Traveling on pilgrimage to far-off lands can have us all feeling a bit, well, foreign.
Though such a feeling is uncomfortable for many, to the pilgrim, it comes as no surprise. Encountering new territory and being immersed in new experiences is at the heart of pilgrimage. The word “pilgrim,” after all, originates from the Latin word “peregrinus,” meaning “foreigner” or “stranger.” What is different about the pilgrim, however, is their openness to what is foreign. Instead, it is engaging the unfamiliar and welcoming the stranger that invigorates the pilgrim, pushing them toward the growth that they might not otherwise experience in everyday life.
“On pilgrimage the traveler is a foreigner in several ways,” Edward C. Sellner says in his book, Pilgrimage; “[The pilgrim is] a stranger to the companions she meets along the way, a stranger to the places visited, and a stranger to the inward journey of meaning and transformation.” This inward stranger is just as important as the outward stranger in a foreign land when it comes to pilgrimage. When traveling in foreign territory, the pilgrim’s senses are heightened and their vulnerabilities are laid bare, providing ample opportunity for unknown parts within to rise to the surface. Because the pilgrim’s surroundings are unfamiliar and disorienting, they are more aware of all that they encounter and are invited to practice presence to both themselves others in new ways, allowing the pilgrim to encounter the Divine and discover their True Self in new ways, too.
In order to make room for such transformation, however, the pilgrim must learn to welcome what is foreign or strange with open arms, whether that is the culture that surrounds them on their travel experiences, the circumstances in which they find themselves in everyday life, or the unfamiliar emotions that rise up from within. The pilgrim’s journey cannot proceed, after all, without the welcome of those along the way. Think of the pilgrim hostels or “albergues” along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Sprinkled along the many routes to Santiago in Spain, these albergues offer hospitality and refuge to weary travelers whatever their condition, providing much-needed nourishment and rest. For many pilgrims, the pilgrimage would not be possible without such generous hospitality along the path.
Just as the pilgrim is given hospitality on the journey, they, too, are called to offer it each step of the way, welcoming what is foreign and unfamiliar both internally and in the world that surrounds them. For the pilgrim, this practice of hospitality is more than just a gesture, it is a spiritual practice inviting them to set aside fear, surrender control, and choose love—tasks that are essential on the Path of the Pilgrim and always draw the pilgrim closer to the Sacred, no matter the circumstance. As the Sufi mystic Rumi says in his beloved poem, “Guest House,” the pilgrim chooses to “be grateful for [whatever] comes,” trusting that each unfamiliar visitor and foreign experience “has been sent as a guide from beyond.”
Whether your invitation is to welcome the stranger on the interior journey or embrace what is foreign on the exterior path, you can practice hospitality toward all that is unfamiliar through the following steps, using the word “HOST”:
H – heed discomfort
Before we can truly welcome the stranger, we must first notice and name what is foreign. To do so, notice your feelings of discomfort. This might simply arise as a feeling of unfamiliarity, offering a gentle nudge to practice hospitality. Or, it could manifest more strongly as a feeling of being threatened. Instead of being put off by such powerful emotions, welcome them as a guide as Rumi encourages, trusting that feelings of discomfort are invitations to journey further.
O – open your mind
Just as a an open table is a symbol of hospitality, so, too, is an open mind. A posture of hospitality and a journey of welcome must begin with an open mind and an open heart, indicating you are ready to receive whatever arrives with love and respect, no matter how foreign.
S – stay curious
Guided by an open mind, the curious pilgrim does not seek to make judgements or draw conclusions which close doors and end conversations. Instead, the pilgrim asks questions and is aware that such questions serve as portals to new discoveries and quests. If we are to practice true hospitality toward the stranger both without and within we must approach what is foreign with the curiosity of the pilgrim, knowing that it is heartfelt curiosity that paves the path toward authentic knowing.
T – take time
Pilgrimage is an ongoing process, and the practice of hospitality and welcoming the stranger is no different. Becoming familiar with what is foreign and embracing what seems strange takes time. When we are a generous host to all that comes our way, however, we will soon find that our journeys are enhanced by the practice of hospitality and discover that what once seemed foreign can in fact become the greatest teacher of all.