The Bible is filled with stories of God calling a person or groups of people to move forward from one place to another. The first biblical “pilgrimage” is recounted in Genesis 12: 1-4. Abram was called by Yahweh to leave his pagan past and his father’s home in order to migrate to the land of God’s choice, where he would receive divine blessings:
"The Lord said to Abram: ‘Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you.’ Abram went as the Lord directed him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.” (Genesis 12: 1-4)
Read also: (Exodus 12:37-19:8)
In these stories, Abraham and Moses follow the voice of God who leads them out of the place they were. God calls them to go forth on a journey, at the end of which he gives them covenants. Abram leaves pagan Haran for Canaan, and later receives a new name, Abraham; Moses leaves Egypt where the Israelites were enslaved by the Pharaoh for Mount Sinai where God gives him the law. In both cases, the journey involved a long period of struggle, uncertainty, doubt, desert (literal and metaphorical), and difficulty in which they felt lost. However, in both cases, they ultimately arrived at a better place. Certain ideas are introduced – that of hearing the call of God, leaving, wandering as a foreigner or stranger in exile, and ultimately arriving in a purified place and state.
In the New Testament, similar themes of departure, exile, and arrival continue; however, they are largely focused on the person of Jesus Christ, and later, his followers. Jesus’s human life on earth can be viewed as sojourner and stranger. His mission was the ultimate pilgrimage – a divine pilgrimage. The divine and human “journey” of Christ is summarized in the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father. Through Him all things were made. For us men and our salvation He came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit, He was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; He suffered, died, and was buried. On the third day He rose again in fulfillment of the scriptures: He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
Like the narratives of the Old Testament prophets, we see similar themes: Jesus, whose “kingdom was not of this world,” listened to the voice of his Father, obeyed, and left his “home” by becoming incarnate in the world. In his worldly life as “sojourner” he identified with the prophets who also passed through this world as aliens and experienced suffering and exile. As Abraham and Moses “wandered” through the desert, Jesus on earth “had nowhere to rest his head.” His mission was to journey through the “foreign” land of this fallen world in order to redeem it and its inhabitants. And, like the prophets, Jesus ultimately went to a better place after his Resurrection; unlike them, however, Heaven was the place whence he had originally left. Jesus’s mission was to make humanity heirs of the eternal kingdom through his Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection. Thus, his pilgrimage took him full circle from his Father in heaven through the “insecurity” of earth and back to heaven.
And this is the struggle for Jesus’s followers whom Christ called to have faith in and imitate him. Christians, like Jesus and the prophets, are also called to become “strangers and aliens on earth” (Hebrews 11: 14). Peter urged his followers: “as aliens and sojourners to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against the soul.” And “conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning” Yet, the state of exile is not the Christian’s ultimate goal – Heaven is. Thus, the Christian calling is to remain pure and undefiled by the corruption of the world in hope of a better world to come.
It took some time before Christians began to interpret the Christian life as pilgrimage. In the first few centuries after Christ’s death, there was little collective desire to return to Palestine to revisit the sites of Jesus’s life. The first Apostles, on the contrary, left Palestine in an effort to spread the Gospel in all corners of the world. It was only after the fourth century AD largely as a result of the legalization of Christianity that pilgrimages began en masse. After legislating the freedom of Christianity with the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine, built large basilicas in Rome over the tombs of Peter and Paul, as well as other basilicas in honor of Jesus, Mary, and John. Meanwhile, his mother, Helena, erected churches and shrines in Palestine to memorialize events from the Gospels. These large edifices paved the way for Christians to come and offered them space in which to worship. Additionally, Helena brought relics from Jerusalem back to Europe, sparking interest in the holy places of Jesus’s earthly life. Thus, Christians from around the world slowly began to journey to the tombs of the martyred apostles in order to honor them, connect with the events of their lives, and do penance.
