Christian Pilgrimage

In a popular youth ministry curriculum for the Episcopal Church, the older students go on a “pilgrimage” as a final discipline and activity. However, like my trip back east, these youth pilgrimages often end up involving more activity than spiritual discipline. I think this is mostly because we don’t really know what a pilgrimage is. When we hear the word “pilgrim” we often think of those people who arrived at Plymouth on the Mayflower. However, pilgrims and pilgrimages are much more than that…

A Christian pilgrimage is a journey to a particularly sacred space where Christians can discover the image of God within themselves, others and the world in new and refreshing ways. In unpacking this definition, we will encounter some ridiculous relics, some excessive ascetics, and some smelly pilgrimage sites.

Pilgrimage as Journey

Long before Thomas Guides, there were pilgrim diaries and itineraries, which offered “a list of stations en route [to a pilgrimage site] and a record of the mileage between them.”[1] Pilgrimage literature often “listed places and the corresponding benefits to be gained if they were visited.”[2] Such guides must have been helpful for medieval pilgrims since their journey often proved to be fraught with dangers. “Many Pilgrims died of sickness or of sheer exhaustion.”[3] If sickness and exhaustion did not kill them, then Arab bandits might. Though most pilgrims refused to fight back in order to remain faithful to the spirit of their discipline, many behaved as “warrior pilgrims,” a title that came more into vogue during the Crusades. Another way to avoid attack on a pilgrimage was to travel in groups, both for  “mutual assistance and spiritual comfort.”[4]

Before leaving on their spiritual journey, pilgrims were expected to settle all accounts at home: pay off debts, complete duties, return belongings, etc.[5] The two prized possessions of a medieval pilgrim were his scrip (wallet) and staff. Upheld as badges of pilgrimage, the scrip and staff were “tokens of their endeavor” which many asked to have buried with them.[6] The significance of the scrip and staff arise out of the Gospels. When Jesus commissioned his disciples, he told them to bring a staff (Mark 6:8) and a wallet (Luke 22:36).

Also, the significance of the journey itself comes out of the Holy Scriptures. By undertaking a journey, pilgrims follow in the footsteps of Father Abraham, who was called by God to leave his country (Genesis 12:1); the Hebrews, who were led by God through the desert; the later Israelites, who traveled to Jerusalem three times a year for major festivals; and Jesus himself, who as a young boy made pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Luke 2:41) and as a resurrected man did the same! (Luke 24:18) In fact, the disciples who spoke with Jesus on the road to Emmaus addressed him as peregrinus (in the Vulgate).  Sometimes translated as “pilgrim,” peregrinus comes from the word peregre, which literally means “in a foreign country.”[7] Psalm 39:12 uses the same word, capturing a significant meaning of pilgrimage: “I am your passing guest, a sojourner, like all my fathers.” Thus, the pilgrim’s journey reminds him of his father’s sojourns while also reminding him of the transience of life and his true home. The journey reminds the pilgrim that this earth is not his ultimate home, but that he is merely passing through. The journey teaches the pilgrim to be “in the world, but not of the world.”

A Particularly Sacred Space

Some favorite pilgrim destinations of the medieval era were Canterbury,[8] Cologne,[9] Constantinople and Rome, home of the Pope and numerous relics. “Relics,” literally meaning ‘left-overs,’ “are objects that have been in physical contact either with Christ or with his saints and consequently they constitute memorials of them.”[10] Now medieval pilgrims loved relics as the following list of colorful relics indicates: Peter’s chains, Paul’s fetters,[11] “a painting of the Virgin Mary said to have been done by St. Luke himself,”[12] the veil of Veronica that held the likeness of Christ,[13] “Malchus’s ear that Peter struck off,”[14] a stone that St. George stood on to mount his horse (which supposedly healed a bad back),[15] “a little bottle containing some of the noise of the bells of Solomon’s temple,” and “one of the feathers of the Archangel Gabriel which he dropped in the bedroom of the Virgin Mary when he came to make the announcement to her in Nazareth.”[16] In his fierce criticism of relics, Luther argued that most relics were not authentic, highlighting the arm of St. Anthony, which proved to be a leg of a deer.[17] Luther also counted fourteen nails “in named churches throughout Europe, whereas only three were used at the crucifixion; and he was able to record three bodies of Lazarus.”[18] In all the absurdity, Luther mockingly suggested making a relic out of the foreskin of Jesus![19]

The apparent excess of medieval pilgrims was not only limited to relics: another favorite pilgrim destination was Job’s dunghill! In a sermon, John Chrysostom declared,

“From the sight of Job’s dunghill one may derive every kind of benefit, yea, much divine wisdom and consolation…Therefore to this day many undertake a long pilgrimage, even across the sea, hastening from the extremities of the earth, as far as Arabia, that they may kiss the ground of such a victor.”[20]

Many of these destinations lured pilgrims (even Job’s dunghill!) but no place held more allure than the Holy Land itself, where Jesus walked and preached and completed his ministry. Pilgrims kissed supposed footprints of Jesus on the streets of Jerusalem and sought wooden fragments that were believed to be part of his cross.

