What is a Pilgrimage?

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“For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.”
(Hebrews 13:14)

A pilgrimage is different than a vacation, hiking excursion, or a road trip. It has a lot to do with motivations and expectations, as well as the experience of the journey itself.

Pilgrim or Tourist?

Shortly after college I went on an amazing trip to Europe with my best friend (another cousin!). Although I was a Christian then, I was far from being Catholic. The awkwardness this created in Rome was palpable. While walking through the catacombs (the first century Church) and then visiting St. Peter’s, I was transported through 1,500 years of Christian history of which I, in important ways, was not a part. Although I (mostly) treated these sites with reverence, I had little connection to them given my Evangelical background.

Simply stated, I wasn’t a pilgrim – I was a tourist.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a tourist. There are lots of interesting sites and objects that people should visit simply because they are interesting and important parts of human history. A tourist can enjoy a visit to the Vatican as much as the Taj Mahal. A pilgrim, however, is going to have a very different experience.

Sacred or Profane?

A pilgrimage is basically a spiritual journey. It is not spiritual in the non-physical sense, though. It is a movement of the soul toward God via a physical journey to some place or object that is sacred.  A sacred place / thing is one that is set apart in some spiritual way – not necessarily an official holy place of worship. Therefore, something can be sacred to one person and not another. For myself, I feel like I am making a pilgrimage every time I visit the camp where I became a Christian many summers ago. Similar experiences might include a visit to a loved one’s grave or the house where one grew up.

Part of the reason I was moved toward the Catholic faith is that it included (and explained) the common intuition of sacredness in the world. Material reality was not denigrated or treated as a second class reality below the spiritual (a heresy known as Gnosticism). Catholicism’s sacramental view of the world sees both material and spiritual aspects of creation as important. Thus, common (“profane”) places and things can attain special importance (“sacredness”) by participation in some spiritual event. Traveling to these places or objects to experience that sacredness makes the journey into a pilgrimage.

Journey or Travel?

There is also an important distinction between traveling and journeying. When reaching a given destination is the goal, one is traveling. When the act of getting to the destination is as (or perhaps even more) important than the destination itself, one is on a journey. I’ve traveled across the country without it meaning much because it was simply what needed to be done to visit relatives or attend a speaking event. On the other hand, I’ve gone for short hikes that were life changing.

When movement is a means to an end, it’s travel. When the means are as important as the end, it’s a journey. The epic journey of Frodo Baggins took place on the path to Mordor – not in the volcano. It was the way that made the story what it was, not simply the final act. Riding a dirt bike between albergues on the Camino might be a fun way to get from point A to point B, but it hardly seems legitimate to call it a pilgrimage!

My Camino

Like my “Camino Cousin” said here, “Every pilgrim has a reason, but unless it is your reason it may not make sense, or even be something that can be articulated.” Wise words! I am not sure I have reflected on the idea enough to be sure what my Camino will be about – and it may change by the time it begins.

I’ve read several books and articles about people’s Camino experiences, and to be honest I have grown weary of the repetitive “Life, like the Camino, is a journey….” metaphors. Yes, paths are like time, carrying a backpack is like life’s burdens, etc. I get it, OK? Ha ha. 🙂 Although spending weeks on The Way will likely elicit such thoughts from me as well, I do hope to come away with something other than insights that could have arisen during any long walk.

I am sure my faith will make my Camino different than it would have been even a few short years ago. Seeing the Sudarium of Oviedo would be amazing, and being in the presence of the relics of St. James is important for me (my wife once memorized the book of James, and he is one of our children’s name saints!). But the journey in-between these relics is a big part of the motivation. Since becoming Catholic, I feel more of a legitimate connection to the early pilgrims who walked across Europe to pray at sacred relic sites, or who journeyed all the way to the Holy Land itself (Deus vult!) – and I want that connection to become more real by doing a pilgrimage myself.

In addition to this desire, I look forward to disconnecting from daily life (although it is a life with which I am quite happy!), long periods of quiet contemplation and beauty, and quality time with my cuz. I am not necessarily expecting any major revelatory experiences on the Camino – but then again, I didn’t expect any when I got a summer job at a Christian camp many years ago that changed my life forever.

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