Why do people go on pilgrimages?
What’s wrong with staying where you are?
What’s so special about the place you are going to?
The word ‘pilgrim’ comes from the Latin word peregrinus, meaning a person who lived in the Roman empire but was not a citizen. He or she lacked the security, legal rights and social status that citizens enjoyed. So the peregrinus was in some ways a permanent stranger or outsider.
And peregrinus was the word used in early Latin translations of the Hebrew Bible for someone who ‘dwelt as a stranger’. They lived as aliens, strangers in the land, people uprooted, refugees, wanderers. Such people lacked worldly security, so their status was a mark of humility and trusting dependence on God.
This is what underlies the early use of the word ‘pilgrimage’ by Christians. It was not fundamentally to do with ‘a long walk to a holy place. It was a way of being in the world, while retaining a kind of freedom: as Jesus said, ‘They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world’.
Such a way of being implied that:
- Christians had no absolute loyalty to nation or state. It was Christ’s enemies who shouted, “We have no king but Caesar.” Jesus reminded them, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, and to belong to his kingdom made your citizenship of Caesar’s kingdom at best provisional.
- Christians put their trust in God, but this meant that you couldn’t put any ultimate trust in armies, wealth, social status or the law.
- God might call you away from all that made you feel secure, inviting you to go on a risky journey of faith.
It was this being ‘in the world but not of the world’ that inspired early writers like Augustine. In the very first sentence of his City of God he wrote of how Christians were wanderers in this world, living by faith. The City of God was our true homeland, and we lived as peregrini in this present world.
Make that Journey
When someone ‘goes on a pilgrimage’, they may be drawn to a place for all kinds of reasons: Jerusalem or Bethlehem because of their associations with Christ; Rome or Spain because those places have associations with special moments in the church’s story; Iona, Whithorn or Cowal because of associations with special people in the past. But in some ways the important thing is not where we go but the fact that we are going. By making the journey we are uprooting ourselves from the normal structures which surround us – even if it’s only for a few days.
Structures of authority may make us feel organised and protected, but they could also be protecting us from God. The order and routines we have which help our lives run smoothly may be fine – but they may also stop us hearing the Word. And maybe the Word wants to disrupt our lives and stop them running so smoothly and efficiently. Maybe love seeks to disrupt order.
So a pilgrimage is a little drama to open up our imagination. We can use it to break out of our routine for a short while and listen for the Word. Without anyone telling us what we should be doing, without the TV telling us what we should be buying, without the usual and oh-so-normal structures of our lives calcifying our thoughts and actions.
By walking, by prayer, and by reflection in a new place with new people, we listen again for the Word. There’s nothing magical about this: no automatic enlightenment. And even the intention to make such a journey is a sign that the Word is already speaking to you, that you want to listen and hear anew.
As a ninth-century Gaelic poet said of what was then a popular pilgrimage: Teicht do Róim mór saído, becc torbai. In Rí chon-daigi hi foss mani mbera latt, ní fogbai.