Many of these relics and practices sound strange to Protestant ears of the 21st Century (and some of them certainly were strange), but before we dismiss them all as ignorant and superstitious practices of the Dark Ages, let us consider the wisdom of Sir Thomas More.

In defense of relics, More points out New Testament passages that describe the spiritual power of inanimate objects: the hem of Jesus’ garment, which healed the bleeding woman and Paul’s handkerchief, which was given to heal the sick (Mark 6:56; Acts 19:12). Regarding false relics, More explains “that souls suffer no harm if through no fault of their own they reverence [relics] that are not genuine.”[21] In response to accusations of idolatry, More explains that the second commandment “does not preclude each and every image since the Jerusalem temple had sculptured figures of cherubim. Jesus himself sanctioned their use when, according to Eusebius of Caesarea, he sent his portrait to king Agbar and allowed his likeness to be preserved on the Vernicle.”[22] Furthermore, Thomas More asserts, “Pilgrimage centers have been authenticated as places where God may be encountered – miracles demonstrate that God approves of pilgrimages.”[23]

Though relics do not play a hugely significant role in Protestant pilgrimages, it is worth acknowledging their place in history as objects considered sacred due to their association with Christ or his saints. Even some objects and places that might have never been in contact with Christ or his saints still retain significance (even sacred significance) if they have been used to honor Christ or his saints in history. Davies offers Compostela as an example,

“Compostela is a place where for over eleven hundred years the apostle James has been revered—there is nothing superstitious in that nor any sound reason for terminating such a pious practice. If asked: why go to Santiago? A perfectly satisfactory reply is to say: because that is where the apostle has been and still is honored.”[24]

We can honor such objects and places as sacred since they have been treated with sacred honor for centuries. However, by calling a certain place “sacred” are we not limiting God’s presence to one particular space? How is that possible since God is omnipresent? “If God is everywhere,” Davies relates, “no one has to go to a particular country or town to meet him…no one place is to be considered more holy than another.”[25]

But, in fact, the omnipresent God does limit himself to a particular space while still remaining omnipresent. We see this in the Incarnation. In a sermon, a fifth-century bishop explains,

“He was in the Father’s bosom and in the womb of his mother. He lay in a mother’s arms, while he walked on the wings of the wind. He was adored by angels, while he sat at meat with publicans. The cherubim dare not behold him, while Pilate interrogated him. The servant smote him, and creation shuddered. He hung on the cross, but he was not absent from the throne of glory; and, while he lay in the tomb, he was spreading out the heavens like a curtain.”[26]

The omnipresent God chose to be as finite as a baby and as bound as a criminal on a cross. J. G. Davies elaborates,

“To believe that God fills and contains the universe is in fact not a valid argument against pilgrimage. Whatever grounds there may be for rejecting the practice, the divine omnipresence is not one of them…Advocates of pilgrimage in former times were well aware of [God’s omnipresence]. They knew that one did not have to go to Palestine to meet God, but this did not mean that if they chose to go there no encounter could take place.”[27]

In understanding the paradox of a limitation on an omnipresent God, Davies offers a helpful ‘radio-set’ analogy. Davies clarifies,

“We know that all about us wireless [radio] waves are present in the air, but they remain undetected unless they are focused in and by a receiver. The waves are virtually omnipresent but that does not mean that they cannot be concentrated coincidentally in one spot without detriment to their continued universal presence.”[28]Pilgrimage sites are thus places that are particularly receptive to the holy omnipresence of God, inviting pilgrims to be receptive as well.

But are we not bordering on idolatry when we call material objects and places sacred? Our Protestant minds remind us that Christ is to be experienced through the Word not through place or object. However, Stephen Gardiner, a contemporary of Sir Thomas More, castigates such extreme Protestants because “they would have all teaching, they speak so much of preaching, so as all the gates of our senses and ways to man’s understanding should be shut up, saving the ear alone.”[29] A space particularly receptive to the presence of God helps us discover divine in new and refreshing and physical ways.