However, it wasn’t until the eleventh century that the practice of pilgrimage became widespread and entered into Christian devotional practice. The stories told by the crusaders after returning home did much to give people a knowledge and desire to go to the sacred places of Jesus’s life. And while the Holy Land was the main destination of pilgrimage in the beginning, in later centuries huge numbers of Christians from all classes set out to Rome to visit the tombs and Basilicas of Peter and Paul, Compostela in Spain to visit the tomb of St. James, Loreto to the Holy House of Mary, Monte Sant’Angelo to the grotto where St. Michael the archangel appeared, and elsewhere. In the year 1300 AD, Pope Boniface instituted the first Jubilee year granting a plenary indulgence to pilgrims who made the journey to Rome. The desire to go was so strong that the pilgrim risked disease, violence, shipwreck, and strife. Few returned home as dangers were great, and often pilgrims settled down in other lands. So before setting off, the medieval pilgrim prepared a last will and testament, gave away or sold his/her possessions, and celebrated the Church’s sending-off liturgical rite similar to that of a funeral. After donning the recognizable pilgrim’s tunic with in-sewn cross, the walking staff, and leather pouch to carry food and money, the pilgrim set off on the journey. A broad-brimmed hat was used with a long scarf wrapped around the body from the back to the waist. The symbol of the scallop shell was worn on the tunics of those headed to the tomb of St. James in Compostela, while the keys were worn by those going to Rome. The distinctive dress set the pilgrims apart and identified them as such for protection.
Much of the motivation for traveling on pilgrimage in medieval times was to receive the indulgence, as the pilgrimage was considered a very important form of penance and as a way of internal purification in hopes of lessening punishment for sins. The indulgence required sacrifice, prayer, penance, and the arduous journey itself. During this time, monks began using pilgrimage as a metaphor for the inner journey of the heart and soul; they linked the outer external pilgrimage to the inner contemplative spiritual journey.
Other reasons for going on pilgrimage were to connect with a particular saint to whom a pilgrim had a devotion. In the same way that today we commemorate the birth-home of a famous person with a plaque or monument, shrines, sanctuaries or even basilicas were built to mark places where certain spiritual events occurred in the lives of the saints: the birthplace, the site of his/her martyrdom or natural death, the place where he/she received a particular grace or experienced a mystical event. Often, large basilicas would be built to “house” saint’s body or relics. Thus, a pilgrimage to such places was a way to connect with the saint in a special way and ask for intercession or prayers.
Ultimately, pilgrimage always has the same goal: to encounter the living God. Therefore, pilgrimage is fundamentally about going to particular “holy” or “sacred” place in order to receive special graces through the spirituality or sacredness of place. In this, we have a Christian – yet firmly Franciscan – basis of the sacramentality of the world. This is important for the pilgrim who goes forth in the world, which was created good by God the Father through the Word, sanctified by the Incarnation and redeemed through the crucifixion of the Son. However, there is a paradox in this. We have discussed the calling and the journey of the Christian as being a “pilgrim and stranger” in the world. However, perhaps the Christian life is not one of complete exile and separation from God and heaven while on earth, in hope of a “future” heavenly reward. Perhaps Christ’s promise of salvation was not “out there,” but one that begins right now in this world. “For behold, the kingdom of God is among you.” Despite Francis’s admonitions to remain as “pilgrims and strangers” in this world, didn’t he seem to be quite at home in it? Didn’t he seem to be already living the kingdom of Heaven within? Certainly, his attitudes towards creation, culminating in his Canticles of the Creatures, suggests his belief in the goodness of the world.
In fact, this has been called “spirituality of place,” which has its origins in the goodness of creation and the Incarnation. Assisi and other pilgrimage destinations are special, because they reveal an incarnate God – a God who comes among us. People have been touched by God in these places. By going to the places where our forerunners have experienced God, we can connect with the events and receive graces, too. Thus, the sacred places help us to connect with the living God – the God who “took on flesh and dwelt among us.”
Pilgrimage was certainly dear to the hearts of Sts. Francis and Clare. Francis’s pilgrimage began when he dedicated himself to the Christian life in the penitential tradition after rejecting the military life. He became a true “sojourner and stranger” when he left the security of his father’s home as a young man and embraced a way of life instability and insecurity through poverty. There are many references to the necessity of remaining as pilgrims and strangers written by Francis or about him. He wrote in his Rule: “Let the brothers not make anything their own, neither house, nor place, nor anything at all. As pilgrims and strangers in this world, serving the Lord in poverty and humility, let [the brothers] go seeking alms with confidence...” He wrote in his Testament, “Let the brothers be careful not to receive in any way churches or poor dwellings or anything else built for them unless they are according to the holy poverty we have promised in the Rule. As pilgrims and strangers, let them always be guests there.” Thomas of Celano said, “He did not want the brothers to live in any place unless it had a definite owner who held the property rights. He always wanted the laws of pilgrims for his sons: to be sheltered under someone else’s roof to travel in peace, and to thirst for the homeland.” The Assisi Compilation said of Francis: “He disliked anything in tables or dishes that recalled the ways of the world. He wanted everything to sing of exile and pilgrimage.” The Anonymous of Perugia and the Three Companions said of the brothers, “They went through the world as strangers and pilgrims, taking nothing for the journey.” (Italics are mine in these quotes.) Francis used the expression “follow the footprints of Christ” five times in four writings. He journeyed numerous times on pilgrimage to Rome in order to visit the tombs of Peter and Paul; he went to the Holy Land several times; Bernard and Giles made a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James in Compostela. And at Francis’s beckoning, Pope Honorius III granted the plenary indulgence to the Portiuncula, making it a place of pilgrimage for all times.
