Holy Habits – Pilgrimage

Holy Habits – Pilgrimage

When I say the word pilgrimage, I wonder what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Perhaps the image of an arduous journey along a dusty road through winding countryside, or the literary pursuits – such as Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress or Geoffrey Chaucers Canterbury Tales which follows a rag tag band of misfits on their way to the Shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury. So what is this all about and why are they considered a holy habit worth talking about in this section of the Lent course. 

Unlike the liturgical and prayerful gestures that Fr Matthew spoke to us about last week, pilgrimages are not likely to be daily, weekly or even monthly occurrences. Yearly, perhaps or sometimes, even, once in a lifetime. – if we look at them in their truest sense of the word – as a journey to a holy place. So, they may not be a personal holy habit repeated, but they are a habit for humanity – as it seems that pilgrimage has seeped into many cultures and religions AND has even broken into the secular world – with people describing visiting places like ‘Graceland’ as a pilgrimage of sorts. 

One similarity that we must draw with the liturgical gestures and bodily prayer of last week is exactly that – it is bodily. The pilgrimage journey is one that involves every part of the body – it is why the most common method of making a pilgrimage is walking, carrying what you need with you. (It is also a great leveller, that rich and poor alike go on foot) The Spiritual life is often referred to as a journey – that as we move through life we are taught more of God and learn more of Him. The pilgrimage is the physical embodiment of that journey – it seems only right that an incarnational faith such as ours should have a fully bodied form of prayer. It is exactly why Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress became an allegory for the spiritual life. We make a physically demanding journey, often arduous, to enter into a particular place in order to understand more deeply the mysteries contained within. If the pandemic and subsequent lockdown has taught us anything it is – as much good as can come from connecting digitally – it is not the same as being somewhere tangibly, being with people physically, having your senses assaulted by the surroundings. 

One particular book in the Orthodox tradition tells the story of an unnamed pilgrim. He hears the words of scripture that command us to ‘pray without ceasing’ – after failed attempts to live this verse literally – as he didn’t know how to pray when asleep or when his mind was taken in other activities of life – he decided to set out across Russia and find the most holy people in the most God-inpspiring places – a pilgrimage to find the true purpose of prayer – but as he met these wonderful Godly people he didn’t feel that he was getting close to an answer – how to pray continually. Then he happens upon a beautiful revelation – one that can only come from God – that his journey was prayer. Continual prayer. Even when his mouth was not moving, his feet on the floor beat a rhythm of prayer as he made his purposeful journey – as he breathed in – deeply through the difficult terrain, panting up the hills – he prayed the Jesus prayer with his breaths. Lord Jesus Christ, only son of God, on the inbreath, Have mercy on me a sinner on the out breath. He found his feet and breathing and prayer mingled. When he stopped to rest and read his Bible or the words of wisdom of the great Orthodox fathers his mind was turned to God and he fell asleep exhausted from his toil with Christ in his mind and on his lips. His journey, his pilgrimage, had become a living prayer – offered without ceasing – every action, every thought, every word, every interaction soaked in this purpose.

And that is exactly what it is about – purpose.

Pilgrimage is a physical journey to a place of significance with a special or particular purpose. 

It differs from a social engagement when you go to see a person or group, or a tourist trip where your aim is to see a sight – the purpose must be about encounter – Going to the Holy Land and being where Jesus was, going to places where pilgrims have gone before you – your feet in their well trodden paths – your prayers lifted with the celestial echoes of their words long since spoken and faded away. Perhaps you have felt this yourself when you enter ancient church buildings and the stillness is palpable, it feels different to the world around us – that otherworldly silence that sings of eternity. 

Entering these places with the purpose of encounter on our minds and in our hearts will provide space to meet God – this is not an aimless walk but searching for something intangible – and in particular places, and sanctuaries it is given over to the sense of touch. 

As the mystic monk Thomas Merton wrote: 

“The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out an inner journey. The inner journey is the interpolation of the meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage. One can have one without the other. It is best to have both.”

So of course, you can live your faith journey through life without ever making a very specific pilgrimage, you won’t somehow be a deficient Christian if you never make it to the Holy Land in person – but if you can – why not have both? Why not bolster the internal lived faith with this outward bodily incarnational action. But we do need to make intentional pilgrimages – at least within. To move us from the ways of the world to the ways of the kingdom, our christian faith, our  baptismal life IS a pilgrimage if we engage with it – if we understand the purpose and set out in search of it. Paulo Coelho, the author of the book ‘Pilgrimage’ writes: Life is a long pilgrimage from fear to love. Intention. Purpose. This is the heart of pilgrimage.

Secondly, we come to place.

The pilgrimage does have a destination. It may well be Canterbury like Chaucers band from London, a specific shrine like Walsingham, somewhere that has a reputation for the miraculous, like Lourdes, or the Holy Land, the cradle of our faith where our Lord lived on earth. These international, famous pilgrimage destinations, of course, inspire the many people that go – but as more people travel to them – there is always the danger that they can simply become tourist traps – spiritual holiday destinations – and we should be reminded that the object of Pilgrimage is not rest and recreation – to get away from it all, To set out on a pilgrimage is to throw down a challenge to everyday life. 

Those are the words of Huston Smith, the scholar of comparative religion.

We travel somewhere – not simply because it is a sacred place but to bring the scared into our ordinary life – for me – this resonates with the church year, the way the liturgical year is carved up, the point of Lent is not Lent itself, but to draw us into deeper relationship with God – that doesnt, shouldn’t, and must not end with Holy Week or even the culmination of the Easter season, but that relationship we discover afresh and deepen in Lent should continue to sustain and teach us on our daily life – in the ordinary time of the church – when things are ‘normal’

So too with our physical faith journeys – what we encounter – the place we end up in is not the destination – but the start of a deeper journey. The physical work of the pilgrimage may end back on the bus at the end of the trail – but the spiritual pilgrimage – that road stretches out before us and out last physical step may be our first spiritual one. 

