The Pilgrim Way: Discovering the Ancient Practice of Pilgrimage

Christian George Part 13 of 17

§

Table of contents

§

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.” (Psalm 84:5, NIV)

 

“Your statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage.” (Psalm 119:54, NIV)

 

§

Traveling to monasteries throughout the world is a discipline for the sole and the soul. Every pilgrimage I take reminds me that this world is not my final home; I’m just a stranger passing through. Every path I tread, every arch I pass points me to a greater reality, where the God who draws us to himself joins us for the journey.

Traveling to monasteries created within me a desire to take the “ultimate” pilgrimage. For years I’ve dreamed of visiting the Holy Land—walking where Jesus walked, breathing where Jesus breathed, and seeing the garden where great drops of sweat became great drops of blood. For pilgrims it’s the trip of a lifetime, a pilgrimage of epic proportion. This year my dream became a reality as I walked on ancient stones smoothed by the feet of millions of pilgrims who had gone before.

My wife and I recently journeyed to Israel with a seminary group. We traveled across the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus walked on water. We floated in the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. We even saw Mount Carmel, where God barbecued a bunch of bulls. But for me, traveling to Jerusalem eclipsed them all, for it was there that Christ emptied himself on the cross and then reigned supremely from the tree.

The Via Dolorosa is the traditional route that Jesus walked to his death. We don’t know the precise historical way he went, but this present “way of sorrows” has been the traditional path that thousands of pilgrims walk every year as they remember the sufferings of Christ. Beginning near Antonia’s Fortress, the winding road ends at Golgotha, where he was crucified and buried. Every Friday, Franciscan monks lead a procession down this street, following the Stations of the Cross that dot the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

With a bag on my back and a camera in my hand, I ventured on its stones. It was a modern street lined with Arab vendors selling wooden crosses made in China. Some also sold flowers, others fruit and spices. I even saw a guy haggling over a curved ivory knife, a bit detoured from the path. But I had not come to Israel as a tourist. I came as a pilgrim, a stranger who sought to be challenged and changed by following the footprints of Christ.

Step after step, station after station, my mind turned inward. Why did Christ have to sink from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell to suffer and die? Why was Jesus so quick to walk the steps I should have trekked? I passed the Church of the Sisters of Zion that remembers Pilate’s presentation of Jesus to the crowd. I saw the archaic cross on a Greek Orthodox monastery and a Roman column at the entrance of a Coptic monastery. Each station testified to the deep love Christ demonstrated to his church. And despite differing doctrines and beliefs, the spectrum of traditions within the boundaries of Christianity share the Via Dolorosa. This road affirms that there are many limbs beneath the head of Christ. Each Christian is a cell, and together we walk with perseverance on the path of suffering and salvation.

 Pilgrimage runs thickly through my veins. My parents almost named me Calvin Augustinius George, but instead, they named me after a pilgrim—Christian, the main character in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. For years I’ve traveled the world, seeing how God intervened in time and space to accomplish his will through the lives of men and women who took seriously their faith. From monastery to monastery, I traversed the globe, chanting with monks at Taizé, France; climbing the staircase of Skellig Michael, Ireland; and walking up the breezy hills of Iona, Scotland.

These pilgrimages have made the past come alive for me. I saw the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, Germany, where Martin Luther wrestled with the Scripture; the Orthodox monastery of Penteli, Greece, where monks taught children to read and write; and the Franciscan monastery of Monteluco in Spoleto, Italy, where Saint Francis fasted and prayed. Being a pilgrim gave me a three-dimensional picture of God’s interaction in this world. These journeys taught me that Christians were made for motion—progressing in our relationship with Christ, overcoming obstacles that rust our faith, and gaining stamina to battle the world, the flesh, and the devil. And most of all, they showed me that in order best to navigate the future, we need to travel back into the past.

Jesus once told his disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NIV). Having been raised as an American Protestant, I began my witness at the ends of the earth and worked my way backwards towards Samaria, Judea, and Jerusalem. Yet every pilgrimage I’ve ever taken pointed to my walk down the Via Dolorosa. Every castle, cathedral, and monastery prepared me for this humble venture. Each travel defined and refined my understanding of the Christian journey, and together they taught me that this world is not my home; perhaps it’s just a hotel.

Pilgrimage as a Spiritual Discipline

Occasionally when I go on pilgrimage, I’ll come across a prayer garden containing a circular stone labyrinth. Its purpose is simple: to lead the pilgrim to the center. Labyrinths came into prominence at a time in Christian history when going on pilgrimage was expensive and almost impossible. As pilgrims walk the narrow trail, back and forth between rocks and weeds, they are led closer to the center. Patterned walks like this are tools that train the mind to eliminate distractions and focus on what really matters.

