What Do You Need to Be a Faith-Filled Pilgrim?
One need not be religious to understand pilgrimage. The notion of pilgrimage— setting upon a journey to reach a destination of personal and communal import— is long standing and varied. Sports fans speak of making a pilgrimage to a certain Hall of Fame. For example, many a baseball fan who has made the pilgrimage to Cooperstown is grateful the sport has gone to great lengths to ensure a system for public veneration of the “legends.” Or, those who love music travel near or far to visit the home of their favorite musician or the birthplace of a musical movement. I made a pilgrimage to Hawthorne, California—the childhood home of the Beach Boys. I needed to see for myself about the surf and waves of which they sang. And, many religious traditions have celebrated the significance of pilgrimage for centuries. Catholic Christians can find places of pilgrimage throughout the world.
Pilgrimage is never without effort; it requires time, resources, travel, and risks. To be a pilgrim also means that the journey does not end at the destination of a sacred or holy site. No, a pilgrim always returns home with a new if not deeper understanding and appreciation of their interest, their passion. Religious pilgrims receive unexpected graces and are tasked with the awesome responsibility of sharing the virtues of pilgrimage with their local faith community or parish.
The Holy Land and Jerusalem, in particular, is a site of pilgrimage for the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. For Muslims, Jerusalem is one of three holy destinations. Though pilgrimage to Mecca is a mandatory religious duty, faithful Muslims are called to visit Medina and Jerusalem, too.
Jesus, a faithful Jew would have made the pilgrimage during three major festivals Pesach, (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost) and Sukkot in his lifetime. As many Christians know, He traveled to Jerusalem—where His fate was determined—because He sojourned to the Temple at the time of Passover.
For Christians, today, Jerusalem and the Holy Land may be the crown jewel among pilgrimages to holy places. But, Catholics need not travel to the Middle East or to the Vatican to walk by faith.
This blog posting will offer a spectrum of insights on the notion of pilgrimage and meaningful part of our Catholic faith.
In the summer of 2017, I studied with 30 other educators at Yad Vashem, Israel's official museum of Holocaust remembrance. Our study of the Shoah included visiting a robust number of holy sites in and around Jerusalem. We traveled to Nazareth where we prayed at the Church of the Annunciation, we sat at the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount and set out on a boat across the Sea of Galilee. After walking through the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem a friend inquired what it was like for me, as a religious person to be at the birthplace of my Lord with so many people, most of whom took pictures and staged photos.
I shared that one enters into these places differently when they are on pilgrimage. During much of this trip, I have viewed myself as a tourist, and not as a pilgrim. I am with a group that is interested the places where Jesus walked, taught and lived but most self-identify as non-practicing, non-religious teachers. Though many are prayerful and some arrive seeking a grace from God my colleagues have shared that they are not entering into these spaces as pilgrims, either. She agreed.
I offered my insight without judgment of one method versus the other. Though one could say the opportunity need not be binary, perhaps once could be both, an important component of pilgrimage is a mindset. The pilgrim is the one who sets on the journey with intention and purpose. They may walk with others or alone, believers and non-believers but they do so by raising their hearts and minds to God, Thérèse of Lisieux's definition of prayer!
I can’t tell you how many people who have made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land have talked about their “Jerusalem shoes.” Some have even brought these sacred shoes with them on retreat, others have described them in great detail in articles or expounded on these sandals/shoes in formal and informal conversations with me. At first, I found such detail a bit strange. But, after hearing similar stories time and again, and making pilgrimage myself, I now understand their significance.
Going on a pilgrimage is physically demanding. One walks, climbs stairs, and braves the elements. Inevitably, one sturdy and comfortable pair of shoes emerges as an important means to an end. A pilgrim seeks to reach a destination and what we put on our feet help us get there.
And yet, when we encounter the destination of our pilgrimage, we may have to surrender our shoes. In Exodus 3:5, God said: Do not come near! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.
Our shoes take us to a holy place, but ultimately, we are called to leave them behind. A place of pilgrimage is not like another place, it is where like Moses, we can encounter the living God.
When I speak of my pilgrimage shoes, I will share the stories of how they got me there and what I learned…and what I felt and sensed when I took them off.
Corollary to the shoes we wear during pilgrimage is the place where we take those shoes. Though a pilgrim may wander, there is always a destination.
One of the more popular pilgrimages among both religious and non-religious is The Camino de Santiago—the Way of St. James. “The Camino” is a large network of ancient pilgrim routes stretching across Europe and coming together at the tomb of St. James (Santiago in Spanish) in Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Pilgrims will enter “The Camino” at different points, some travel the Camino Francés and others will take the Camino Ingles, many undertake over 30 kilometers per day and others but a few. All pilgrims are free to walk in their own way and this is the beauty of pilgrimage—a spiritual journey.
It is also safe to say that many pilgrims seek to walk in the very same places and spaces that the saints and Christ did. Though I came to Jerusalem as a tourist, I came to the Via Dolorosa—the Way of the Cross—on pilgrimage. I knew that the walk would be spiritually daunting. I prayed at each station with a deepened love and reverence for the Lord’s sacrifice. I remembered those He encountered along the way: Simon of Cyrene, the women, His mother and prayed to them too. When I completed this pilgrimage, I left with a greater appreciation for the Incarnation. God became one of us so we could walk in His footsteps. But, the lesson pilgrimage provides does not end there. In his book Jesus, A Pilgrimage, Jim Martin writes:
"But God wanted to meet us where we are. So God came, first of all, as a human being, as something—someone—other men and women could approach. God is not only a flaming bush, a pillar of fire, or even a mysterious cloud, as God is described in various places in the Old Testament. God is one of us."
When we go on pilgrimage, it’s important to know that the pilgrim is not the only one who is seeking. God is constantly seeking us. God’s love extends from the heavens to the sands of the seashore—to the places we inhabit, visit and seek. Where we go and how we get there is not important; God will find us. The beauty of pilgrimage, however, is the very simple, yet important reminder that the one we are seeking can be found. The one we long for is with us in the journey and the destination—as a pilgrim, in the pilgrimage, at the destination, and upon our return. Amen.