"All pilgrimages should be done away with," Martin Luther wrote in 1520. "For there is no good in them, no commandment, but countless causes of sin and of contempt of God's commandments. These pilgrimages are the reason for there being so many beggars, who commit numberless villainies."
This quote—and the Reformer's many other warnings against pilgrimage—seem to be missing from the government and private materials promoting the Luther Trail, a 170-mile route from Wittenberg to Mansfeld, his childhood home. See Luther's ink stain on the wall at Wartburg Castle! Feel the cold wind that nearly killed him at Unterrissdorf! Buy "Here I stand" socks in Erfurt!
"Luther would probably have been horrified," says British theologian and Luther scholar Graham Tomlin. "He even hated the idea of people being called 'Lutherans.' Though maybe he might not have minded [the trail] if the purpose was to remind people of the rediscovery of the gospel by retracing his steps." After all, Tomlin notes, Luther himself often retold the story of how he rediscovered the gospel.
It would be easy to dismiss the Luther Trail—and similar Reformation pilgrimage routes in John Calvin's Switzerland, John Knox's Scotland, and elsewhere—as the savvy marketing of tourism boards. But even the most Reformed evangelicals are now talking openly about spiritual travel. True, Protestants have long embraced the language of pilgrimage, but almost exclusively as metaphor, as in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress or the old gospel hymn, "I Am a Pilgrim."
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler isn't using the word as a metaphor when he talks about his pilgrimage to Jonathan Edwards's grave in Princeton, New Jersey. In August, Mars Hill Church pastor Mark Driscoll is leading a tour of Greece and Israel. "It seems that perhaps nothing would be a more memorable, life-enriching, and memory-making Christmas gift," wrote Driscoll on his blog last November.
Less than a decade ago, one could find several books combining travel and Eastern religions, along with scads of interfaith volumes on "looking for God in America." But only in the last few years have Christian publishers such as InterVarsity Press and Lion Hudson jumped in with titles on uniquely evangelical pilgrimages. Treks to historically Protestant pilgrimage sites like Iona, Scotland, and Taizé, France, are booming, while evangelicals throughout Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, see their continent's growing interest in pilgrimage as a missional opportunity and a sign that their neighbors' hunger for God is gnawing away at them.
Perhaps the greatest sign that evangelicals are mining the 1,700-year-old tradition of pilgrimage is in Charlotte, North Carolina, where visitors to the Billy Graham Library can touch artifacts from the evangelist's life, see the family typewriter and Bible in the actual (but relocated) farmhouse he grew up in, then follow the footpath through the prayer garden to the grave of Ruth Bell Graham and the plot for Billy. Visitors are not permitted to lower cloths into the graves themselves, a popular practice at the burial sites of medieval saints, but official souvenirs can be purchased at Ruth's Attic Bookstore.
"It's been possible after several centuries to disentangle pilgrimage from the works righteousness that Luther so disapproved of, so that now Protestants can go on pilgrimages—though most often, they don't call them that—without any sense that they are earning God's favor by doing so," says Tomlin, who wrote on healthy ways Protestants can go on pilgrimages for a 2004 volume. "For most, they are like study tours or holidays with a spiritual dimension."
Protestants' historical antagonism toward pilgrimage was more about its excesses and potential to distract than about the practice itself. "I say this not because pilgrimages are bad," Luther wrote, "but because they are ill-advised at the time." The time has changed. As the biblically minded have sought to "take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ," it's little wonder that in our peripatetic age, we are asking in new ways what it means to travel Christianly.
The question isn't whether we should travel more, or to more spiritual destinations. Indeed, many of us already travel too often and to too many places. The real question is why we travel in the first place.
The answer is deceptively simple: We travel first to leave. And then, later on, we travel to return.
The traditional understanding of pilgrimage is that it is first about going to a specific place, a site of unique holiness or spiritual significance. Other observers will underplay the shrine and focus on the path—it's not the destination, it's the journey.
Both the target and the trail are important. But at first, pilgrimage isn't about either. It's about the origin, the departure. A key Scripture for early and medieval pilgrims was God's commandment to Abram: "Leave your country … and go to the land I will show you" (Gen. 12:1). Likewise, the recurring narrative of the Old Testament is exodus. Yahweh repeatedly identifies himself as "the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt," and rarely as the God who brought the Israelites to the Promised Land.
