Friday 30 June 2017

Is pilgrimage for Christians today?

The Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century eschewed pilgrimage as a devotional practice and this quote from Martin Luther well represents their wholesale condemnation: “...there is no good in [pilgrimages], no commandment, but countless causes of sin and of contempt of God’s commandments”.[1] They continued to embrace the concept of pilgrimage as metaphor (John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is a good example of this), but reinforced that since God is omnipresent, “access to the courts of heaven”[2] does not require pilgrimage to so-called sacred places – this resulted in a widespread dismissal of pilgrimage as a spiritual discipline by Protestants that has influenced the attitudes of evangelical Christians up to the present.[3] 

While it is true that pilgrimage to holy places is nowhere commanded nor specifically recommended by Scripture as a spiritual discipline, and it is certainly not a necessary condition of being a good Christian, during the second half of the twentieth century “spiritual travel” (for the most part Protestants do not call it pilgrimage) has experienced an extraordinary resurgence of popularity even among Reformed evangelicals who are rediscovering the benefits of travelling Reformation pilgrimage routes and journeying to the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.[4] It is almost as if Protestant Christians have begun to recognise the spiritual dimension that millions of Catholic and Orthodox believers have long sought by setting out along ancient pilgrim pathways: an inner journey of spiritual growth and mental transformation.[5]

The act of Christian pilgrimage is imbued with strong meaning-making potential and may be described as an act of faith that involves stepping out of one’s everyday life and self into an Abraham-like existence of relative simplicity which can strengthen the sense of community between fellow travellers as they share physical hardship, personal struggles and support each other (i.e. social connection), and pilgrimage also provides opportunities for prayer during parts of the journey covered in solitude and silence (i.e. spiritual connection).[6] Studies have shown that even secular pilgrimage journeys can have therapeutic or healing dimensions by providing a communal structure with similar individuals who gain a narrative framework for coping with emotional pain and issues such as guilt, alienation and loss as pilgrims move through rituals concurrently.[7] There is also research which suggests that repetitive movement facilitates experiences of transcending that lead to heightened awareness, sudden insights and revelations, therefore the rhythmic activity of walking would be conducive to self-reflection, prayer, contemplation, and meditation on God.[8]

Last, but not least, pilgrimage allows Christians to discover “that places where Jesus walked and talked, suffered, died and rose again can and do resonate with the meaning of what he did."[9] This is what separates Christian pilgrimage from other forms of travel: it goes beyond merely appreciating
the historicity of the biblical story to the incarnational nature of the Christian faith which enables pilgrims to experience the reality of its happenedness and invites believers into fresh intimacy with God.[10] There is something about simply being in the Holy Land which does not leave the true pilgrim unchanged: 

“We will come back changed. Of that I am certain. But of course that is why you go on pilgrimage in the first place, to find the holy, stumble upon God in action, and be changed forever by the experience”.[11]

[1] J. G. Davies, Pilgrimage Yesterday and Today: Why? Where? How? (London: SCM, 1988), vii; Ted Olsen, “He Talked to Us on the Road: The Surprising Rewards of Christian Travel”, Christianity Today (April 2009), 23. 
[2] This is part of a statement from Jerome (Letter 58) who wrote: “Access to the courts of heaven is as easy from Britain as it is from Jerusalem for the kingdom of God is within you. Nothing is lacking to your faith though you have not seen Jerusalem”. Ian Bradley, Pilgrimage: A Spiritual and Cultural Journey (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2009), 35.
[3] Olsen, 23; Tom Wright, The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 1, 2.
[4] Dee Dyas, “Christian pilgrimage today”. WWW page.  <> (n. d., cited 30 July, 2016); Olsen, 23, 24; Wright, 9, 10.
[5] Philip Jenkins, “Restored pilgrim paths”, Christian Century (September 2015), 45; Andrew L. Wilson, “The Genesis, Development, and Reception of an Ecumenical Pilgrimage”, Journal of Ecumenical Studies 49.3 (2014), 505.
[6] Tatiana Schnell & Sarah Pali, "Pilgrimage today: the meaning-making potential of ritual", Mental Health, Religion & Culture 16.9 (2013), 887, 891; Heather A. Warfield, Stanley B. Baker & Sejal B. Parikh Foxx, “The therapeutic value of pilgrimage: a grounded theory study”, Mental Health, Religion & Culture 17.8 (2014), 860-861; Wright, 10.
[7] Warfield, Baker & Foxx, 861.
[8] Schnell & Pali, 892; Wilson, 505.
[9] Wright, 7.
[10] Bradley, 30; Olsen, 26; Wright, 10.
[11] Canon Trevor Dennis introducing a pilgrimage to Russia, quoted in Bradley, 17.

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