My wife Jennifer and I walked the Camino de Santiago in the fall of 2018. We chose to travel to Northern Spain during my sabbatical to experience pilgrimage as an act of spiritual discipline. We wanted to see whether this age-old Christian practice would help us grow closer to Christ. We discovered that our physical pilgrimages would facilitate our spiritual pilgrimages. But only if our preparation involved ongoing interior soul work—primarily through various types of prayer—as well as bodily exercise and the right kind of hiking equipment.
Pilgrimages can be solo affairs. Some pilgrims on the Way of St. James travel alone. But the best spiritual quests are pursued in the company of others who share the same goal. And the best religious journeys result in pilgrims better able to love and serve God and others. A pilgrimage is an activity that is ideally both with and for others. For that reason (and many others!), I’m glad Jennifer was my pilgrimage partner.
I invite you to go on a pilgrimage with me as well—without leaving your current location. You may think that would be a strange kind of pilgrimage. But what is a pilgrimage? A pilgrimage is a journey with a sacred goal. And a journey can be spiritual rather than geographical. The sacred goal I have in mind for you and me is knowing God. That’s a goal you can strive to attain no matter where you are. Perhaps you’re already on that pilgrimage. Perhaps you already know God. In that case, I invite you to join me in seeking to know God better.
A literal religious pilgrimage involves going to a place. In the Christian tradition, pilgrims have journeyed to such places as Jerusalem, Rome, and, like Jennifer and me, Santiago de Compostela. Going to these places requires moving your body to them—usually by walking (though sometimes by bicycling, horseback riding, or in the case of disabled pilgrims, using a wheelchair!).
But the pilgrimage I’m inviting you to start—or continue—is primarily a pilgrimage for your soul. Your main purpose on this pilgrimage will be to get your soul closer to God rather than to move your body closer to a sacred place. On a literal pilgrimage, your soul moves your body from one physical place to another. On a soul pilgrimage, your soul allows itself to be moved by God toward deeper intimacy with him.
A pilgrimage is something you do. In the case of a literal pilgrimage, you have to keep your body moving in the same direction for a long time. Doing so requires both using your body (e.g., walking, carrying, looking, and listening) and caring for your body (e.g., eating, drinking, resting, and sleeping).
In the case of a soul pilgrimage, you have to keep your soul directed toward God for a long time. Doing so requires the use and care of your soul by engaging in various spiritual practices (e.g., praying, worshiping, trusting, and obeying). These practices help soul pilgrims know God and grow in their knowledge of God.
A pilgrimage is not only something you do, it’s also something you learn to do by doing it. Pilgrimage involves experimentation. It involves learning from your successes and your failures—trial and error. On a literal pilgrimage, you have to learn how to find your way without getting off on the wrong track. And you have to learn how much walking your body can handle before you need to rest and refuel.
The pilgrimage I’m recommending to you is a process of coming to know God better by doing things that require faith in God and seeing what happens as a result. Along the way, you grow in your knowledge of God. But you also learn about yourself—including how much risk you can stand and how much intimacy with God you can handle.
Though I’ve been a follower of Christ for over fifty years, I haven’t always thought the sort of soul pilgrimage I’m asking you to take with me would be both desirable and possible.
As I look back at my life, I realize there was a time, early on, when I was what I will call a “satisfied” Christian. Though I wasn’t satisfied then with my knowledge about God, I was content with the lived experiences I had with God. It didn’t occur to me then that it might be possible to grow in my direct personal knowledge of God.
My early Christian experiences stimulated in me a desire to grow in my knowledge of the Bible, participate in regular worship, strengthen my faith in and commitment to Christ, read inspiring Christian books promising to improve my life, draw closer to my Christian friends, and become a more effective evangelist. But though I considered myself to have a relationship with God, I didn’t hunger for a life of ever-deepening intimacy with him. In short, I was a satisfied Christian.
Satisfied Christians such as I used to be presuppose that ordinary humans can know God but also assume they already know God as much as they need or want to—at least in this life. Satisfied Christians may balk at accepting my invitation because they think a pilgrimage of soul wouldn’t be worthwhile.
Later, I became what I’ll call a “skeptical” Christian. Though I believed in God and had faith in God, I didn’t think it possible to know that God exists or to have personal knowledge of God. And it seemed to me that I had been naïve to think, as a satisfied Christian, that humans could have any kind of knowledge concerning God (rather than mere belief about or faith in God).
As a skeptical Christian, I thought of myself as relatively sophisticated. I thought my philosophical and theological education had demonstrated that, though it’s possible to grow in faith—and even reasonable faith—growth in knowledge about God and knowledge of God was impossible.
Was my experience unusual? I don’t think so. In spite of the persistent religiosity of our culture, it’s become increasingly secular over the years. That secularism has affected even the subculture of the Christian church and Christian institutions of higher learning (whose faculty are usually trained in graduate programs at secular universities). And secularism breeds skepticism about God.
Skeptical Christians like my former self may hesitate to accept my invitation because they think my soul pilgrimage goal—knowing God and growing in the knowledge of God—can’t be achieved.
In sum, one type of Christian (satisfied) may turn down my invitation on the ground that a pilgrimage aimed at knowing God isn’t desirable, and another type of Christian (skeptical) may decline my invitation on the ground that a pilgrimage aimed at knowing God isn’t possible.
I’ve come to the conclusion that neither of these grounds is tenable. I now think a soul pilgrimage toward deeper knowledge of God is not only possible and desirable but also the very pilgrimage of soul to which Jesus invites us when he bids us follow him and become citizens of the Kingdom of God.
Seven Soul Pilgrimage Practices to Try at Home
- Ask the Holy Spirit to be your daily soul pilgrimage Guide by praying this prayer (or one like it): “Holy Spirit, I want my life to be a journey toward deeper and deeper intimate loving communion with you. Please guide me on the soul pilgrim path and help me daily to practice your presence, abide in you, and walk in you.”
- Learn the difference between knowing God and knowing about God by reflecting on the similar difference between knowing a lot about a person you’ve never met (such as Ignatius of Loyola or Pope Francis) and knowing your closest friends (such as your spouse or other good friend). In the latter case, you’ve gotten to know them by spending time and doing things with them.
- Learn to recognize God’s promptings through experimental trust and obedience. The next time you sense a “nudge” to
- have a difficult but important conversation with a family member or friend,
- give more generously to God’s Kingdom work in some specific way,
- talk to a neighbor about your faith in Christ, or
- get involved in a local effort to help a disadvantaged group of people,treat it as a divine invitation—and do it. Then pay attention to what happens as a result.
- Ask God to make you dissatisfied with your current degree of intimacy with him. Memorize and pray Psalm 42:1 (“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God”—NRSV) and Psalm 63:1 (“O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water”—NRSV).
- Avoid skepticism by memorizing and meditating on Scripture passages about knowing God such as John 17:3—”And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”—NRSV) and 2 Peter 3:18—”But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”—NRSV).
- Read Travis Scholl’s Walking the Labyrinth: A Place to Pray and Seek God (IVP Books, 2014), find (or make) a local labyrinth, and add a regular embodied prayer practice—a practice akin to a literal pilgrimage—to your soul pilgrimage.
- Read our book, Soul Pilgrimage: Knowing God in Everyday Life—forthcoming from Wipf and Stock in the late winter or early spring of 2022. In it, we recommend a rhythm of daily individual and weekly corporate soul pilgrim practices—a rhythm based on the ancient Christian mystical stages of conversion, purgation, illumination, and union.