For every major religion — with the salient exception of modern Protestantism — pilgrimage plays an axial role in the lives of believers. One need only look at the great Hajj to Mecca, watch Hindus immerse themselves in the sacred Ganges, or follow along the well-worn mountain paths to Buddhist monasteries. Even in our post-modern society people still value physical presence before their objects of devotion and seek them out in the forms of memorials, natural wonders, or places associated with popular figures.
The idea of pilgrimage is innate to the human race, born of the perennial, nagging idea that we are not at home here, that we are indeed “strangers and sojourners.” St. Jerome translated the very word “Sojourners” (parepidemos) as “pilgrim.” Try as we might we cannot shake the idea that this is not all there is, that our homes can never be as permanent as we might wish them to be. So we take to the road, spurred on by an aching wanderlust.
As with all good and natural things, Christianity took the practice of pilgrimage and ennobled and perfected it, for grace builds upon nature. The Faith drew from the long established patterns of pilgrimage in the Jewish tradition. The whole story of the Old Testament is a pilgrimage.
The Jews are forever traveling to, or longing for, Jerusalem both earthly and eternal. “Up to Jerusalem” was the cry for feasts, sacrifices, coronations, and sin offerings. God dwelled there in His Shekhinah in the Holy of Holies, drawing all to Himself. Christ repeatedly made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem: at His Presentation, again at the age of twelve, and finally to shed His blood in the Holy City.
These venerable practices continued in Christianity, but with a difference, for the Incarnation had truly changed everything. God had come from a Virgin, with a body, at a certain place and time in history. Jews and Gentiles had traveled to worship at the place of His birth. He was seen, He performed miracles, He sanctified places with His presence, and He redeemed the human race on the hill of Calvary. Those places became objects of devotion from very earliest times.
The Church itself was envisioned as a “Pilgrim people” together journeying towards the Resurrection of the east. “Conversi ad Dominum!” was the cry of the early Church, symbolized bodily by the unity of liturgical posture, with priest and people together turned “toward the Lord.” The body of the Church was the nave, whose name was taken over from ships which journeyed toward the True Light, in the Ark of Salvation. The Church was a pilgrimage in miniature.
One passed from the world outside to the sanctified space inside, from thence one proceeded closer and closer to the altar, the Holy of Holies. Similarly one progressed through time, in the sanctoral cycle, through Lent to Easter. This reinforced the conception that the Christian life has both vertical and horizontal characteristics: we are on a pilgrimage not only in time, but also in space. Christians continued this journey by being buried facing the east so that they would continue to be prepared for their peregrination, even in death.
During the period of the persecutions Christians maintained the tombs of their saints, and made pilgrimage to them privately or in small groups. The saint’s body was a privileged nexus: a meeting of heaven and earth. As an incarnational people, the early Christians knew that they were not mere souls with shells.
The body was an integral component in worshiping God. Because of this, posture was important: kneeling, standing, sometimes prostrating themselves before God. In Incarnational worship one could be in the physical presence of the holy.
One should bring oneself into the presence of the holy, but there had to be a change in the person made externally concrete by decorum and piety. The separation between sacred and profane in the face of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans — rehearsed in all major world religions — was made manifest in Christianity by its attention to comportment, and to clear boundaries both moral and liturgical. It is the boundary which lies at the heart of all human culture and religion.
After the great legalization of Christianity, the pent up incarnational spirituality of the Christians burst into the open. St. Helena (+330) blazed the trail to Jerusalem, discovering the True Cross and building a mantle of Churches across the Holy Land. Christians by the thousands and millions followed her. Constantine, her son, honored the saints of Rome — Peter and Paul — with their own great shrines, thus reinforcing the position of Rome as a center of pilgrimage down to the present day.
By the middle ages, two million people a year came to Rome to venerate the tombs of the chief apostles. Pilgrimage transformed the face of Europe, increasing trade, reinforcing the unity of Christendom, and transcending national boundaries. Such holy sojourning reveals us precisely as “catholic.” When one comes to Rome, one unites his voice not only with people of every nation, but also with the millions of men and women who left hearth and home, and by their journeys testified to the catholicity of the Catholic Church. Pilgrimage liberates us from the particular and helps us hew to the center.
For the majority of Christian history the pilgrimage was one of the highest acts of holiness, particularly characteristic of the lay piety. To go on pilgrimage was a major sacrifice, for one left comfort and convenience, becoming in a sense a living icon of the transitory nature of a Christian’s earthly life. One became a microcosm of the whole universe, created by God — as the Catechism says — in statu viae (in a state of journeying).
Making a voyage to honor St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury, or St. James in Compostela was to honor the God who had exalted them. It transforms and reorients the believer, directing and focusing them on their final end on the path of salvation.
One undertakes a pilgrimage to adore God, to beg for the Divine assistance, to accomplish necessary penance. During such a time one is taken out of oneself and away from what one loves and makes one comfortable. The Irish monks used to talk of “Green” or “Blue” martyrdom, which was the voluntary and permanent self-exile from one’s home, for the sake of Christ and the Gospel.
While such extraordinary mortification might not be required of many, all of us can take such spiritual journeys. One need only look at places like Lourdes, Fatima, or Guadalupe to see that such practices are deeply embedded in the Catholic consciousness. English-speaking Catholics, so inured to a spiritualizing Protestant mindset, might not be used to such concepts.
For God is indeed everywhere, but God is also here and here in a particular and special manner: In the Eucharist, at the shrines of the Holy Land, near the tombs of the saints. As there are moments of particular grace, so there are places of particular grace. To go on a pilgrimage is to do a holy work, to affirm the goodness of the material world, to acknowledge our intrinsic bodiliness, and to profess our faith in the reality of the Incarnation of the Son of God. It is truly an affirmation of life, both here and in the world to come. During this Year of Faith, we are given an opportunity to help our families reclaim their Christian identity as pilgrims on their way “towards the Lord.”