We all embark on journeys. Some do it for business purposes; some for leisure. Others set out for more strictly academic reasons. Then there those who venture out for religious purposes. These are the pilgrims, the itinerantly pious, who go on a journey not only of self- discovery, but with higher goals in mind. It is on this subject that I would like to dwell for a time. This past week, the other students and I spent the first two days on our Reformation Tour. Traveling to so many important locations associated with the Covenanters and the Scottish Presbyterians got me thinking about pilgrimages and perhaps how the concept is in need of some rehabilitation and revival.
The classical definition of a pilgrim is simply this: one who journeys for religious reasons, (sometimes to a religious or sacred place). My concern right now is simply with pilgrimages and Christianity. The term “pilgrimage” has picked up some historical baggage over the centuries, particularly in the years leading up to the Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church attached spiritual weight to the completion of pilgrimages and went to great lengths to protect Christian travelers and holy sites. It can be said that the Crusades were waged to protect pilgrimage sites in the Middle East. Most Protestants have heard the story of Martin Luther and his disillusioning pilgrimage to Rome. The corruption, error and excess that characterized medieval Catholicism have dripped down to taint the concept of pilgrimages for modern Protestants. (Geoffrey Chaucer’s motley band of sordid characters comes readily to mind). Now most consider them to be an antiquated vestige of that system of works righteousness that we broke away from so long ago.
I would like to argue that pilgrimages are actually consistent with our reality as Christians. God’s People throughout history have been making journeys for faith reasons. We might be able to say that the first “pilgrim” in the Bible was Abraham. God spoke to him, told him to leave his home and travel to a land that God would show him (Genesis 12:1). In the times of Jesus, the Jewish people were journeying to Jerusalem to make sacrifices for Passover every year. They came from all over the regions of Israel and the Diaspora. They sang Psalms of Ascent to remember the importance of “going up” to God’s house. In a more abstract sense, we are all “pilgrims” on a spiritual journey of the Christian life. John Bunyan explores that in great detail in his masterful allegory Pilgrim’s Progress.
In a way, my main reason for participating in the Semester in Scotland program was for spiritual reasons. About six months ago I decided to join the Reformed Presbyterian Church. I wanted this semester to be a sort of pilgrimage, a journey of discovery, growing closer to God and learning about the lives of like-minded Christians from centuries past. The first two days of the Reformation Tour were a powerful taste of that. We visited St. Andrews and stood where Patrick Hamilton, the first Covenanter martyr, was burned at the stake. We (hesitantly) climbed into the pulpit of John Knox. On the second day in Edinburgh we payed our respects at Greyfriars churchyard where so many Covenanter leaders were buried and where they signed the National Covenant in 1638. Another gated portion of the cemetery was the location where many Covenanters were cruelly imprisoned. In the city center, we planted our feet where there was once planted a gallows for the execution of so many of them. All of this was really enlightening for me and changed my perspectives. I had never heard of these persecuted Presbyterians a year ago, but now I could confidently call them my brothers and sisters in Christ. Where my view of the Church had previously been quite narrow, I now see how it encompasses so many people all around the world. We have not even completed half of our Reformation Tour excursions and I have already seen and learned things about God’s faithfulness and His people that I will never forget. In a way, these outings were a kind of pilgrimage, a journey of spiritual significance.
Pilgrimages serve as formative experiences in many ways. They can promote times of introspection on our own walks with God, prompt reflection on what He has done in the past, as well as orient our minds to godly perspectives. I think modern Christians could do well to see them as such. They should NOT be used as a means to earn one’s salvation, but as potentially life-changing physical reflections of a spiritual reality. We are all pilgrims, sojourners, on this harrowing pilgrimage that we call the Christian walk.
Psalm 122:1 “I was glad when they said to me ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”
Lauren Della Piazza