Similarly, the medieval pilgrim was often motivated less by a desire to go somewhere than to leave somewhere. "Pilgrimage offered escape," British historian Jonathan Sumption writes in The Age of Pilgrimage. He quotes a writer in the 1600s complaining that too many pilgrims were motivated by a "curiosity to see new places and experience new things, impatience of the servant with his master, of children with their parents, or wives with their husbands."
Luther didn't mind a tourism-minded pilgrim; it was, after all, better to do it "out of curiosity, to see cities and countries" than for the sake of good works or to keep a vow made to God, he wrote. But in the medieval era, the worst kind of traveler was the escapist: the vagabond, the perennial traveler, the person always on the move.
Today a similar debate happens on the road and in the pages of travel books and magazines on the difference between uncouth tourists and authentic travelers. "The tourist is always the other chap," Evelyn Waugh once quipped. Pilgrims aren't "tourists casually meandering through a city" or travelers "aimlessly wandering through the wilderness," Christian George writes in Sacred Travels. The pilgrim isn't just someone who eschews the tour bus in favor of the personalized walking tour. He is the person there not just to grab a snapshot, but to experience the divine.
Fewer pilgrims today travel in order to escape punishment for their sins, but the temptation to spiritual pride on such journeys is as strong as ever. Religious travel has thrown a kind of spiritual trump card on the table. An eagerness for such distinction misses how manufactured the quest for "authentic" spiritual experience on the road can be, or how transformative an organized excursion can become. After all, it was Baptist minister Thomas Cook, father of the package tour, who helped to rekindle Protestant interest in visiting the Holy Land in the late 1800s.
But the Bible story that became a favorite of pilgrims throughout 17 centuries was not of a transcontinental journey. It doesn't look anything like the Camino de Santiago ("the Way of Saint James"), a journey to what's believed to be the apostle's final resting place in Spain. (To officially qualify for the Compostela certificate, pilgrims must walk at least 62 miles or bike twice that distance.) It wouldn't even qualify as a detour on the 402-mile pilgrim route between Oslo, Norway, and St. Olav's grave in Trondheim. It's a mere seven-mile walk, a shorter distance than most of us travel to get to work, church, or the store. The two hours or so it takes to make the journey on foot is a long commute, but not a rare one in today's megacities.
Yet this is where Jesus showed up, on the road between the city of Jerusalem and the village called Emmaus. (Some early sources suggest the village may have been 18 miles away, not 7.) Two of Jesus' disciples were traveling. Luke's gospel does not tell us why, though the disciples' fearfulness back in Jerusalem suggests that perhaps these two were on the road more to leave the city than to arrive in Emmaus. Nor does Luke explain why "their eyes were kept from recognizing" the resurrected Jesus. The disciples told Jesus about the "prophet mighty in deed and word," who had been crucified and was reported to no longer be in his tomb. "We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel," they lamented.
Jesus responded by explaining the necessity of his death, but it wasn't until he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them that their eyes were opened to who he was. As Jesus vanished, the two men rushed back to Jerusalem, saying to each other, "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road?"
It's little wonder that the story has so deeply resonated with Christian pilgrims over the centuries. Some medieval depictions of the story even dressed Jesus as a pilgrim himself, complete with the scallop shell common to those heading to Santiago. Some of the lessons from the Emmaus story are common to anyone who has traveled much: You don't always know what you are experiencing on the road until well into the journey. The greatest gifts during travel are often received in hindsight. The memories we carry the longest are often less about our destinations than about who we meet along the way.
But in the Emmaus story, we see something that separates pilgrimage from other forms of travel. Two people who knew about the Resurrection experienced the reality of it. It goes deeper than just grasping an event's historicity. It goes to its happenedness. We are not just minds created to soak up knowledge. We are bodies that stand in one place at a time, seeing and feeling our surroundings. How many of us have a friend who has returned from Gettysburg, explaining that they had never really understood the Civil War until their visit? Or who reads forests of articles about various troubles in the world, but is mesmerized by updates from the not-so-hotspot they visited on a short-term mission trip years ago? Once we are truly in a place, that place remains in us.
'Part of the faith'
Leaders of the early church understood the power a place can have on us.
"Just as Greek history becomes more intelligible to those who have seen Athens," wrote Jerome in the late 300s, "and the third book of Virgil to those who have sailed … to Sicily and so to the mouth of the Tiber, so that man will get a clearer grasp of Holy Scripture who has gazed at Judea with his own eyes."