I often think of those words of Jesus to the apostle Thomas, not just because the Doubter is my churches patron but because of the way they capture this very aspect – Blessed are you because you have seen, how much more blessed are those who believe even though they have never seen. We who did not live on earth at the same time as Christ occupied this physical space are blessed in our faith – our trust – not in the physical but in the spiritual. But, lets be honest, we all want to see – dont we? Again, as this pandemic proved – yes, we can talk to our friends on the phone but its not the same as meeting for a cuppa or a pint. Yes we can see our church buildings and services on screens and pictures and we can attend mass in places far away from the comfort of our living room – but how many of us would rather be there in person? engaging all our senses, feeling. We are incarnate people – we are hardwired to find these places – these liminal spaces where heaven has broken through.

One of my favourite sites for pilgrimage – I say favourite but I am yet to visit it physically – is The Hill of Crosses in Lithuania. Upon this hill outside the city there are over 200,000 crosses of varying size, shape and material left upon the hill. And no one knows why. The first crosses appeared there in 1831 and may have been in response to the uprising against Russia (how pertinent for our times) and in memory of those lives lost and bodies never recovered – but that is only one theory. What is known is that it has become a self fulfilling pilgrimage site – people travel to the Hill of Crosses and add their own crosses. The numbers continue to grow. Over 100,000 added since 2006 People are participating in this pilgrimage story – leaving something of themselves in that space, hallowing it with their actions, and hopefully taking something away too – an encouragement for their spiritual life. It has been visited by Popes and Patriarchs as well as people from across the world. 

Places of pilgrimage can take on meaning precisely because they BECOME a place of pilgrimage, rather than being one first.

And that brings us to the third aspect of Pilgrimage – Prayer.

It is not enough to simply visit a place – even with the purpose for a deeper engagement with the faith – if when there – something of prayer is not undertaken.

Of course, as we have seen in The Way of the Pilgrim, the very journey itself can become a prayer – and that is the aim – that our earthly life becomes an ongoing pilgrimage to the throne room of heaven – that every beat of our heart becomes a prayer – but we are not there yet – that is the sainthood we strive for – and so these purposeful places soaked in prayer become our guide and the place where we may add to that process of hallowing. 

The place we go to may well be because of a particular prayer intention. Lourdes in France, where Saint Bernadette encountered a vision of the Immaculate Mary – has become known as a place with a ministry of prayer and practical care for those who are disabled and sick. Many pilgrims make a  journey to Lourdes to to make intercession either for themselves or for friends family and loved ones. Now is not the time to get into the theology for prayer – but this is not an attempt to win favour with God, nor change His mind or attract His attention with our effort – but for many who make this journey, especially if they do so on foot, is that it is about developing understanding of those who struggle – entering into engagement with God from a different perspective.

When we visit shrines or saints – perhaps where they were buried and their bodies remain – or where particular relics are housed – the prayer that we make there – seeking their intercession – is a powerful reminder of the simple fact that – as GK Chesterton wrote – the church is not just those of us that happen to be walking about – we are part of THE church – Militant (us) – Triumphant (in heaven) and the Church penitent – those awaiting the glory of heaven. When we reach these places associated with the great saints and kneel before their shrines, attend mass, light candles and offer our prayer we are continuing – I like to think – that conversation that is ongoing between Heaven and Earth, between God and His people. 

Even some of the specific prayers – offered and crafted for these occasions – are ancient and have been prayed by pilgrims through the centuries. When I spent some time walking the Camino, whilst I was a curate in Reading, I used this ancient blessing every day as I stepped out of the hostel and began the next leg of the journey, it is preserved in the missal of the Cathedral of Barcelona and dates to 1078

O Lord whose word makes all things holy, bless we beseech you these emblems, rucksacks and staffs to be used on this pilgrimage. May all those who carry them arrive safely at the shrine of St. James the Apostle, the objective of their journey. We ask this through Christ our Lord.

So these words have been on the lips of people – ordinary people – since then – and became part of my daily prayer. Asking God to bless the journey itself – making pilgrimages are not always safe and historically have been very dangerous indeed – but also entering into a posture of prayer as the journey commences. 

Sometimes the prayers offered on the pilgrimage are of thanksgiving  – for the healing of an illness, a new opportunity, or something glorious that has happened in life. Sometimes, though perhaps less frequently in our modern age – they made be prayers of penitence – offering something, doing something physical to undertake a period of purgation. 

A pilgrimage devoid of prayer becomes a gap year activity – a navel gazing exercise in order to ‘find myself’ – to orientate the pilgrimage toward God, then prayer – be that for the self, for others, in praise or penance, must be at the centre of it. 

Cardinal Hume, in his lovely spiritual notebook – to be a pilgrim – offers 10 golden rules of prayer,  which are not exclusively bound to pilgrimage but are good rules for prayer life. Sometimes when going on pilgrimage, after making that journey it can be hard to pray, or easily lost amongst the logistics, tourists or physical exertion – so these rules are pertinent especially then.

  1. Plan to pray – don’t leave it to chance
  2. Decide how long you will pray for (be realistic)
  3. Decide what you are going to do when you pray 
  4. Always ask the Holy Spirit to help you – Come Holy Spirt, Help us to pray.
  5. Remember you are trying to get in touch with a person – not an abstract concept
  6. Don’t be a slave to one way of praying.
  7. Dont look for results
  8. If you have a distraction, turn it into prayer. 
  9. If you feel dry or disinterested – read a spiritual book
  10. Trying to pray IS praying. Don’t give up.
    So with that in mind, Let us pray.