The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
(Jorge Láscar, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons)
“Pilgrimages evoke our earthly journey toward heaven and are traditionally very special occasions for renewal in prayer.” (CCC 2691)
Me? I’ve given up on vacations. I get bored at the beach. There’s sand everywhere — even in the sandwiches. Amusement parks don’t amuse me and the mountains are too high.
I’m for pilgrimages instead. A pilgrimage is a holy holiday. It’s not a vacation and it’s not a stay-cation — it’s a way-cation because you are on the pilgrim’s way.
I recently returned from a great pilgrimage in Italy. We tromped around churches, cathedrals and monasteries, looked at art, gloried in the beautiful countryside and enjoyed food, fellowship, family and faith.
Then Sunday we heard the reading of Jesus sending out the seventy disciples. They went out as pilgrims:
Go on your way;
behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.
Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals;
and greet no one along the way.
Into whatever house you enter, first say,
'Peace to this household.'
What was our Lord thinking about? Was he trying to set up a kind of proto-Franciscan Order? Did he mean they should really have nothing for the journey — no food, no sack, no money and not even footwear?
I think he was setting them up to be pilgrims in the pattern of the Jewish people who were nomads, travelers, the pilgrim people of God.
The pilgrim is the citizen of another country. He is called to the Promised Land. Therefore he does not put his tent stakes too deep. He or she has learned detachment from earthly possessions and people. He or she is always ready to move on to the next adventure with God.
The tradition of the pilgrim is therefore a powerful one in the history of the Church.
In the Russian Church the poustinik is a wandering pilgrim who eventually builds himself a poustinia — a little hermitage. There’s a classic book on this form of spirituality by Catherine Doherty. It’s called Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude and Prayer.
The idea of the book is that the poustinik wanders until he knows he has found the place he is to settle. He wanders through the wilderness, if you like, until he finds his promised land. There he builds a little one-room cabin in which to live and pray as a hermit. The poustinik also helps in the community. He is not a total solitary. He (or she) lives and works with the people, but the poustinik is known to be a person of prayer and a person of power.
I had my own experience one summer that was unforgettable. In 1987 I hitchhiked from England to Jerusalem, staying in monasteries along the way.
Since then, pilgrimage has been a regular part of my life. On a pilgrimage you step outside your comfort zone. You see the world from a fresh perspective. As you travel you make new friends and share the faith with one another in a new way. The pilgrimage puts you in first-class touch with the saints and the places of Jesus Christ’s work in the world.
If you haven’t been on a pilgrimage, save up and sign up. They are fantastic. If you can’t afford to travel to Europe or the Holy Land, then plan a pilgrimage to a local shrine in your city or diocese. You can search online, and to get started, here is just one list of great shrines to visit in the United States.
Set out to be a pilgrim. You won’t be sorry!