For church fathers like Jerome, such travel wasn't merely a matter of intelligibility or having an accurate mental picture of historical events. "To worship on the spot where the feet of the Lord once stood is part of the faith," he said. Each time he visits Jesus' tomb, he wrote, "we see the Savior in his grave clothes, and if we linger, we see again the angel sitting at his feet and the napkin folded at his head."
Jerome saw pilgrimage as part of the faith, but not a required part of the faith. That belief would come centuries later, when priests and magistrates would mandate pilgrimages for penance and punishment. When Jerome was writing, however, he encouraged some believers to go on pilgrimage and others to stay home. "Access to the courts of heaven is as easy from Britain as it is from Jerusalem, for the kingdom of God is within you," he wrote. "Do not think that your faith is lacking because you have not seen Jerusalem."
The early church had fought the Gnostics, who had argued that we are spirits trapped in a material world, that place is either inferior or opposed to the spiritual world. They had also fought hard against theologians who had said that Jesus didn't fully assume the flesh, but had only seemed human.
The orthodox were adamant that matter matters. God created the heavens and the earth, walked among us, and is working in and through our physical bodies and spaces. They affirmed the universal (God is everywhere) but emphasized the particular (God is right here, right at this moment). And in the Emmaus story, they saw biblical evidence that while Jesus may make himself known in many ways, he is particularly present in the breaking of the bread.
The idea of holy places—even a Holy Land—took some time to develop. Jerusalem, after all, had been destroyed in A.D. 70, becoming a pagan Roman city that barred Jews from even entering (and didn't look kindly on Christians, either). The first famous Holy Land pilgrim was the mother of Constantine, Helen, who went to find the True Cross. Another early pilgrim was Egeria, a fourth-century nun from Spain whose journal gives us a glimpse into the liturgical practices of Holy Land churches. But most early travel to Jerusalem was not done by pilgrims, but by scholars looking for details about the biblical sites. The Jewish Temple, where God had dwelt, was gone. With Christ's resurrection, Paul had been clear: "You are God's temple" (1 Cor. 3:16). The holy dwelling place of God was with and in the holy people of God. And they, generally speaking, were not in Jerusalem.
In fact, Jerusalem had become a city of "rascality, adultery, theft, idolatry, poisoning, quarrelling, and murder," Gregory of Nyssa wrote after a trip to the city around the year 380. He seemed especially troubled by its homicide rate. "Nowhere in the world are people so ready to kill each other as there."
You would think, Gregory wrote, that "if the divine grace was more abundant about Jerusalem than elsewhere, sin would not be so much the fashion."
But that didn't lead him to reject the idea of holy places. It just led him to conclude that "our own places are far holier than those abroad."
More than a memory
When theologian N. T. Wright first visited Jerusalem during the middle of the First Intifada, he, too, was struck by the war-making there. But rather than the violence undermining a sense that the city was special, it deepened it.
"As I thought and prayed in [the Church of the Holy Sepulchre], a few yards from the place where Jesus died, I found that somehow, in a way I still find difficult to describe, all the pain of the world seemed to be gathered there," he wrote in The Way of the Lord, a 1999 book on pilgrimage. "The hurts and pains of my own life came up for review, and they too all seemed to gather together with clarity and force in that one place. … I emerged eventually into the bright sunlight, feeling as though I had been rinsed out spiritually and emotionally, and understanding—or at least glimpsing—in a new way what it could mean to suppose that one act in one place at one time could somehow draw together the hopes and fears of all the years. I had become a pilgrim."
It was not the first time Wright had experienced a special sense of place. In the 1980s, while living in Montreal, his son attended a public school in a building that had once housed a United Church of Canada congregation.
"Being a modern structure, it didn't look much like a church," Wright says. "The first time we went there, to a very 'secular' occasion, I was stunned. I walked in and sensed the presence of God, gentle but very strong. I sat through the loud concert wondering if I was the only person who felt it, and reflecting on the fact that I had no theology by which to explain why a redundant United church should feel that way. The only answer I have to this day is that when God is known, sought, and wrestled with in a place, a memory of that remains, which those who know and love God can pick up."
Eugene Peterson has similarly written about how the people in whom God dwells apparently leave an impression on specific places. In The Wisdom of Each Other, a 2001 collection of letters to a friend, he writes, "Your delight in coming across that monastery isolated out there on those austere plains, 'miles from nowhere,' and finding a community of praying brothers there is contagious. I am more and more convinced that holiness does infiltrate place. In such places, I always have a sense of homecoming—heaven-coming. We necessarily live much of our lives in exile, so to be able to spot the people and places that reestablish our true identity is so important. I hope you'll be able to get out there at least a couple of times a year."
