An old spiritual describes our life as Christians this way:
I am a pilgrim and a stranger, traveling through this wearisome land,
I’ve got a home in that yonder city, good Lord, and it’s not…not made by hands.
It is an overused description to say that life is a journey. The reason this idea is overused, even cliché, is that it is true. We are, as the Apostle Peter writes: “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11). Day after day, year after year, we move along the twisting path of our lives until we reach some sort of destination. Of course, many people perceive the destination differently but the author of the letter to the Hebrews says that past people of faith “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth….seeking a homeland….they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:13-16).
This theme returns throughout Scripture, coming to striking focus in the psalms of Ascent. The concept of pilgrimage guides the journey of the psalms of Ascent (see our seeries Ascend: A Study of the Psalms of Ascent), which is outlined as a practice of God’s people in Deuteronomy 16:16-17:
Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you.
Pilgrimage is something woven throughout the faith life of the Hebrew people. It is something Jesus Himself participated in with His family and neighbors, traveling to Jerusalem at least twice in his early life that are recorded in Scripture (Luke 2:22-38, 41-51), but likely more often than that.
Yet, pilgrimage is a foreign concept to most of us in North America. While we turn to vacations to help us recover from life, the idea of taking a religious journey is not something we search for too often. The concept of religious pilgrimage, however, is not only part of other faith traditions, but is woven into the history of Christianity as well. The Camino do Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, a well-worn pilgrimage route through Europe has become an increasingly well-known in North America, perhaps in part due to the movie “The Way” featuring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez.
In his book, The Way is Made by Walking, Arthur Paul Boers relates his own journey on the Camino, offering insights about how this physical pilgrimage taught him about the spiritual pilgrimage of our life with God in Christ. Here is an excerpt that gives the feel of why we need to recovery pilgrimage as a guiding metaphor for our spiritual lives:
Pilgrimage in its truest sense is religiously motivated travel for the purpose of meeting and experiencing God with hopes of being shaped and changed by that encounter. Pilgrimages are often concretely physical – journeying to a particular place, perhaps with some extraordinary expense and exertion – and spiritual – one hopes to meet God in this travel.
An irony – indeed a danger – of pilgrimage is that we try to settle in a final destination, considering only that particular place holy and forgetting the call to be faithfully on the move for God. Think of Peter wanting to remain on the mountain where he, John and James (Santiago) experienced the transfiguration: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” His suggestion is dismissed: “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (Mark 9:5-6). Christian pilgrimage always calls us to further growth. As Origen wrote: “Travelers on the road to God’s wisdom find that the further they go, the more the road opens out, until it stretches to infinity.”
Pilgrimage sites are not merely an end in themselves. They are not strictly speaking even necessary. They richly symbolize the fact that our lives are to be a journey with and to God. Even if not all of us can afford or are able to go to famous places for prayer, every time we venture to church for worship we make a small pilgrimage to deepen our faithfulness. The Greek word paroikia means “sojourn” and is “also the root of English word ‘parish’, meaning a congregation of pilgrims.”
I love that phrase at the beginning of the last paragraph: “our lives are to be a journey with and to God.” Wherever we are today, let’s lift our legs for one more step, lift our hearts to our God, and fix our eyes on the eternal kingdom, which is just around the next bend in the road.