When Christ is at the center, my life is truly centered. The discipline of pilgrimage—be it to a monastery or walking a labyrinth or the Via Dolorosais a tool that has raised my gaze to God, helping to keep him as the object of my eyes. Pilgrimage can direct me to the center of who I am, why I’m here on this planet, and where I’m going.

I believe the Christian life is a journey to God, and the practice of pilgrimage is an incarnational expression of that reality. Nothing is static. Even when we stand still, our hearts are beating, blood is pumping, and electric currents zigzag through our brains. Even the world on which we stand is traveling thousands of miles per hour through the universe. The question is not whether we are on a journey, but rather, in what direction are we moving?

The practice of pilgrimage predates the earthly life of Christ. In the Old Testament, God’s people constructed stone altars to remember what God had accomplished (Joshua 4:1-9). These rocks were tangible reminders of God’s faithfulness to his people and became teaching aids for many generations. Sacred travels are sprinkled throughout the Scripture. From Abraham’s journey to the Exodus to the visit of the Magi, the motif of pilgrimage is deeply ingrained within the biblical narrative.

Pilgrimage has long been a discipline for practitioners of the world’s major religions. Muslims take pilgrimages to Mecca, Buddhists to Mount Kailash, Hindus to Kedarnath, and Jews to Israel. Pilgrimages occur even among those who are not affiliated with religion. Secular pilgrimage destinations include the Declaration of Independence, the Eiffel Tower, and the pyramids of Giza. Pilgrimage is rooted in the soil of the human soul. Yet the discipline of pilgrimage can be recovered for Christians who seek to stretch their faith radically by discovering the God who invites us into sacred and risky intimacy.

According to Webster’s Dictionary, a pilgrim is one who “journeys in foreign lands,” and the Apostle Peter reminded the Christians of Asia Minor that they were “aliens and strangers in the world” (1 Peter 2:11, NIV). The Greek word for strangers is parepidemous, which transformed from peregrini to pelegrim in Latin, and eventually to pilgrim in English. To be a pilgrim is to live as though this world were an airport terminal for those who have yet to board the plane. Pilgrims are not tourists, casually strolling through the city. Nor are they nomads, wandering through wildernesses. The pilgrim is a sojourner, a traveler who seeks a city “whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10, NIV).

We live in an era of entertainment, a society saturated with instant gratification. Words like patience, endurance, and commitment sound strange to us. Slow modems are exchanged for high-speed Internet access; fast food isn’t fast enough; and sermons aren’t short enough. The push of a button cooks our dinner, and the twist of a knob dries our clothes. In a society that struggles to discipline itself, the discipline of pilgrimage reminds us to slow down and take life one step at a time. It reminds us that life is an emotional, physical, and spiritual journey that requires upward and inward conditioning. It moves us from certainty to dependency, from confidence to brokenness, from assurance in ourselves to faith in God. It exposes us to different traditions that inform our thinking. When we see God’s hand at work in other cultures, we begin to work like Benedictines, preach like Baptists, pray like Puritans, and sing like Wesleyans. Ours becomes a kaleidoscopic Christianity, and we see reality through sacred lenses, lenses that put flesh on faith and bones on Bibles.

Anyone can practice the discipline of pilgrimage. Richard Foster wrote, “God intends the Disciplines of the spiritual life to be for ordinary human beings: people who have jobs, who care for children, who wash dishes and mow lawns.”1 Regardless of their stages of life, all Christians can benefit from this discipline. For children, it concretizes the journey to heaven in their minds by painting a visual and physical picture. For college students backpacking across Europe, it transforms a summer adventure into a spiritual revival. These days, technology allows us to trek through the world. More young people are traveling today than in any point in history, and whether it’s to a mossy castle or a musty cathedral, the discipline of pilgrimage is a radical way of increasing our view of God. What about those who cannot travel—the elderly, the hospitalized, or those with handicaps? Can they practice pilgrimage too?

