Pilgrimage: Going and Returning

Today’s post is by Carole Crumley

Happy are the people whose strength is in you! Whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.

Psalm 84

Pilgrimage is one of the spiritual practices that is common to many of the great faith traditions. Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and many others find their common ground in this ancient and contemporary spiritual practice. Historically there have been many motives for making a sacred journey. For some, the journey was an expression of their hope for a healing miracle. For others, it was an offering of thanksgiving for God’s goodness and gifts. Medieval Christians regarded pilgrimage as a penitential activity, so much so that criminals were often given the choice—pilgrimage or jail. Not surprisingly, they chose the pilgrim path.

Perhaps, for other pilgrims, it was just a way of traveling to distant places; a sense of adventure and restlessness urged them on. But for all, pilgrimage required a leaving of home, familiar routine and landmarks, family and friends and venturing out into unknown territories with trust and hope.

I became a pilgrim unawares many years ago when traveling in Mexico with family members. We hired a driver to take us around to various sites and he insisted that we go to Our Lady of Guadalupe and visit the healing shrine dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus. Along the way, I noticed there were others going in the same direction—some on donkey back, some walking and even some moving slowly and painfully on their knees. I asked the driver who they were and he answered, “Pilgrims.”

Some years later, I joined a pilgrimage led by the National Council of Churches to the former Soviet Union. The intent of the journey was to support the churches as they struggled to live under an oppressive regime and as they prepared to celebrate 1000 years of Christianity in Russia. It was through that experience that I learned almost everything I know about pilgrimage: the need to prepare through study, the importance of traveling with questions rather than answers, the value of forming spiritual community with fellow pilgrims as well as with those whom we met, and the realization that prayer supports and sustains our journey more than we can ever know.

Our pilgrim community experienced some of the fruits of such a prayerful journey—changed lives, reconciled hearts, deepened compassion, new hope and inspiration for the future and an awareness of God’s grace sufficient for each moment. It was then I sensed that what can happen on a pilgrimage is the same as what happens in any of Shalem’s programs—lives are transformed and grace abounds. It’s hard to express how this happens, how the miracle of community forms and how grace reveals itself, but there are multiple testimonials to the fact that it does.

As I have led pilgrimages for Shalem over the years, I have discovered that going on a pilgrimage is only one half of the journey. The other is coming home, bringing back the blessing. Jim Cotter expresses this beautifully in his version of Psalm 84, from Psalms for a Pilgrim People. He writes that those who go on the pilgrim way discover unexpected springs of mercy and return home as “springs of healing for others, reservoirs of compassion to those who are bruised. Strengthened themselves they lend courage to others and God will be there at the end of their journey.” Those who are blessed become a blessing to others.

A version of this blog first appeared in the Shalem News, Summer 2006.

Interest in joining Shalem on pilgrimage? We are accepting applications now for our 2019 Pilgrimage to Newfoundland: A World Apart. Apply and pay by December 20 to receive a discount!

December 12, 2018 by Carole Crumley
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