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The Way of the Pilgrim

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When I teach Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in my literature survey course each semester, I need to take a certain extra amount of time to explain to my students just what these characters are doing by going on a pilgrimage: it is not something that younger people are often familiar with or find attractive, and yet I think that for Christians the idea of living the pilgrim life can be a very rich way of looking at the way we move through our days.

In medieval times people undertook religious pilgrimages for a reason, ordinarily supplication or thanksgiving, although some people went out of simple piety. Whatever the reason, people wanted to show God or one of the saints how serious they were about their prayer for this or that. Depending on whom they were praying to or honoring, the pilgrims would choose a particular shrine from among dozens of possible sites, from Santiago de Compostela to the shrine of St. Ursula in Cologne, or even the Holy Land. They would ordinarily travel on foot, without money, in rough clothing (something like burlap), begging their way, often sleeping on the ground, praying and sometimes singing as they went.

Now the word “pilgrim” does not appear in the New Testament as such, nor does the concept occur there as even a clear theme, but in the Gospels we do see people doing something like a pilgrimage in their going to see and hear Jesus; what they actually see and hear is both more and different than what they often expected. In the Acts of the Apostles, we hear of a eunuch from the court of the queen of Ethiopia going on a sort of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which also ends differently than expected—the eunuch even asks for Baptism as a result (Acts 8:26–40).

Although being a pilgrim is not a concept, a word, or a practice specifically suggested or promoted in the New Testament, we can see that Scripture, taken as a whole, describes the pilgrim journey and growth of the People of God. Through all the stories, teachings, songs, prophets’ words, and critical faith moments in the history of the Hebrews, the Old Testament reveals the People of God to be on a foundational and progressively spiritual quest. The story of the expulsion from the Garden at the opening of the Bible (Gen 3) does not directly call us to work to return there, but that drive for a return is implicit and provides a starting point for the rest of Sacred Scripture. In people’s minds the Garden quickly became less our origin and more our desired destination.

Abraham left home because the Lord promised to make him a great nation (Gen 12:1–5), but the Lord progressively expanded that promise both for him and the other patriarchs to include the gift of land, great wealth, and numerous descendants if they let him be their God. Recall how the Lord rewards Job at the end of his travails precisely with land, wealth, and children. As time went on, the Jews came to understand this promised reward as the Promised Land, but as time passed, the People of God looked beyond such rewards for something greater, since, for Israel, only intermittent possession of the territory and merely relative wealth did not sufficiently satisfy their yearning. For that they turned to the expected coming of the Messiah.

As they moved beyond a hope for merely material rewards, their spiritual quest thus became more profound, even prophetic. Although many sought the blessings of the Lord primarily in a careful observance of the letter of the Law, the prophets and the Song of Songs did more than hint at a goal or destination which was richer and somehow closer to the vision of the Garden, a real intimacy with the Lord in a love and an innocence that transcended the mere formalities of the Law.

As Christians we see that our goal or destination is actually eternal life in God, being forever ecstatic with love and joy in his presence. It will be a return to the intimacy with God described in the first chapters of Genesis, but we also look (to use other images) toward the eternal feast Jesus speaks about—to living in the Kingdom of God, to abiding as children in our Father’s house, and to dwelling forever in the heavenly Jerusalem, which is Christ Himself (cf. Rev 21, 22).

We might even look at Jesus himself as a sort of pilgrim. He had to make the journey from his birth in Bethlehem back to the right hand of the Father by a long and demanding route, and he lived poorly all the way, even depending completely on alms during the last years of his life and sleeping on the ground as he constantly went about visiting the towns of Galilee and Judea and revealing God’s love in who he was, what he said, and what he did. In order to reach his destination, he finally had to face rejection and an extremely painful death. He now invites us to accompany him in that journey, following him and trusting him as our guide and Shepherd and believing that he is himself our Way (Jn 14:6).

If we consider what living as such a pilgrim might mean to us today, it is clear that it does not mean just taking bus or plane trips to shrines, for such “pilgrimages” are only too often merely excuses for excursions. Our pilgrimage must be in our daily lives, where every moment of each every day is another step along our way to the Kingdom. Psalm 95 captures this idea in only a few words: “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts” (v. 8).

This means being attentively present to each moment to what the Lord is offering us in the people we meet, in our work, in what we read and hear, in the successes and difficulties of all sorts that we experience—in everything that touches our lives, for everything is part of God’s loving word and call to us. We must seek God in all things, and we must live our response to God actively and concretely. We need to do more than find Him only in our intentions, pious thoughts, or empty words. But we must not only encounter God in all our experiences; we must also experience all things in God’s providence and love for us.

