I say “pilgrim” you say, “Mayflower,” right?
Sure, you’re onto something. But there’s so much more. Let’s start at the very beginning, since the wisdom of Julie Andrews tells me it is indeed a very good place to start. Grab some popcorn, dim the lights, and join me on this—our first journey together—into the past…
THE HISTORY OF PILGRIMAGE
There once was a man named Abraham, who was called by God to leave his homeland on a journey of Sacred Encounter. God promised to bless his descendants, and this journey continued in the line of Abraham for generations to come. The descendants journeyed out of both necessity and ritual, often returning to sites of these Sacred Encounters. These journeys became known as pilgrimages.
Just as the Israelites journeyed to places of significance in their relationship to Yahweh, new Christians began journeying in the 4th century to the Holy Land to walk in the steps of Jesus. The destinations of these journeys soon expanded to other places of Sacred Encounter and connection.
As pilgrims made long voyages and returned transformed, the practice of pilgrimage grew in popularity. The great increase in pilgrimage to these sites initiated the “Golden Age of Pilgrimage,” lasting from the 11th to the 16th century and involving over one-fifth of the European population (Canterbury Tales, anyone?). Pilgrimage had become one of the most recognized and widely exercised spiritual practices of devotion in Christianity.
However, the Reformation in the 16th century brought the practice of pilgrimage into question. In his book, The Sacred Journey, Charles Foster rather bluntly describes just what happened:
“The Protestant Reformers by and large disapproved of pilgrimage and disapproved violently. They frowned at the cult of relics; they raged against indulgences often associated with visits to pilgrimage sites; they thought the whole business was paralyzingly superstitious and fed the heresy that you could work out your own salvation. And so, as far as they could, they shut it down.”
And thus, the practice of pilgrimage was essentially closed off to Protestants and consequently to the impending evangelical tradition. While Catholic pilgrimage continued to flourish, pilgrimage in the Protestant faith became tragically forgotten. Despite this, the imprint of pilgrimage on our souls remained.
This is why I’m here.
I’d wager that you are here for the same reason, too, because you are also discovering that pilgrimage is imprinted on your soul. It’s amazing how when we have new words and concepts to define things, we are awakened to truths that have been there all along.
MY OWN HISTORY WITH PILGRIMAGE
For over two decades of my life, the pilgrim was simply a role I played in a Kindergarten re-enactment, and pilgrimage itself was non-existent. However, I remember the day when the idea of pilgrimage resonated in a new way—as if I was hearing it for the first time and yet had been experiencing it all along—and my trajectory was completely changed.
I had just begun attending The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology in the Counseling Psychology program. One day while sitting in therapy, my therapist told me that she would be gone in a few weeks for a small amount of time because she was going on pilgrimage to Egypt.
A few years prior, I read Bruce Feiler’s book Walking the Bible, where he journeys in the steps of the Israelites through the first five books of the Old Testament, so I the types of places she would be visiting. I suppose when I read Feiler’s book I called it pilgrimage as well, but as my therapist shared her intentions, I began to understand pilgrimage as not just the act of journeying to far away places of significance, but instead (or sometimes in addition) as a storied journey of desire, seeking, and transformation.
In that moment I became captivated by pilgrimage and its language in a way that altered the remainder of my time at The Seattle School as well as my vocational path (which began with switching to the Theology & Culture program and let me to pursue a certificate in Spiritual Direction). It was as if I became baptized in the waters of pilgrimage, raised to see through the lens of “journey.”
Of course, (re)discovering pilgrimage was (and will forever continue to be) a journey in itself, and so with my newfound fascination I began simply by exploring its definition. What was the best way to define this new concept that I had divinely stumbled upon? Ian Bradley, author of Pilgrimage: A Spiritual and Cultural Journey, says pilgrimage is “best defined as a departure from daily life on a journey in search of spiritual well-being.” Phyllis Tickle, in the foreword of The Sacred Journey, simply says that “pilgrimage is wandering after God.”
Me? I define pilgrimage as a sacred journey—a movement that brings us toward the Divine. It is a journey embarked upon with the intention of encountering God and experiencing transformation. Pilgrimage speaks of a longing for something more and a faith that something beyond ourselves can be experienced if we are open to the search. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re at home or abroad. To live as a pilgrim all you need to do is see your life as a journey and your role as a seeker of the Sacred.
What about you? As you begin to (re)discover the concept of pilgrimage within your own life, how would you define pilgrimage? What do you know to be true from your own experience journeying? What draws you from within your soul, awakening in you a longing to go on pilgrimage? What is it that you seek to encounter?