As C. S. Lewis said, “God likes matter; he created it.” Davies explains, “Christianity endorses a kind of religious materialism and this involves the recognition of the importance of actions and indeed of physical actions.” [30] John Chrysostom declared, “If you had been incorporeal, Christ would have given you likewise gifts incorporeal; but because your soul has been joined to your body, he gives you spiritual things in material things.” [31] Pilgrimage invites us to experience God in and through our corporal bodies. By honoring material objects and sites as sacred, pilgrimage encourages us to honor our bodies as sacred temples of the Holy Spirit.

Discover the Image of God Within

In my ministry, I have endeavored to teach a positive anthropology. The theology of the Western church generally tends to stress a negative anthropology in which humans are inherently guilty sinners igniting God’s wrath. The Eastern Orthodox tradition, on the other hand, emphasizes the imago Dei within the individual and sees sin as obstacles blocking the image. My spiritual pilgrimage (metaphorically speaking) has led me from a negative view of humanity and self towards a more positive anthropology. Looking at the history of the spiritual discipline of pilgrimage, I notice a similar trend in its evolution: from a negative view of the pilgrim as a guilty sinner to a positive view of the pilgrim as one whose spiritual potential is like that of the saints.

Though reasons for going on pilgrimage varied from healing a bad back from St. George’s stone to gaining clear vision from St. Clare,[32] most medieval Christians regarded pilgrimage “as a penitential activity.”[33] Many pilgrims made their journey an ascetic one by fasting, while “some wore hair shirts, others traveled more or less naked but with chains on their arms and legs. Some observed a self-imposed silence and passed their time in meditation, and others again deliberately traveled alone to deny themselves companionship.”[34]

The following prayer gives an idea of how ascetic and penitent the journey could be,

“May God give those who call this pilgrimage an easy exercise the power of feeling its sorrows, that they may learn to have the compassion for pilgrims to the Holy Land which they deserve. It requires courage and audacity to attempt this pilgrimage”.[35]

At the Holy Sepulchre, the sorrow over sin reached such an intensity that “women pilgrims shrieked as if in labor, cried aloud and wept.”[36] On the Scala Santa, the staircase where Christ was led to be judged by Pilate, pilgrims crawled up the steps on their knees, reciting the Lord’s Prayer on each step. For each step climbed a pilgrim would receive indulgences for nine years.”[37]

Medieval pilgrims loved indulgences almost as much as they loved relics. “The practice of indulgences,” Davies explains, “was founded upon the belief that the merits of Jesus and his saints form an inexhaustible treasury on which the pope who has the power of the keys may draw.”[38]

Although this stark view of pilgrimage might be helpful in sobering Christians who currently understand pilgrimage as a mere vacation or sightseeing tour, I do not wish to encourage a view of a wrathful God, whose favor we can curry through deeds of self-denial. It is this view that made Luther “terrified when he heard the name of Christ,”[39] compelling him to seek after the Virgin Mary who played “a mediatorial role as more humane and approachable than her fearsome Son.”[40]

As Luther’s theology evolved, he began to strongly oppose the Roman Catholic understanding of God as Dies Irae and the practice of indulgences. Pilgrimages, being guilty by association, were also condemned by the vitriolic words of Luther. As a result, pilgrimages discontinued for the Protestants until the nineteenth century, when archaeological interest in the Holy Land re-ignited passion to visit the ancient sites. Pilgrimages have re-emerged in the Protestant tradition sans relics, indulgences, and the furious Son of Dies Irae.

So with no angry God to appease, why do Protestants go on pilgrimages? The question has been answered to some extent already. Christian pilgrims journey in the tradition of Abraham, the Israelites, Christ and many other saints, to understand the transience of life and our homesickness for heaven. Pilgrims recognize particular places as sacred because of their receptivity to the omnipresent God who can choose to limit himself to matter while remaining wholly omnipresent. Furthermore and perhaps more importantly, by being present to these receptive sacred spaces, pilgrims can learn to discover and be receptive to the image of God within themselves and others. As a result, pilgrims can discover their own potential to be saints.

“A pilgrimage,” Davies elucidates, “can be a spiritual exercise assisting the participants to explore their own potentialities as they seek to imitate the saint who is the ideal set before them in the course of a particular itinerary.”[41] By learning from and imitating the saints who made particular places receptive to God’s presence and experiencing the divine presence in that place, pilgrims learn how ‘to turn their receptors on,’ to discover their own sacred potential, to uncover the image of God within.

