One of the highlights of my recent vacation was a Sunday spent in the small cathedral city of Canterbury in the southeast of England. While I loved exploring the town itself, with its charming centuries-old pubs, bustling cobbled streets, and excellent beer, the day I spent in Canterbury didn’t feel like the other days on which I explored on my vacation. It felt different because, as much as it was a day trip from London, it was also a pilgrimage, and it is aspect of it that I’d like to reflect on today.
A pilgrimage is a journey whose destination has spiritual significance. It is a feature of many faith traditions, ranging from the ad hoc travels of spiritual seekers to the regimented rituals of the Hajj, a pilgrimage all able Muslims must undertake at least once. Within my own Christian tradition, pilgrimage has tended to fall somewhere between those two extremes, with routes and destinations that are common and well-trod but far from universal. The Old Testament contains many examples of pilgrimage and pilgrimage sites, with the patriarchs and their descendants establishing altars at places where God had intervened in their lives. And most significantly, after the Temple was built on Mount Zion, Jerusalem became, at least canonically, the only appropriate place for Israel’s worship, with several annual feasts that would attract pilgrims from across the nation and, by the time of Jesus, around the world.
Originally, Christian pilgrimage was focused around sites connected to Jesus’ life and death (Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem), and around the ministry and death of the Apostles (first and foremost Rome). There are descriptions of Christian pilgrimage to such sites from as early as the third century, but the practice seems to have truly come into its own after St. Helen, the mother of the emperor Constantine the Great, traveled to Jerusalem to find locations connected to Jesus.
But why pilgrimage at all? Three main reasons come to mind as to why these traditions might have developed. The first is intellectual curiosity. Particularly surrounding the sites in and around Jerusalem, many pilgrims have gone to get a better understanding of Jesus’ story by seeing for themselves the lay of the land. While this may seem like it would be a more modern development, this seems to have been one of Origen’s primary interests in visiting Jerusalem in the third century (see for example his Commentary on John, 6.24). Similarly, St. Jerome said that “Just as Greek history becomes more intelligible to those who have seen Athens, so a man will gain a clearer grasp of Holy Scripture who has gazed at Judaea with his own eyes” (Prefaetio in Librum Paralipomenon). The second reason for pilgrimage is that coming together at the same locations and times of year to undertake the same rituals and services is a tangible experience of religious unity. The most famous example of this I can think of is the life-changing experience the American Civil Rights activist Malcolm X had on the Hajj, which became for him both a symbol and an actualization of a unity amongst races he had not even imagined possible. This ability of pilgrimage to unite people from all regions of the world and walks of life was also mentioned by the fourth-century Christian pilgrim saint Egeria, who marveled at the different cultures represented among pilgrims in Jerusalem (Travels, 8).
The final reason for pilgrimage — and the one that I will focus on most in my reflections below — is the one articulated by former Roman Catholic pope Benedict XVI: “To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself, where his grace has shone with particular splendour and produced rich fruits of conversion and holiness among those who believe.”
While pilgrimage has been a common Christian practice, it has not been without controversy. No less a figure than St. Gregory of Nyssa was famously suspicious of pilgrimage. His argument was essentially threefold: 1. Christian life is about living as Jesus lived, not walking where he walked (Gregory even rather snarkily commented that going to Jerusalem is not among the Beatitudes); 2. Not only is there no real benefit from pilgrimage but the experience itself can cause spiritual harm in presenting new temptations (While the exact argument he makes is grounded in a stereotypically monastic fear of associating with women, a contemporary version of this argument would be to point out how disruptive travel is to the good habits and routines we work so hard to cultivate); and 3. The experience of God is not more readily present or available to us in Jerusalem than it is where we live. While Gregory’s position never ‘won the day’ and pilgrimage continued to grow in popularity, it has remained an important ballast within the Christian tradition.
What is it?
Travel to a place of spiritual significance and engage in the common rituals and worship of the place. It doesn’t necessarily need to involve international travel. I once visited the parish church where my mom was baptized and that took on some elements of pilgrimage for me. Or there have even been times when I’ve attended churches quite a way away from my home and so I began considering the journey to and from church to be part of my sacred practice, to turning every service into an act of pilgrimage in some sense. So the point isn’t the distance you’re travelling but more the reasons for travelling and the attitude with which you do it.
As I mentioned in the introduction, my recent pilgrimage was to Canterbury, a place that has long been the focus of pilgrimage activities. While the focus of Canterbury as a pilgrimage site took form after the twelfth century when its archbishop, Thomas Becket, was martyred there after falling afoul of King Henry II, for me, the draw was less Becket than it was Canterbury’s role in England’s Christian history — for it was the central location for the missionary activity of St Augustine of Canterbury, apostle to the Kentish Kingdom in the seventh century — and its role as the spiritual centre of the Church of England and Anglican Communion, to which I belong.
