As I begin gearing up for summer, my plans include travel and I’m hoping to take more than a trip. I’d like to turn these journeys into pilgrimages.
According to the dictionary, the word pilgrimage derives from the Latin peligrinus, meaning foreigner or wayfarer. It refers to the journey of a person who travels to a shrine or holy place. Another older derivation, more poetic, reveals that pilgrim has its roots in the Latin per agrum: through the field. This ancient image suggests a curious soul who walks beyond known boundaries, crosses fields, touches the earth with a destination in mind and a purpose in heart.
“This is not the casualness of modern travel,” says Phil Cousineau in “The Art of Pilgrimage.” “It is the glimpse of an ancient mystery.” It is discovery of unexpected grace, achieved by the art of being open and ready to receive such grace. Pilgrimage is an inward journey that opens you outward. It is a movement from mindless to mindful, from the soulless to soulful.
In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, the earliest recorded pilgrimage is accorded to Abraham who left Ur 4,000 years ago, seeking the inscrutable presence of God in the vast desert. His descendants Moses, Paul and Mohammed embody the notion of sacred journey. The sacred, in its various guises as holy ground, art or knowledge, evokes emotion and commotion. Every time we enter a cathedral wondering what the role faith plays in our lives, or wander the halls of a museum pondering how much we need beauty, or stroll through the woods and feel the trees breathing with us, we are experiencing the everyday influence of the Holy. Stories like Moses and the burning bush are invaluable because they give us hints, not exact directions, to that liminal place where revelations take place. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
Pilgrimage requires a slight but significant shift of perspective. A good pilgrim does not have to travel far and wide to experience such places. And there is no such thing as an uninteresting place. She is there to be inside them, as a thread is inside the necklace it strings. What separates the pilgrim and the tourist, who remains separate, as if he were at a theater, and not a part of whatever the show may be, is an attentiveness. So when you open yourself to God, God’s creation, God’s Spirit, God’s work, God’s love; when you pay attention; when you join with others to experience all that; you become a participant, a witness, not just an onlooker, and your soul will grow.
Jonathan Eastman is the pastor at First Presbyterian Church, St. Helena.