Why Pilgrimage? Why This Pilgrimage?
Article by Carole Crumley (featured in September 2014 eNews)
We live in what some have called “threshold times,” not just a time of change. We are in an era of profound re-ordering of the social, political, economic, religious and spiritual landscape. In this contemporary context, the ancient-yet-ever-new practice of pilgrimage is undergoing a remarkable resurgence. People want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, visit sacred sites, connect with lives of holiness and inspiration, walk the Camino. People want to “kneel where prayer has been valid.” To do this, they are going on pilgrimage.
One person wrote to me recently that she was preparing to leave on pilgrimage. She said simply, “I want to find silence and listen for answers.” It seems that in this fast-paced world we need room to go deeper. We need space and time to hear “deep calling to deep” (Ps.42). Without the roles, responsibilities and routines of home life, pilgrims find that they are able to open more fully to God’s presence in their own lives and the world, and truly listen.
This listening can help reveal the insufficiency of an old way of living/thinking/doing and inspire a fresh possibility. It can contribute to opening our eyes to the new life and vision that God is seeking to birth in us, the church and the world. It may expand our capacity for creativity and holy imagination and lead to new ways of thinking and doing.
Those who went on pilgrimage in the early centuries of the Celtic church, understood the journey as going to the “place of their resurrection,” that is, to the place of their truest, most authentic self. They were living the Gospel message, “In order to find your life, you must lose it.” In other words, all the forms to which we are so attached – our ideas, beliefs, prejudices, social role, status, religion, politics – all the forms that can blind us to God’s loving presence need to be challenged and loosened. Pilgrimage assists our letting go. Thus the Gospel paradox is realized. By losing, we begin to discover our true Self in God.
But pilgrimage is not for the individual’s spiritual growth alone. On the pilgrim way, pilgrims may experience authentic spiritual community, broaden their spiritual practices and find inspiration in the worship life of other faith communities. They may experience new ways of being church that more fully address their own needs as well as those of seekers, believers and “nones.” Their experiences may lead to a re-formation of many ministerial aspects of congregational life and offer new possibilities for shaping communities of faith in the 21st century.
The Psalmist implies that special blessings await all those on the pilgrim way (Ps. 84) and that the blessings are for the communities back home. According to Jim Cotter’s beautiful translation of this Psalm, pilgrims return home nourished and refreshed and become “springs of healing for others, reservoirs of compassion to those who are bruised. Strengthened themselves they lend courage to others.”
At its heart, a contemplatively-oriented pilgrimage reinforces the understanding that the spiritual life is always moving toward deepening love: love for God, for others, for self and all of God’s creation. It reveals that God is present and active everywhere, always intimately involved in human lives, and always willing and wanting to guide our steps toward that deepening love. For all on the pilgrim way, this requires a radical willingness to trust God’s guidance. Perhaps that is the first prayer, asking for an empowered sense of trust in God, as you discern the rightness of a particular pilgrimage for you.
In your prayerful reflection, some questions you might ask yourself are: What in your prayer is drawing you to this journey? How does this pilgrimage connect with what you sense is needed now for yourself or others, your community or congregation? What about the particular place is drawing you to it? What are you seeking?
You may be able to give perfectly rational answers to these questions while, at the same time, the answers don’t really touch the yearning that is in your heart. Perhaps you sense a deeper kind of knowing, an intuitive knowing that this is right and you don’t really know why.
As I planned our pilgrimage to Paris this spring, one question kept coming to me from various directions: Why Paris? Of course, it is a fabulous city. Who wouldn’t want to go to Paris? But why go as pilgrims on a contemplative journey?
My rational mind can explain it very clearly. Paris has so many ways it can invite our prayer. There are several contemplative communities there that we can worship with and learn from. It is a city of great beauty, art, literature, history, a city that awakens the senses to the goodness of God. All of that is true.
But when it comes right down to it, all I can really say is that it just seems like the right thing to do. There is an inner knowing that I can’t put into words, that I turn to when I doubt my rationalizations and reasons. It just seems right.
If a pilgrimage seems “right” to you, even if you don’t know why, then I hope you will step into that unknown land of pilgrimage and trust that blessings await.
Carole Crumley is Shalem’s Senior Program Director and Director of the Going Deeper: Clergy Spiritual Life and Leadership Program.