Clare, like Francis, also left the stability and security of her father’s home in order to embrace poverty. There is no record of Clare of ever having made any geographical pilgrimage; however, she did send Lady Bona on pilgrimage to the church of St James in Compostela in Spain. Her mother, Ortolana, made pilgrimages to Rome, Monte Sant’Angelo in Apulia, and “beyond the sea,” presumably to the Holy Land – no small feat for a woman in the Middle Ages. Clare also quoted Francis in her own Rule using his same words, “Let the sisters not appropriate anything to themselves, neither a house nor a place nor anything at all; instead, as pilgrims and strangers in this world who serve the Lord in poverty and humility, let them confidently send for alms.”
The pilgrimage was the perfect metaphor for how the spiritual life should be lived for Francis and Clare. In the Middle Ages, people’s identities were based on class status and town citizenship, which they inherited through their families. By leaving the city walls of Assisi in order to stay in the valley with the lepers and marginalized, both Francis and Clare surrendered their earthly status and embraced their primary identity as “heirs” of the heavenly Father. By embracing a life of penance, they received their spiritual inheritance in the Father, which was, essentially, an identity in him.
Francis alludes to this in the “First Letter to the Faithful,” by claiming that those who do penance are related to God as his children, brothers, spouses, mothers, etc.; while those who do not do penance belong to the devil, “whose children they are and whose works they perform.” He is claiming that one’s worldly identity; i.e. class status is irrelevant to God; what makes one a child of God, according to Francis, is whether or not they are “in penance.”
Similarly, Clare, in her Letters to Agnes, wrote of following in the footprints of Jesus Christ. Being a radical follower of Christ in poverty created for Clare a new identity and set her apart in the world. The Privilege of Poverty so vigorously sought after by her was more about surrendering status and class than about trying to live like the poor or be poor. The only way a woman could be completely reliant on a providential God and allow herself to be vulnerable, was to move out of the protection of the cities and forbid property and endowments and the securities they provided. Thus, Clare saw her life as equivalent to that of Francis: by allowing God to provide for her as she journeyed through life and encountered what lay before her, she sought to embrace poverty.
Thus, in surrendering identity, class, status, security, and stability, the pilgrim was the perfect metaphor for how the Christian life should be lived for Francis and Clare. The pilgrim donned special clothes similar to that of a penitent, traveled poorly, and depended on the alms of others. By surrendering material things of the world and placing their trust and hope completely in God’s providence, the pilgrim voluntarily embraced a state of insecurity and instability. Like the pilgrims, Francis and Clare chose poverty, instability, and insecurity at the foundation of their spiritual life because it demanded faith in God’s providence.
Long after the death of Francis and Clare, pilgrimage continued to persist and had a lasting impact on culture and society. The father of the Italian language, Dante (a Third Order lay Franciscan), wrote his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, between 1308 and his death in 1321. It is the first major work of Italian literature written not in Latin, but in the vernacular dialect spoken in Tuscany. In the poem, Dante narrates his travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. At a deeper level, however, it is an allegorical journey of the soul towards God. It began with the following lines:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
At the midpoint of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark forest
because the straight path was lost.
Dante begins his poem as a pilgrim and stranger. His journey is complete only when he arrives in Heaven; like the prophets of old, he is called to pass through a “desert” only to arrive at a better place.
