The Bible is filled with stories of God beckoning 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).
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 Jesus, 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,” (John 18:36) 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” (Luke 9:58). 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” (1 Peter 2:11). And “conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning” (1 Peter 1:17). 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 in earnest. After legislating Christianity’s freedom in 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. And without ignoring the violence of many crusaders, the stories told by them 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, shipwrecks, and strife. Few returned home as dangers were great, and often pilgrims often 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 saints to whom the pilgrim felt devoted. In the same way that today we commemorate the birth-home of a famous person with a plaque or monument, shrines and sanctuaries were built to mark places where certain spiritual events occurred. Such places were often linked to events in the life of a saint: the saint’s birthplace, the site of his/her martyrdom or natural death, the place where he/she received a particular grace or experienced a mystical event, and the church or shrine containing the saint’s relics. Thus, a pilgrimage to such shrines were methods of “re-living” such events.
Ultimately, pilgrimage had a goal: to encounter the living God. Therefore, pilgrimage was fundamentally about going to particular “holy” or “sacred” places 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” (Luke 17:21). 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 theology 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 predecessors 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” (John 1:14).
Pilgrimage had a lasting impact on culture and society in Italy and Europe. 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 superstition lacking in 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 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 often wish 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 during the wandering, upon arrival, or even after returning home. And in the process, the pilgrim becomes something they were not before, as they arrive home transformed. They have gone through the same inner spiritual journey as the prophets and pilgrims of yesterday and are no longer the “old man”; the pilgrim is “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.”