This is a matter of living in the present moment, not in regret over our past sins and failures or in grandiose projects for the future, not in what we might do “if only…” or “once I can…”; rather, we take the next steps on our pilgrimage in following our quest of God right here and now, with these people, and in these circumstances.

And we strive to advance one step at a time, begging our daily bread (Mt 6:11), utterly dependent on the love of God (cf. Mk 6:7–13). Our pilgrimage is not supposed to be a casual stroll, an afternoon’s exercise in pleasant weather accompanied only by attractive people; it is supposed to be a prayer and a journey of growth, and sometimes we can only learn such things as humility, purity of heart, trust, and gratitude when the road is hard.

We must travel light, letting go of all that weighs us down. We choose to carry certain burdens but need to progressively rid ourselves of them in order that we might go more swiftly and joyously towards our goal. Such burdens can be our sins, our regrets, or our extreme attachments to the people, the concerns, and the values of our earthly life. There are also other burdens, those that we help others carry, but these are of a very different sort: we do not make our pilgrimage to God alone but as a people, and such burdens as these are light for us since Jesus helps us carry them (cf. Mt 11:28).

In spite of all our dedication and desire we sometimes go astray because we do not manage to constantly focus on the Way the Father offers us but let our attention fall to our burdens and our discomfort. There are times that we forget what we are about and wander aimlessly, times that we find the going too hard and indulge ourselves in too much rest from our labor, reward ourselves too much for our efforts, and give ourselves to the attractions of the physical world through which we travel.

More than that, we actually sin in consciousness of the fact. We choose, at this moment or that, to walk in a direction which we know is not godly, not part of the Way we must follow, but those who are true pilgrims examine what it is that draws them away from their wholehearted dedication to the quest and seek to learn from these lapses how to pursue their God more faithfully. These are the ones who grow in God’s love; those who are only half-hearted just wander farther away at every moment and eventually forget all about their pilgrim journey.

At our best we rejoice in all that brings us together with other pilgrims: our celebration of the Eucharist, weekly or even more often, is refreshment and waybread for us; it is strength for our spiritual life but and a reminder that we travel as brothers and sisters of the Lord, proceeding on his mission and in his love and care. We rejoice in all that brings us together with other pilgrims, even our suffering shared in his name.

All of this is part of our seeking: we have not yet arrived and we are still very much on the road. We must be gentle seekers here, humble, ready to learn, and dependent on others in many ways.

Don Quixote was a pilgrim, eager to spend his life on the roads of Spain and to serve others as he went along (cf. vol. II, ch. 17). He went about doing what good he could, living in a higher world and taking it seriously, believing that compassion and generosity needed to be the essence of his life. He lived the virtue of hope in his quest for a glory that he could offer to his Dulcinea.

We too must set out, poor and poorly equipped, yet filled with hope and joy, like the Don, but depending on the Lord as best we can even if we remain (as we must) sinful and weak and personally ineffective. We too must undertake great deeds of sacrifice and prayer, but not for the glory of anyone on earth—only for the glory of God. In Christ we too hear the Father say, “You are my Beloved Child. All my favor rests on you,” and so we too must go out into the world on the pilgrimage of our lives, trusting in God and doing our best at every moment.

In all of this Christ is indeed our Way, but because of who he is there are other aspects to his presence. He goes steadily forward on the mission that his Father gave him, and we are privileged to follow. And yet when we go on our way, even one he blesses, he is following us and has our back. It is something like the supposed old Irish blessing: “God go before you to lead you, God go behind you to protect you, God go beneath you to support you, God go beside you to befriend you.” And Jesus is at the same time himself our goal in all the ways that he exists and in all that he wishes to be for us.

A Protestant pastor of the nineteenth century, Oswald Chambers, once said that “Faith never knows where it is being led, but it knows and loves the One who is leading”—just as we know who is calling us back to the Garden, to the fullness of the Kingdom, and to the eternal banquet and joy of our Father’s house, provided we embrace that calling and become a Pilgrim People.

Featured Photo: Víctor Nuño; CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Charles Kestermeier, SJ

Charles Kestermeier, SJ teaches English composition and ancient world literature in the English department at Creighton University (Omaha, NE), where he also serves as campus chaplain. Fr. Kestermeier is also a frequent contributor to Our Sunday Visitor.