Within Protestant Christian circles, interest in spiritual pilgrimage has grown significantly in recent years. For many years this practice had mostly been left to Catholic Christians. Protestants have always made journeys to the Holy Land or significant churches within their tradition. But now Protestants are beginning to rediscover the rich language and practice of pilgrimage that makes these trips significant opportunities for spiritual formation.
Unlike some other religions, pilgrimage is never demanded of the Christian. Jews were called to regularly visit the Temple to make sacrifices and Muslims were called to visit Mecca, a place where all Muslims stand equal before Allah. The lack of a required Christian pilgrimage can be traced both historically and theologically to the radical infilling of the Holy Spirit whereby God acts upon the gathered Christians to empower them for foreign mission (Acts 1:8, Acts 2). Not long after the beginning of Christianity, Jerusalem was generally still considered the primary center of Christianity (See Acts 15, for example). But the fall of the Jerusalem temple (70 AD) and Jewish rejection of the Christians decentralized Jerusalem’s leadership. Though Rome tried to grab this central place of authority, the Eastern Orthodox churches resisted. Rome has long been a central place of Christianity, but always in a limited way. So even though some places have taken a limited prominence in the development of the faith, Christianity never focused on place in the way that some other religions do.
Since Paul’s first missionary journey, Christianity has not been bound by ethnic or geographic boundaries. So why should Christians go on spiritual pilgrimage? Christian pilgrimage is always a privileged act of devotion. We don’t have to go, but we are welcomed to come and meet with God. Christians go on pilgrimage because of a decision to set time aside to meet with God and be changed.
Since Protestants have forsaken the practice for so long, here are a few explanatory points as we get reacquainted:
- Spiritual pilgrimage is a journey to a holy place. This place may be holy for personal reasons (like a family estate or grave site) or for religious reasons (Jesus or a saint lived there, an important church, or a particular community of people). But unlike a tourist, a pilgrim goes with a purpose. The goal of a Christian pilgrimage should first and foremost be to meet with God. But there may be secondary purposes as well. Many people go on pilgrimage as a time of self-discovery and that is entirely appropriate. Pilgrimage is inherently a careful and considered journey.
- Spiritual pilgrimage involves a transformation of the pilgrim. If you return the same way that you went then something has come up short. Part of the reason that Martin Luther and the early Protestants rejected the practice of pilgrimage was that this point was oversold. Sometimes persons believed that a pilgrimage would forgive them of all their sin. I think Luther was right to reject this idea (remember that pilgrimage is optional for the Christian!). But the impulse here is correct. Something does happen to change the pilgrim as they journey. This is what makes spiritual pilgrimage a practice of spiritual formation.
- Spiritual pilgrimage is supposed to be difficult. The reason that these experiences are transformative is a combination of this and the first point. While Christians don’t believe that you can “earn” God’s grace through these acts (that wouldn’t be grace!), to go on a difficult journey with the aim of meeting God changes a pilgrim. Sometimes it is physically, psychologically, financially, or spiritually challenging. To go on pilgrimage is to welcome these difficulties as an opportunity to look more like Jesus.
- Spiritual pilgrimage requires disconnecting from the routine. Pilgrims leave work, friends, responsibilities, and media behind for a time. Often pilgrims take ruggedly slow methods of transportation like walking. Pilgrimage often takes you far from the familiar, whether because of new languages and cultures or just a new place. All of these things work together to create an environment where you are more aware of your surroundings. This awareness helps the pilgrim pay attention to the presence of God.
I’m starting a series of posts as I journey on my most recent spiritual pilgrimage: the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James). There are many “ways” to Santiago de Compostela, but I’ll be exploring the most popular way (Camino Frances) which is a 500-mile walking journey across northern Spain. I walked four days of the Camino in May, 2014, to help me prepare to bring 12 students from the University of Indianapolis back in May of 2015. At that time we will walk about 165 miles from Astorga to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.
There are lots of books about the Camino de Santiago, this is one of the better that I’ve read: The Way is Made by Walking by Arthur Paul Boers