It will likely come as no surprise to anyone that where pilgrimage is concerned, my own perspective has always been close to St Gregory’s skepticism. And so in order turn a journey into a pilgrimage, I need to be able to enter it in such a way as to overcome his arguments. What I’ve been finding most compelling as I’ve been reflecting this week is the interplay between Gregory’s third argument against pilgrimage and the third rationale for pilgrimage I mentioned above. I feel like both of these contradictory points — the truth that God is everywhere present and filling all things and therefore pilgrimage sites don’t have anything new or better to offer us and the truth that places of theophany can be spiritually significant — are valid. It’s the old battle between the general and the particular all over again. As I’ve written about before, I think the particular is often what allows us to see the general. I experienced this during and after my trip to Canterbury. It was deeply moving for me to walk up the steps to the altar at Canterbury Cathedral to receive communion, particularly as I thought of how many others — and who among them — had done the same before me. But that experience made it all the more powerful for me to receive communion — the same divine Gift — the following Sunday at my home parish and from the hands of a beloved friend. The general insists we remember the deep spiritual truths of our faith; the specific grounds those truths in the earthiness, specificity and messiness of the world. This interplay is deeply incarnational. While I don’t have much desire to go there, the existence of Jerusalem as a pilgrimage site reminds us that One of the Trinity walked among us, as a first century Jewish man, subject alike to the customs of his people and the laws of the imperial power of the day.
But if this was true of Jesus, then it’s certainly true of me too. And I find this to be helpful too as I think about pilgrimage. I admit that I struggle with a lot of the culture and production surrounding most pilgrimage sites. I can’t think about the sites in Jerusalem without thinking about the petty political battles among competing monastic communities surrounding them; I can’t think about the sites in Rome without thinking about the gilded grandeur that obscures the humility and sacrifice of the martyrdom it’s meant to honour. And it all just leaves me cold, like a testimony to the triumph of earthly power over the spirit of the Gospel. But the thing is that just as Jesus in all his divinity was still man of his culture and a man of his times and very much his own man, it’s okay for me to be my own man too. My aesthetic, my faith, and my liturgical sensibilities all prefer simplicity to ornateness, with embellishment designed to highlight rather than obscure the natural lines and structure. And that means that some expressions of the faith might just not be for me. And that’s okay. At the same time, this also means that there are places of pilgrimage that are more for me, that are dedicated to or associated with theophanies that resonate with my heart and are kept simply. I’ve never been envious of friends who have traveled on pilgrimage to Jerusalem; but I have been envious of friends who have traveled on pilgrimage to the cathedral in Sitka or to the simple gravesite of St Olga in a small Alaskan village. Now that I think about this, of all the beautiful churches I visited in Paris — all stunning for their architectural and artistic merit — the place I most felt the presence of God was the small, ancient, side chapel at Saint-Germain-des-Prés on the presumed burial place of the sixth-century bishop himself. And that probably has more to do with me and how God speaks to me in my own specificity than it does the grand churches or to the people whom God meets within them. For some the very human messiness surrounding the sites in Jerusalem is itself witness to the incarnation; for others, the gilded grandeur of some of the sites in Rome that rubs me the wrong way is a symbol and foretaste of the glories of the Kingdom of God. And that’s beautiful.
I hadn’t intended for this reflection to turn into a contemplation of the incarnation, specificity, and human finitude, but here we are. It’s a surprising turn because I had intended on focusing on the ability of pilgrimage to take us out of ourselves rather than focus on ourselves. But perhaps the two aren’t as far off as it first seems. God does always call us out of ourselves — out of our limited experience and into the great Abyss of God’s infinite Life — and yet, as the stories and lives pilgrimage sites honour demonstrate, God always does this from where we are. And so Canterbury was able to be a pilgrimage for me because of its place in the Christian history of my family’s ancestral home and the small parish church where my mom was baptized was able to be a pilgrimage site for me because of the importance of my mother’s faith in my life. Both of these very different experiences pulled me out of myself and showed how my life and faith are connected and rooted to those who have directly and indirectly gone before me.
And so what about pilgrimage writ large? I like that there are pilgrimage traditions within Christianity; but I’m also glad there’s the tradition of skepticism about them as well. As long as we keep Gregory’s warnings in mind and remember that what God desires is transformed hearts and lives and not pilgrimages and that the same Spirit that draws us out of ourselves in pilgrimage is present to and with us just as much at home, pilgrimage can be a beautiful and humbling practice.