A Journey as Old as Humanity Itself

What’s behind our timeless fascination with religious pilgrimage?
A Journey as Old as Humanity Itself
Image: Zivica Kerkez / Shutterstock
The Pilgrim Journey: A History of Pilgrimage in the Western World
Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Book Title
The Pilgrim Journey: A History of Pilgrimage in the Western World
Release Date
May 17, 2016
Buy The Pilgrim Journey: A History of Pilgrimage in the Western World from Amazon

Years ago, Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree contrasted two ways of being in the evolving Western world. One, epitomized by the “olive tree,” is rooted, in place, stable, stationary. The other, the “Lexus,” was the emerging vision of the modern individual: a life distinguished by movement, displacement, and “being on the road.” The first was being. The second was going. The Lexus, Friedman argued, was quickly replacing the olive tree.

At the time I read Friedman’s book, I felt freed, the way you feel freed when someone puts into words what you hadn’t found yet. Friedman was describing the church I saw in America—olive-tree Christians were being replaced by Lexus Christians. Less and less, I was discovering, were people content simply being where they were, settling down, rooting themselves, and embracing mundane Christianity. Ours was becoming a church addicted to movement. Everything had to be radical. Why?

We’ve grown bored of our freedom.

Truth is, Christians are “pilgrims” (1 Pet. 2:11). This isn’t our home. We’re simply passing through. Thus the theme of James Harpur’s latest book, The Pilgrim’s Journey: A History of Pilgrimage in the Western World, a lucid and expansive study of the place of pilgrimage in Western Christianity. The book is by no means a theological treatise. Harpur generally sidesteps any sort of confessional, spiritual, or doctrinal conversations. This is history at its finest.

The What, How, and Why

What Harpur does seek to offer is a breathtaking exploration of the trek itself—the what, how, and why of Christian pilgrimage. In reading the book, readers will find themselves edified by the whirlwind mish-mash of historical curiosities and narratives often overlooked in the more well-traveled Christian histories. For example, Harpur demonstrates the surprising connection between the Crusades and the drive for Christian pilgrimage in the medieval age. There’s the decree that King Canute laid down for any priest who had committed murder—that he would have to walk “as long a pilgrimage as the pope commands.” We learn how true and false relics were distinguished by whether or not they could burn. Obscurities like these will make any lover of Christian history giddy with excitement.

What was clearest to me as I read The Pilgrim’s Journey was the reality that Christians have, for centuries, considered these expansive, life-giving, costly journeys a legitimate component of seeking God. Of course, the reasons behind these pilgrimages were rarely the same. Some were undertaken for healing, others to see an allegedly powerful relic. Some chose an outer pilgrimage as a way to hopefully launch an inner pilgrimage. Whatever the reason, Christians have practiced pilgrimage, not merely endured it.

Harpur demonstrates these treks are as ancient as humanity itself. Even prehistoric humans, he shows, were drawn by something within to go and seek. While pilgrimage has been done since the dawn of time, it was the Christian tradition that invested it with religious significance. Scripture shows countless pilgrim journeys from Abraham, to David, to the Magi. Even the gospel narratives reveal that almost all of Christ’s teachings took place while spending time with disciples as they walked somewhere.

Discipleship has always been a trek. And, in many cases, a physical trek. Sadly, however, Protestants haven’t always looked kindly on pilgrimage. “All pilgrimages should be stopped,” warned Martin Luther. “There is no good in them: No commandment enjoins them, no obedience attaches to them.” Luther’s cynical take largely undermined the possibility of the Reformation embracing pilgrimage. And it didn’t; pilgrimage fell out of fashion.

That is not to say that evangelicals never choose the pilgrim way. But pilgrimage, in the evangelical sense, is largely a matter of moving from church to church in an ever-increasing sense of frenzy. We’ve replaced physical pilgrimage with ecclesial pilgrimage. Problem is, we don’t know what we’re looking for. And when the destination—a perfect church or experience—is inherently impossible to reach, then there is literally no end to the journey.

In my recent book on the theme of wandering in the Christian life, The Dusty Ones, I emphasize the centrality of pilgrimage to the narrative of Scripture. God’s people wander. A lot. And these wandering experiences have helped God’s people to trust in him even more. “Force is no attribute of God,” wrote Ignatius of Antioch, a church father. That is, the pilgrimage to Christ is not one that God forces upon us. We are, rather, wooed into it.

I’ve heard it said that when you don’t know where you are going, any way will do. Perhaps that’s why interest in pilgrimage is on the rise in the 21st century, as Harpur persuasively argues. We are made to journey somewhere, to look for something. In the end, writes Harpur, the difference between a tourist and a pilgrim lies in the thing the heart seeks—the intended destination. In other words, the stay-at-home mom whose heart seeks Christ is no less a pilgrim than the most intrepid adventurer.

‘The Lord Is at the Center’

As a preacher, I found myself taking copious notes on The Pilgrim Journey. Sermon illustrations seem to fly at you right and left. Chapter 9, for example, entitled “On the Road,” goes into great detail on how pilgrims would make “preparations” for their journeys. What they would take? How would they pay? Who would support them? Any preacher worth their boots could draw parallels to Christ’s call to “count the cost” (Luke 14:28) in making the journey to follow him.

Harpur also describes how dangerous pilgrimages could be. Robbers and brigands hid around every corner. How could we fail to see a vivid illustration of the ways the devil “seeks to kill, steal, and destroy” (John 10:10)?

As a pastor, it isn’t uncommon to hear people tell me they “want more God in their life.” While the heart behind this may be good, it fails to recognize that Christ has already come. He is here. Right here. Right now. We will never be able to have more of God in our lives. Because of Christ, we have him fully. This is a hopeful theme for those whose hearts are parched by what Australian author Mark Sayers calls this “secular desert of meaning.” In the Incarnation, the mundane is holy. It is Christ we are after, the Christ who is with us right now. As Eugene Peterson once put it, “The pilgrimage is not at the center, the Lord is at the center.”

It is that pilgrimage into which Harpur subtly invites us. On this path, not everything is clear and clean. But that’s okay. Certainty is the devil’s sacrament. Lord knows, we haven’t arrived yet. To think otherwise is to be, in the words of Flannery O’Connor, “prematurely arrogant.”

That is why Christ’s call to ask, seek, and knock is more important now than ever. Our task isn’t to throw off the shackles of rootedness, to trade in the olive tree for the Lexus. Rather, it is to know Jesus goes out to each of us as we sit under our own tree. “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree,” Jesus told Nathaniel in John 1:48. And he sees us still. He has come here.

The purpose of pilgrimage is to find Jesus where he is—which happens to be right where we are.

A. J. Swoboda pastors Theophilus in Portland, Oregon, and teaches at a number of seminaries and universities. He is the author of The Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens Your Faith (Baker).

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A Journey as Old as Humanity Itself