Both Wright and Peterson are eager to affirm that the holy dwelling place of God is with and in his holy people. But the writers' differing experiences with a holy people's effect on a place reflect the different reasons people have gone on pilgrimages through the centuries. Wright's own experience with a place's memory was the dominant theme: a place became spiritually significant because of the physical and sustained memory of the saints. This insight was usually reflected in relics, especially those of martyrs.
By A.D. 156, the bones of Polycarp, a bishop killed for his faith, were regarded as "more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold" by the church he left behind. But even then, fierce debates were emerging over whether Christians were worshiping the relics or just using them to glorify God.The pro-relic side won the argument so thoroughly that we know less about the critics of relics than we do about many heretics. We can only piece together their critiques through the responses of relic supporters such as Jerome and Augustine.
"If a father's ring or clothing is precious to his children, shouldn't we care for the bodies of those we love?" Augustine argued. "After all, they wore the bodies far more closely and intimately than any clothing."
Wright says he understands the appeal of relics. When God's grace is seen at work in the actual physical life of a person, he explains, after their death "their body can be regarded as a place where special grace and the presence of God were truly made known. In that light, places where such saints have lived, have built churches, have been buried, become in that sense secondary relics." It's an understandable impulse, especially in light of such Bible stories as the man who came back to life after being thrown into the grave of the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 13:21). But, as Wright says, it's an argument not justified by Scripture.
Nevertheless, by 787, the relics of saints and martyrs were not merely seen as helpful. The Second Council of Nicea required them in all churches.
The main pilgrimage routes almost always terminated upon arrival at the bones of a biblical figure or saint—Peter and Paul in Rome, James in Santiago, Andrew in Scotland, Thomas Becket in Canterbury.
What did you go out to the desert to see?
Pilgrims did not travel just to see dead saints. They also went to see living saints. Just as Eugene Peterson's friend found holy space among the praying monks of the plains, thousands of Christians traveled to see, experience, and be changed by the spiritual giants of their day. The desert monks of Egypt, who had left their homes to live in isolation, ironically became surrounded by crowds eager to hear their wisdom and be inspired by their asceticism.
As such spiritual travel became increasingly common, so too did new restrictions on too much pilgrimage and constant wandering. "Monastic hospitality became abused," says Scottish church historian and journalist Ian Bradley, whose book Pilgrimage was published in February. "People became spongers, living off the goodwill and discipline cultivated in the monasteries."
Constant travel didn't just put a burden on local monasteries, notes Tomlin. It also undermined community.
"As Luther saw it, the medieval pilgrimage industry was both fueled by and in turn fed dissatisfaction with the local church," he says. "It fostered a sense of spiritual restlessness and ingratitude, where—not content with the gracious provision God had made for Christians in the normal practice of a local church—the pilgrim was always looking for something else, something extra, beyond what God had provided. More than this, though, it was a refusal to look for God in the very places where he has committed himself to be found, and instead insisting that God be found in places of human choosing."
The same can be true among today's travelers, and not just among those conscious of "going on pilgrimage."
"The perennial pilgrim, just like the perennial Christian conference goer, was always looking for the next spiritual high, the next big fad," says Tomlin. "Pilgrimages, just like Christian conferences, can also lead to disparagement of the local in favor of the big and global. But if they lead to a rediscovery of Jesus, the incarnate Word, they can lead to a renewed appreciation of the ordinary people and places that make up real live churches. At least good, well-led pilgrimages and conferences can do that."
Travel, in other words, can jolt us. The "curiosity to see the new things" that so many medieval pilgrims were criticized for can actually help us see familiar things anew upon our return.
"We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves," travel journalist Pico Iyer wrote in his 2000 essay "Why We Travel." He's right, but it's much more basic than that, especially for the pilgrim who travels more to find God than to find himself. We travel, at first, to leave. Then, finally, we travel to come home.
Those who best journey today may not be those who are talking about their trips to Jerusalem, or to Iona, or to Santiago. They are probably those who talk about living and ministering in Overland Park or Beacon Hill. Those who are thinking about the space they inhabit as holy land. Those who have returned from Emmaus and understand that God doesn't only meet us on the road. Theirs is the God who said, "I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them." A God who travels. And a God who dwells. A God who has made the whole world his holy land because he has made his people a holy people.
Ted Olsen is managing editor of news and online journalism at Christianity Today.
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