January 17th, 2022
Available from MinistryMatters

During Lent we have opportunity to remember our own story and bring it into God’s story. One way to remember is a time of self examination through the ancient practice of making a spiritual pilgrimage. This type of journey is rugged, because it is intended to facilitate spiritual transformation. While most spiritual pilgrimages have an important geographic destination such as Jerusalem, Iona, or Selma, the journey itself is what often brings about deep change.

I codirected a number of pilgrimages to Scotland and England, where we focused on Celtic Christian monastic spirituality. At Holy Island Lindisfarne and on Iona we pray, share meals and adventures together, learn about the Celtic saints and traditions, and have plenty of time for solitude. Unfailingly these experiences in the Iona Abbey and other sacred sites become transformational for ourselves and other pilgrims. Yet some of the most pivotal moments happened when we had to face a problem of some kind with the journey.

One time a few years ago, nearly everyone’s luggage was lost on the flight from the United States to the United Kingdom. We were scheduled to walk the Way of St. Cuthbert, a 62.5-mile walk from Melrose, Scotland, to Holy Island. The luggage didn’t arrive until we had walked most of the way. While the lost luggage created enormous frustration and some hardship, it opened a path that reminded us of Jesus multiplying the “loaves and fish”  to share what they did have. The story of the loaves and fish is found in Matthew 15:32-39 and Mark 8:1-9. In this story a boy shares his lunch of a few loaves of bread and some fish with the hungry disciples and Jesus, who miraculously multiplies it into enough food for a large crowd of several thousand people. The story illustrates what happens when people generously share what they have in times of need (socks, aspirin, T-shirts), experience genuine hospitality from one another, and learn how to travel with less. The depth of community that formed on that pilgrimage was more attributable to the lost luggage than to any of the sacred sites we visited!

One of the most profound pilgrimage experiences I've had took place in Oklahoma. I took a group of theology students to experience pilgrimage while focusing on Christianity and cultures of the Plains Tribes. David Wilson, a member of the Choctaw Nation and an ordained pastor and superintendent in The United Methodist Church, facilitated the daily experiences we had, which included visiting sites where massacres had taken place, eating with a small Kiowa church where we heard traditional hymns in Kiowa, listening to a lecture from a Cherokee attorney whose work focuses on human rights on reservations, visiting the Oklahoma History Center to learn about the dreadful history of forced migration and genocide of hundreds of Native American tribes across North America, and participating in a sweat lodge led by a Native American Christian. The experience was theologically and emotionally disorienting for students whose education in American history had not included the Trail of Tears, the Indian Removal Act of 1830, or the military massacres of innocent people at Sand Creek, Washita, and many other places.

This experience challenged students’ theology of evangelism and mission and raised powerful questions of justice for marginalized indigenous people everywhere. That was a pilgrimage of pain and awakening that continues to bear fruit in many of those former students’ lives, as well as my own. By entering into Native American people’s stories and experiencing the hospitality, memories, and wisdom of our hosts, our understanding of the gospel deepened in important ways. Our own stories changed because of that.

The spirituality and five essential disciplines of pilgrimage provide rich resources for the Christian practice of celebration, long after the pilgrimage experience is over. Pilgrimage becomes a way of being in the world that is deeply consistent with many other spiritual disciplines that foster a holy life. The five core elements of pilgrimage include the following:

1. Pilgrimage is inherently disorienting. We intentionally leave what is familiar in God’s care while moving forward with God toward what lies ahead. The disorientation of pilgrimage is what opens us for transformation.

2. Pilgrimage decenters us from ourselves and recenters us on God. Therefore, pilgrimage spirituality fosters humility and wonder, keeping heart and mind open to God. With this openness comes a teachability that then results in much celebration as we encounter God in everincreasing ways.

3. Pilgrimage is hard work physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It is not a vacation or a tourist experience. Pilgrims learn to travel lightly, literally, to help with endurance and minimize potential for injury. The simplicity of traveling lightly becomes a posture for all of life, helping us to be content with enough and to resist excess.

4. Pilgrimage is full of surprises. Transformative encounters with God often come unexpectedly through moments of frustration, struggle, and pain. A spirituality of pilgrimage teaches us to look at the setbacks in life as opportunities to learn and grow rather than seethe with resentment.

5. Pilgrimage can become a habitual attitude as we mature spiritually. Upon completion of a pilgrimage such as a journey to Iona, Selma, Oklahoma, or Asissi, it is important intentionally to take time for “reentry” to everyday life. That is, plan for and engage in a structured process that helps with naming and reflecting upon the gifts and challenges we experienced. In this way the spirituality of pilgrimage may remain with us and help us as the story of our lives continues to unfold.

What pilgrimage beckons you and/or your congregation?

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