My gateway into learning of and studying the Eastern Orthodox Church was through reading “Franny and Zooey,” particularly Franny’s encounter with the Jesus Prayer through the classic Russian Orthodox work “Way of a Pilgrim.” A diary left on the doorstep of a monastery in the 19th century, the book is the telling of a lame (he couldn’t use one of his arms and was nearly useless in the peasant culture of 19th century Russia) Russian peasant who learns about the Jesus Prayer from a monk and decides to roam the country reciting the prayer and teaching it to others. He was a pilgrim.
Ever read the Canterbury Tales? The story behind the stories is the gathering of a group of pilgrims on their way to St. Thomas Beckett’s shrine in Southwark. Pilgrims.
Wait, and don’t we have a holiday in the US with Pilgrims traveling from England to the New World? I believe we do. There it is again.
I haven’t studied much on why they were called pilgrims, but the idea makes me wonder why there aren’t any pilgrims around today. It’d be easy to blame Protestantism on this, particularly in the US, but I don’t know many US Catholics that go on pilgrimages except for trips to the Holy Land, which are not called pilgrimages. There are a few things I’d like to note concerning pilgrimages:
They are not vacations. Somehow traveling in our day and age is for reasons of work- moving for a new job or traveling somewhere to temporarily work in a different city- or they’re for recreation- vacations, road trips, etc. Why not travel for spiritual reasons? I’m sure there is an aspect related to a retreat: getting away from home, seeing new places, meeting new people, relaxing at times. But the fundamental difference is that relaxing and getting time off from work is not the point, the point is holiness. It’s time devoted to God for a particular trip to visit a holy place. Which brings me to the next point.
It implies some places are holier than others. I’ve talked to three people who have visited the town of Assisi in Italy, and seen the burial place of St. Francis and all have said the same thing, “It was a holy place.” I believe some places are holier than others. The idea is heavy in Catholicism and runs all through many of the church’s practices.
I can hear that voice in my head, the comment I’ve heard from numerous people, “But God is everywhere.” True, God is omnipresent, but is He present in the same way in all places? The Holy Spirit is certainly present in some places and in some people and not others, you would agree? I can’t talk about this without getting into demonology a bit. Have you noticed how obsessed demons were with location? They asked Jesus to send them into a herd of pigs (a sign of uncleanness in Jewish culture). Demons know some places are holier than others. Or what about the holy of holies in the Jewish temple where a person who was not atoned for in their sin that entered the place would be struck dead because God was uniquely present there? Or what about Jacob’s comment, “God was here and I didn’t know it.” Many of us have had this feeling, “This place is holy. I feel safe when I’m here,” or “I am not comfortable being in that house. I just get a bad feeling about it.” Knowing where the holy places are to travel to- the Catholic Church has a nice system to map this out for a person- is crucial.
For Protestants who don’t have this kind of tradition, what about going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land? How about visiting John Wesley’s home or places he preached (there are a ton)? John Knox’s home?
This brings me to another point.
It’s a journey, not a destination. Why don’t we just serve communion at mass, then leave immediately afterward? Why all the stuff beforehand if the Eucharist is the most important part? Because we are people on a journey, we all have spiritual work to do in obtaining holiness. A pilgrimage is a fine example of this process in journeying to God. Let it be a time of openness to God as you travel, pray along the way, learn the discipline of praying at fixed hours throughout the day. In a sense the person has arrived, yet they are traveling a destination. A nice analogy for our spiritual life with God.
It’s not a mission trip. Although evangelization can happen on a pilgrimage, the point is devotion to God first, then growing in holiness as a side effect or secondary goal. The gospel can certainly be spread on a pilgrimage, yet the telos is altogether different. The goal on a mission trip is to reach a certain group of people, the purpose of a pilgrimage is to travel to a holy site and encounter God along the way.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a church trip, similar to the way mission trips have become so common and nearly industrialized, where a group goes on a pilgrimage together? I’d love to see it.