“It’s All Part of the Pilgrimage. . .”
This is the phrase we were encouraged to repeat to ourselves as we set out for the Holy Land in the early spring of 2014. There were twenty-seven of us from all walks of life, different faith traditions, and all parts of the country.
As we fellow pilgrims set out from Columbia Seminary, we were reminded that anything that could happen on our journey together over the next two weeks was “all part of the pilgrimage” – from choppy waters on the Sea of Galilee to torrential downpours in Nazareth, from a cold lunch in the Golan Heights to running into people we knew from America on a hot day at Masada. Maybe a fellow traveler would be cranky, maybe you would feel not up to the challenge of the task at hand, maybe a loved-one back home would die and you would need the comfort of your fellow pilgrims.
I experienced all of these things on my trip to the Holy Land and it was all part of the pilgrimage.
People of almost every religious tradition have a history of pilgrimage – just ask some of our Muslim sisters and brothers about the Hajj to Mecca or our Buddhist sisters and brothers who have been to Bodh Gaya or our Jewish sisters and brothers pray at the Western Wall.
Even people who are not necessarily religious have a tradition of pilgrimage. Ask anyone who has ever been to Graceland or Fenway Park, Arlington Cemetery or Gettysburg, and they might use the word “pilgrimage” to describe their experience. I have been on various “pilgrimages” – taking trips to Muir Woods, the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the tomb of Franz Joseph Haydn in Austria, the 9/11 Museum and Memorial in New York, the National Gallery of Art, and Gruhn Guitars in Nashville. Each place elicited reverence and respect.
Every time I go to visit the graves of my grandparents or the beach where we scattered my mother-in-law’s ashes, I feel as if I am on a pilgrimage. I feel as if I am standing on holy ground – a place of memory and love, thanksgiving and tears. If we are paying attention to our journey – there is a lot we can learn about God and about ourselves in places like this.
As Christians, we might have specific times of pilgrimage – travel to Israel or Iona, Ephesus or Wittenberg – in which we can be immersed in the experience of walking in the footsteps of giants of the faith and have our own faith deepened in the process.
I can tell you from experience that there is absolutely nothing like standing in the ruins of the synagogue at Capernaum where Jesus taught, or being shrouded in fog on top of Mount Carmel where the prophet Elijah met the prophets of Baal, or standing ankle deep in mud at the Dead Sea.
But what if we zoomed out from our view of specific historical and holy places?
As people of faith, we believe that we come from God and are on our way back to God. Everything that happens in between – all of life – is a pilgrimage.
In our journey through life, there will be birth and death, great joy and great sorrow, times of boredom and times of excitement, times when our shoes wear out from walking, our bodies get so tired that we feel like we can’t take another step, and our knees are wear out from praying.
But it’s all part of the pilgrimage. There will be times on the pilgrimage when we are so full of love, and laughter, and life that we could positively burst with delight and times when we feel that there is nothing in this world that could bring us joy.
And it’s all part of the pilgrimage.
All along our pilgrimage, though, if our eyes and ears, our mind and heart are open, God has a way of speaking, and teaching, and shaping, and healing, and encouraging, and loving through it all – sometimes in the moment and sometimes only in hindsight. And guess what? It’s all part of the pilgrimage.
All of us are fellow pilgrims on the journey from God and to God.
You are traveling with me and I with you. We are on a pilgrimage together and every interaction, every experience, every barrier, every open door along our journey is all part of the pilgrimage.
How will God shape you, each and every step of the way? What will the Holy Spirit teach you about yourself, about the world, and about God? Wherever you are in your pilgrimage, may your way be blessed …
The Reverend John Sawyer is a Co-Pastor at Bedford Presbyterian Church, PC(USA), in Bedford, New Hampshire. He is honored to be co-leading the Certificate in Spiritual Formation’s Holy Land Pilgrimage with Debra Weir.