Yes. Pilgrimage is certainly not limited to location. We agree with Oswald Chambers that “the reality of God’s presence is not dependent on any place, but only dependent upon the determination to set the Lord always before us.”2 By setting the Lord always before us, we are constantly progressing in our understanding of his love. In fact, some of the greatest pilgrimages I’ve ever taken have been in the midnight moments of my life, the hospital moments when I opened up the Bible and traveled to Jericho, where the walls came tumbling down. As an armchair pilgrim, I went to Egypt and saw the Red Sea stand up for God’s people to march through. Because the presence of God extends everywhere, even unto the very ends of the earth, expensive trips to Europe and Asia are not required to practice this discipline. For some, a morning walk with a warm cup of coffee is enough. Others enjoy longer retreats to places of silence and isolation. I have friends who regularly spend time in monasteries to recharge their spiritual batteries and participate in different styles of worship. The practice of pilgrimage can be appreciated by anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Pilgrimage is not a safe discipline, but it’s certainly rewarding. It takes us out of our comfort zones and calls us away from a bloated Christianity where God can’t fit into our schedules. It calls us away from an anorexic Christianity where we become spiritually malnourished. It calls us away from a bulimic Christianity where we binge on Sunday only to purge up our beliefs on Monday. A regular diet of spiritual disciplines like pilgrimage can splash our dehydrated Christianity with fresh faith and gives us a greater hunger for the holy.

The fading paths of pilgrimage have all but disappeared from the landscape of evangelical history, but perhaps they can be resprayed. Perhaps they can be redefined for modern generations who crave a deeper and more authentic spirituality. The discipline of pilgrimage awaits exploration by those who are willing to journey to its depths.

Homeward Bound

The lights were low, but I could see the mosaics on the wall—mosaics of Christ and his disciples shimmering from the candlelight. Each Station of the Cross lining the Via Dolorosa served as Old Testament altars, reminding me of God’s victory over death. Each was a sacred moment, a serious moment when I considered the unfathomable love that led God to punish his son for the sins of his people. I looked up inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to see the dome marking the spot where the Catholic and Orthodox Churches claim Jesus was crucified. Having previously visited the Garden of Gethsemane, my mind was fixed on the greatest pilgrimage of all—when Christ traveled from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell to suffer the death of a criminal. And I walked into Christ’s tomb with fragile feet, thankful that it was empty.

The thirteen-hour flight from Tel Aviv to Atlanta gave me plenty of time to reflect on my pilgrimage. A Chinese proverb says, “He who returns from a journey is not the same as he who left.”3 I went to Israel thinking it would be a trip of a lifetime, but little did I know it would have the potential of changing my life forever. God expanded himself right before my eyes, and the ancient stones testified to his goodness. It was the difference between looking at the moon as an astronomer and actually going there as an astronaut. This trip was certainly worth the trouble.

My pilgrimage to Israel challenged me to dig deeper in the Scriptures. Having attached personal memories to biblical sites we visited, the ink of my Bible now bleeds off the page and gets into my bloodstream. It taught me that Christ calls me to surrender my life to him—to take up a cross and walk as a pilgrim and not a tourist. It taught me that the God I worship is bigger than I thought—he curls constellations with his biceps, swirls galaxies with his triceps, and throws Saturns like Frisbees across the universe. But, most importantly, it taught me to abandon myself completely to holiness and live as though I will one day live again.

Ever since Christians were banished from the Garden of Eden, we’ve been trying to return. And God has paved a way. We travel in transition—imperfect, unbalanced, unfinished creatures longing for renewal and pulsing for perfection. We are aimed at another garden, a divine destination. But we are not there yet. The gravel hasn’t turned to gold beneath our feet. Yet we press on, homeward bound, with paradise as our goal and Jesus our guide. A day is coming when faith will become sight and heaven will become home. The God who informs our thinking, reforms our attitudes, and transforms our lives travels with us from monastery to monastery, from grace to glory, until at last we will be embraced by the everlasting arms of the almighty. This is the pilgrim way.

Tips for Taking a Pilgrimage

  1. Bring a journal to record your thoughts and prayers.
  2. Master the art of adaptation—there’s always going to be bad food, airplane delays, and lost luggage.
  3. Be an antenna, not an amplifier—God speaks to those who listen.
  4. Learn to risk—pilgrimage stretches our faith and teaches us that God is in control, even under dangerous and difficult circumstances.
  5. And of course, pack a comfortable pair of walking shoes.
Footnotes
  1. Richard Foster, The Celebration of Discipline. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998, 1.
  2. Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest. New York: Dodd, Mead, & Company, 1935, 202.
  3. Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda and Michael Scaperlanda, The Journey: A Guide for the Modern Pilgrim. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2004, 202.
Christian George is an author, speaker, and recent graduate of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. His latest book is Sacred Travels: Recovering the Ancient Practice of Pilgrimage. Before beginning his Ph.D. in Scotland, he’s taking a year off to write and travel.
You can visit him online at www.christiangeorge.org.
Listen to all parts in this Conversations—Gifts from the Monastery: Silence and Solitude series