Of course, not every pilgrimage was from the outset an intense spiritual undertaking, and some were more “profane” in nature. In the English language, Geoffrey Chaucer, writing in the same century as Dante, wrote “The Canterbury Tales.” In this Middle English classic, he recounts the episodes of a group of pilgrims as they traveled from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at the Cathedral of Canterbury, England. Each pilgrim takes turn telling stories in a contest. The book is a wonderful close-up look at real medieval pilgrims, some holy, some not, some looking for a good time, others for genuine holy experience. The prologue begins by saying that people desire to go on pilgrimage in the springtime when nature is coming back to life after the dead of winter. (The following version is adapted into modern English.)
When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.
And specially from every shire's end.
Devotional geographical pilgrimages fell into decline after the Protestant Reformation which challenged the theology of the Indulgence, as well as medieval devotions. In the 17th century, John Bunyan, a Puritan jailed for preaching without a license in Anglican England, used pilgrimage as allegory in his tale, “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” In this enduring work (it was recently made into a movie), Bunyan offers insight in the Christian life by narrating the temptations and pitfalls of Christian, the Pilgrim, as he journeys to Celestial City and meets Evangelist, Charity, Hypocrisy, Goodwill, Obstinate, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and more characters along the way.
The Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries virtually eliminated the devotional pilgrimage as modern people rejected it as a medieval, superstitious, and void of reason. At about the same time, modern tourism was born in the form of the classical Grand Tour. Lasting several months, this tour was the foundational part of the education of European young men (mostly British) from well-to-do families. The itinerary exposed them to the classical antiquities of Rome and Greece as well as the Renaissance art cities of southern Europe. It was predominantly educational, not spiritual, in nature. The Grand Tour flourished until the advent of the railway, which afforded people of lesser economic status the possibility of traveling.
In the past few decades, interest in pilgrimage has increased, and modern pilgrims have once again sought out the spiritual dimensions of the faith journey. Money, leisure, and especially the jet airplane have opened the doors to travel to many people today who could have only dreamed of such a journey in generations past.
Certainly, the conditions and motivations of pilgrimages are quite different from those of Abraham and Moses, and Francis and Clare: jets, luxury coaches, and modern hotels have rendered the journey less perilous and penitential. Nonetheless, jet lag, sore feet, and the absence of the comforts of home can still demand patience. Despite the differences, however, the pilgrimage still remains a response within the soul to move closer to God – to leave the ordinary in order to embrace the unknown within the context of faith. Modern pilgrims may be less concerned with earning indulgences, but they are still seeking that inner transformation that accompanies the journey. They still set out to the tombs of the apostles and martyrs, sites of apparitions and locutions, and the birthplaces of their favorite saints. Today’s pilgrims often want to free themselves of restraints at home in order to find God without clutter in their lives; they hope to witness miracles, signs, and truth; they hope to find an answer to their heartfelt prayers. A pilgrimage to a holy place is still a way to find answers to such prayers, though sometimes God’s answer is different from the one we seek.
In summary, pilgrimages are a calling from God to the journey. Pilgrimage involves a process of departure, wandering, and arrival. It entails a sense of rupture when the pilgrim leaves what is familiar and enters a new place where they become, in the biblical words so often quoted by Francis and Clare, a “pilgrim and stranger.” However, at some point on the journey, that feeling of being a stranger passes, and a sense of familiarity rekindles within. It may happen soon after arrival, at some point during the wandering, or even after returning home. But in the process, the pilgrim becomes something they were not before, as they are transformed. They have gone through the same inner spiritual journey as the prophets and pilgrims of yesterday and are no longer the “old man,” but are “renewed.” The pilgrim has moved through loneliness, exile, sin and wandering to grace, purpose, reassurance and wholeness in God.
The calling of a Christian is to set out and follow the footsteps of Christ as a pilgrim. And the Christ whom we follow became incarnate in a broken world to redeem its fallen, sinful nature. Yet, at the same time Christ penetrated it as the center point of all creation to reveal the might and wonder of God the Father. In the same way, your pilgrimage may at times be risky as you encounter unsuspected difficulties in an unfamiliar land that is sometimes scarred and broken – one that is “groaning and crying out.” Nevertheless, the same land will reveal a world created by God that is beautiful beyond imagination – “a place of wellsprings.” So whether you are preparing for an actual journey to Assisi or your journey will be “inward” and take place in your home, it is my hope and prayer that your life will be enriched and transformed as a result of it. Ask the Lord now to bless you as you embark on the journey. And, in the words of Mark Twain, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”