Are You a Pilgrim or a Tourist?

Do you live life simply seeking pleasures and diversions, or do you have a more transcendent goal, loving God and neighbor?

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

Am I a pilgrim or a tourist? Like one of the chief questions one is asked when crossing into another country, “What is the purpose of your visit?” this question gets at the root of why one is making a journey, the journey’s purpose and its mode of being lived out. This question is also a good one to consider in traveling through life.

As a student studying abroad in Austria with ample occasion for international travel, “Pilgrim or tourist?” is a theme that would regularly come up in personal reflection and prayer, as well as the occasional homily. Students would find themselves facing questions such as: “Am I going to make a pilgrimage to holy sites in Western Europe over a 10-day break or visit beaches? Pilgrim or tourist?” But this question ran deeper than the mere places one visited on a particular trip with classmates and friends in the study abroad program: whether the chief underlying goal was simply recreational shopping, photography and sightseeing, or an interior journey closer to the One who is both transcendent and immanent.

In some ways, what is most essential to being a pilgrim could have taken place without leaving home, but a tourist is meant to be caught up in that which is exterior. One can here be reminded of the words of St. Augustine in The Confessions: “I was without and [the Lord was] within.”

As we consider personal goals in a particular day or even more long-term ones, this is a good question to consider and meditate upon: “Am I a pilgrim or a tourist?” Do I live life simply seeking all the passing pleasures and distracting diversions I can find, such as streaming videos and scrolling screens, or do I have a more transcendent goal, loving God and neighbor? While the Lord desires that we enjoy the good things of his creation, he also desires that we enjoy them in an ordered way and a way that leads ultimately to our true happiness, which is found in him alone, following his will.        

Sometimes the distinction between being a pilgrim and a tourist gets blurry. This was particularly clear to me when I traveled with some friends to Paris, and we wanted to stay in a religious house’s accommodations set aside for pilgrims and those taking a time of retreat. While we were already planning to visit holy sites in Paris, along with such landmarks as the Louvre Museum and the Eiffel Tower, this made our trip a bit more intentional in the visiting of the holy sites and being pilgrims! It was truly a beautiful trip, including sites associated with Sts. Catherine Labouré and Vincent de Paul, and one of the favorite moments was seeing souls wrapped in prayer during Eucharistic adoration at Sacré Cœur.

This reflection, of being a pilgrim rather than simply a tourist, isn’t one that I’ve left behind in Austria. It is a helpful life lesson and even a focus for going about one’s day. Am I living for myself and the pursuit of temporary pleasures, or for some higher goal?

This past November, I had an opportunity to consider the theme of being a pilgrim again but in a very different setting. A close friend from graduate school had lost her grandfather and was sharing this loss with a couple of us in a group text. Our mutual friend wrote back what was a really touching response:

Oh, [Mary]. What a loss. What a quick pilgrimage each of us gets here. I am moved thinking about it. Death changes the relationship, rather than ends it. Still, it's so sad and I'll continue to pray.

What a perfect response to see life as a pilgrimage! The response was also touching to me personally because I was having a conversation with two friends about my own age, and I realized that none of us knows how long our pilgrimage will be. While it would be great if my friends and I all live into our nineties, we just don’t know when our earthly mission will end and our heavenly one will begin, when the Lord will call us to himself. With this in mind, it is important to live as pilgrims and not as mere tourists, headed with a sense of purpose to a heavenly home and to the One our souls seek, desiring to bring our fellow travelers with us!

In the meantime, let us be reminded of our personal mission here on earth to seek, know and love the Lord (cf. CCC 1), and to serve him. As St. John Henry Newman reminds us: “God has created me to do him some definite service; he has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission….”

May the Lord give us the grace to be pilgrims, rather than mere tourists, aware of our destination and completing our mission along the way!