for the last part of this verse is “in whose heart are the highways.” There is spiritual value in taking our faith lives on the road sometimes. We can experience God here at home, certainly. But sometimes we need to leave home to see more clearly and trust more deeply in what is already here.
This is way too big a topic to cover in one post. I’m hoping this is just the beginning of a conversation. I would love to hear back from you. What pilgrimages have meant the most to you, and why? Which highways are in your heart? What wisdom would you like to share with our young people as they set their hearts on pilgrimage?