On Pilgrimage

I’ve been writing reflections on the pilgrimage to Israel I took in June of this year. To read all of them, click here.

During the second half of June this year, I went on a pilgrimage to Israel and the West Bank. Our group of about 32 people was deliberate about not being tourists, even though we did ride around in a bus and go to some of the places tourists go. But we wanted our trip to be a pilgrimage. Tourists don’t gather together and recite the Shema every morning, as we did. Tourists roll right up to a site and park next to the gift shop; they don’t find a place by the side of the road to get out and hike toward an archaeological site. Tourists don’t sing praise choruses at the sites they visit, and when they go to the Jordan for a baptism, they find a place where the water is deep and controlled and they cycle people in and out like a fast food restaurant.

Like many Protestant Christians, I have a complicated relationship with the idea of pilgrimage. I do not believe that going on a pilgrimage to Israel makes you objectively closer to God. I don’t believe that certain relics associated with those places have a special holy status. If you are a Christian, you have the Holy Spirit inside you, which is as close to God as you ever need to be. And while I know not all Christians agree with me, I do not believe that there is anything special about the land now that makes it especially holy. Jesus came to bring God’s kingdom so that it would spread throughout the earth and make all of it God’s dwelling place again; the idea of a particular “holy land” flies in the face of that.

And yet there is something about standing in a place, or near a place, where something significant happened that fires the imagination and can change your life. Visiting certain places can be sacramental—that is, outward signs of an invisible grace. Like the bread of communion or the water of baptism, in themselves they are ordinary things, but they can be given spiritual significance. As is so often the case, New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says it better than I ever could (in his book on pilgrimage, The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today):

On the one hand, certain places remain special because of their association with Jesus himself, or with one of those who, indwelt by his Spirit, has lived out the life of Christ. On the other hand, the God we know in Jesus claims the entire world, and all its nations, as his own; and wherever this God is worshipped … in that spot another part of God’s created space, as well as another moment of God’s created time, is quietly claimed as his own. Our Christian living, and our Christian pilgrimages, thus take place in the space and time in between the life of Jesus and God’s restoration of the whole creation. Like the sacraments themselves, pilgrimage looks back, in great acts of remembrance, and on to the time of final redemption.[1]

A few pages later he sums up this idea that pilgrimage can be sacramental:

There is every reason to regard the act of pilgrimage in itself as a metaphor, or even a sacrament, for and of the pilgrim’s progress through the present life to the life that is to come. Like all sacraments, it is open to the abuse of being treated magically, as though going to a particular place automatically gains you grace, heavenly Brownie points. But the abuse does not remove the use. Our present journey really can become a means of grace, if we approach it in the right way.[2]

I was first conscious of this experience of the sacramentality of pilgrimage when I visited Krakow while I was in my early 20s. I had been living in Prague, steadily beaten down by the spiritual darkness there, and went to visit Krakow during spring break. It also happened to be Holy Week. Everything was light; there was dancing, there were flowers, there was joy, there was laughter. On that trip I became fascinated with John Paul II, former bishop of Krakow, and the relationship he had with that city, both being shaped by and shaping its culture. I also went back to visit again six months later because there was something about being in that place that fed my spirit.

So while I resist the idea that certain places are objectively holier than others, I do believe that it is easier to experience the presence of God in some places because of what has happened there. It is also easier to experience the presence of evil in some places because of what has happened there. National and city borders may be somewhat arbitrary, yet I have spoken with people—not flaky people who are into weird spiritual practices but orthodox Christians—who could tell when they cross a border or enter a space by the change they feel in their spirit. I have experienced this myself.

Over the next several weeks, I’m going to post my reflections on sites we visited. I don’t know how many posts there will be or how long it will take. Because we were pilgrims and not tourists, I am not going to write a blow-by-blow account of where we went and what we saw. I have that information elsewhere, and I’ll tell you if you want. Rather, I want this to be personal, inward: What did I feel being in this space at this time? What has God shown me about him and myself through that experience? How can this experience help me to love God with all my heart, soul, and might, and my neighbor as myself, as the Shema says?

[1] Tom Wright, The Way of the Lord: A Pilgrim Journey in Life and Faith (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1999), 8.

[2] The Way of the Lord, 11.


2 thoughts on “On Pilgrimage

  1. This is wonderful Elliot. Thank you for sharing some of your thoughts and experiences. I’m looking forward to reading more.

  2. Elliot, I benefited by being on this pilgrimage with you and now will benefit by your continued thoughts on this shared experience. The idea of place as sacrament is similar in the Celtic tradition where it is called, “thin spaces”. A “thin place” is one where the veil that separates heaven and earth is nearly transparent where we experience a deep sense of God’s presence in our everyday world. A thin place is where, for a moment, the spiritual world and the natural world intersect.

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