Blessed are those whose heart is set on pilgrimage
Pilgrimage is all the rage these days. Reality shows feature “celebrity pilgrims”, films, books and podcasts about the Camino and other trails abound. Pilgrimage seems to have come to the attention of our culture, yet it remains one of those ancient, primal concepts which is tricky to pin down.
Pilgrimage is incarnational – a physical engagement with our bodies on the actual land, mirrored by an internal journey towards what is deepest and truest. It is a journey through unknown territory to a sacred destination, where the journey itself is as important as our arrival. It is the placing of one foot in front of the other in all weathers, in all moods, trusting that – somehow – our journey has significance. It features in all the world faiths.
My husband has recently returned from two prolonged seasons of pilgrimage – starting from the tip of the Orkneys and finishing at the toe of Valentia Island in Kerry. He has a bad back and currently walks with a limp, and he describes much of his walking as “sauntering”. This word itself has its roots in pilgrimage.
In the medieval world, many regular people throughout Europe would set off on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. They would be asked in the villages they passed through where they were going, and would reply, “Á la Sainte Terre” – to the Holy Land. From this, pilgrims became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. To go on pilgrimage is to become a saunterer, to cease rushing, to treasure the moment, to be attentive to what unfolds.
When we spoke on the phone, he would share about describe a spectacular sunset he might have seen, or the astonishing purity of a rushing mountain stream
My husband returned with many stories: of the beautiful kindness of strangers; of prolonged periods of being alone with just the land as his companion; of an unfamiliar sense of invisibility, sometimes being mistaken for a homeless person; of the humbling glimpse into the world of the asylum seeker as he carried all his possessions on his back; of a herd of deer gazing at him in absolute stillness.
When we spoke on the phone, he would describe a spectacular sunset he might have seen, or the astonishing purity of a rushing mountain stream, or a glorious tree he had spent time with, or a cleft in the rock he was able to tuck himself inside. I found myself rejoicing that at least someone was taking the time to value what was truly important, to attend to these secret, God-given wonders and glory in them as they deserve.
Our very lives can be seen as pilgrimages, because what is life if it is not a journey? Psalm 84 speaks of this: “Blessed are those whose trust is in God, whose heart is set on pilgrimage.” The psalmist continues: “As they pass through the Valley of Weeping they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.”
As the people of God, we know where we are heading. Navigating distractions and putting one foot faithfully in front of the other on the narrow way, we are sauntering into the waiting arms of the one who made us and loves us and gave himself for us.
And try as we might to bypass uncertainty we are reminded over and over that none of the important things are within our control at all. This is the case for every single one of us. We are led by God into the unknown and invited to trust. St Augustine of Hippo wrote: “Trouble should not really be thought of as this thing or that in particular, for our whole life on earth involves trouble; and through the troubles of our earthly pilgrimage we find God.”
Augustine continues: “It is better to limp along the way than to walk briskly off the way. For one who limps along the way, even though he makes just a little progress, is approaching his destination; but if one walks off the way, the faster he goes the further he gets from his destination.”