John of Damascus explained, “The saints…have kept undebased the likeness of the divine image in which they were made.”[42] By visiting the homes and dwelling places of those who kept their divine image ‘undebased,’ pilgrims begin the journey of ‘undebasing’ the divine image within themselves. “The main intention of the veneration of the saints,” Davies elaborates, “is to glorify God’s grace in real men and women as they exist in historical time. Veneration of the saints is not adoration of the saints, but celebration of them as witnesses to the triumphant grace of God and as models for Christian life.”[43]

For example, if I were to lead a pilgrimage to Taizé, we would not go there to adore the late Brother Roger, but rather to celebrate him as a model Christian, as one in touch with the imago Dei, as one from whom we might learn how to ‘undebase’ our divine image. We would also be present to the sacred space that Brother Roger and his community have made receptive to the omnipresence of God. Part of being present to the sacred receptivity of the place involves discovering the image of God within the community.


Discover Image of God within Other

When Malcolm X was asked what was most profound about his pilgrimage to Mecca, he exclaimed, “The brotherhood! The people of all races, colors, from all over the world coming together as one! It has proved to me the power of the one God.”[44]

Pilgrimage involves seeing God in others, which inevitably broadens and expands our understanding of the divine. Seeing God in others really lies at the heart of my youth ministry mission statement, which if I had to sum up in one word would be “ahimsa.” I understand “ahimsa” as “the basic respect for every person as an image of God, in whom the Universal Spirit dwells.”[45] And this, I believe, lies at the heart of the spiritual discipline of pilgrimage, where pilgrims not only learn to see God in saints of old but in present-day saints, in fellow pilgrims, in holy places and in themselves.

Davies explains, “A pilgrimage is not simply about places but about people; it is not looking at stones and hills and valleys but encountering others and interacting with them…A pilgrimage in fact may be – indeed should be – a practical manifestation of the communion of saints and an activity forging links between different Christian communities. The possibility of coming together with those who belong to denominations other than one’s own and also with believers in the locality visited has played an important role in the re-emergence of Protestant pilgrimages.”[46]

A pilgrimage involves seeing God in those outside of our tradition and denomination and community, which thereby pulls together and forges links in the diverse Body of Christ.

New and Refreshing Ways

Christian Pilgrimage is a journey to a particularly sacred space where Christians can discover the image of God within themselves, others and the world in new and refreshing ways. Instead of a minister preaching to Christians about God’s love and image dwelling within them, the spiritual discipline of pilgrimage offers a spiritual and physical experience of God’s love. Just as God revealed himself to the saints on holy sites so God reveals himself to us when we open our souls to his life-changing presence. When we make our souls into “receivers” of the ever-present God who dwells within us and beyond us, we can experience God in new and refreshing ways. Pilgrimage sites are not really places where God is more present or heaven is closer to earth than usual. Rather, these places have a particular history and beauty and association with an individual who kept his or her divine image ‘undebased.’ Each pilgrimage site will offer a new understanding of the divine. God speaks to our souls when we make pilgrimage to Jerusalem in one way and speaks in a wholly new way when we make pilgrimage to Taizé. By soaking in these sacred stories, holy places and saintly lives we are given clarity to see the imago dei within ourselves. By doing so, we begin to live holy lives that may perhaps someday make our own homes and communities into pilgrimage sites.

[1] Davies, J. G. Pilgrimage Yesterday and Today: Why? Where? How? SCM Press LTD Tottenham, London, 1988, p. 19[2] Davies, 21[3] Ibid, 48[4] Ibid, 49[5] Ibid, 42[6] Ibid, 43[7] Ibid, 187[8] This site honored Thomas á Becket.[9] This site was associated with the Magi (famous pilgrims of the Bible).[10] Ibid, 173-174[11] Ibid, 7[12] Ibid, 8[13] Ibid, 8[14] Ibid, 103[15] Ibid, 61[16] Ibid, 1. I should point out that these last two relics were taken out of Boccacio’s Decameron and were not necessarily true relics. However, I enjoy their inclusion in the already colorful list.[17] Ibid, 101[18] Ibid, 101[19] Ibid, 101[20] Ibid, 9[21] Ibid, 109[22] Ibid, 109[23] Ibid, 111[24] Ibid, 201[25] Ibid, 175[26] Ibid, 178[27] Ibid, 176[28] Ibid, 178[29] Ibid, 113[30] Ibid, 181[31] Ibid, 181[32] Ibid, 6“St. Clare of France was believed to cure eye infections, a belief that owed something to a false etymology i.e. she was able to help, because, named Clare, she could restore clear (claire) vision.”[33] Ibid, 2[34] Ibid, 51[35] Ibid, 46[36] Ibid, 63[37] Ibid, 67[38] Ibid, 16[39] Ibid, 97[40] Ibid, 97[41] Ibid, 199[42] Ibid, 194[43] Ibid, 194[44] Ibid, 203[45] Griffiths, Bede, Christ in India: Essays Towards a Hindu-Christian Dialogue, Published first in England, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966 p. 27[46] Ibid, 204

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