I have a visceral, negative reaction to social media memes which boldly tout sentiments akin to
“The destination is not as important as the journey.” The same goes for decorative household items that feature the saying, “Not all who wander are lost,” attributed to J.R.R. Tolkien. My immediate reaction is, “Sure, but some are lost.”
I chalk my attitude up to being reared in New Jersey, where navigating traffic was a competitive sport. It’s also likely tied to my choleric temperament: I operate best when I have a clear goal and can devise the most efficient and effective means to achieve it.
I fully acknowledge that this isn’t always the best way to approach life. One practice that’s helped to temper me is the act of making pilgrimages. As a pilgrim, you do set out for a definitive destination. But getting to your destination and returning home also wind up being important parts of the process.
The first time I learned about the concept of pilgrimage was in my 11th grade English literature class. We were assigned Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and my classmates and I found ourselves engrossed in the storytelling competition of the travelers. (We also had some good laughs at the expense of the Wife of Bath).
My teacher underscored that this group of storytellers was more than a bunch of traveling companions. They were pilgrims, which signified that they were undertaking a journey to a sacred place of prayer. In the case of The Canterbury Tales, the destination was the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, where the archbishop was martyred.
Before this time, most of my travels centered around family vacations which included going to relaxing beaches, touring the great national parks of the American Southwest, and taking an epic tour around Italy. While that last trip included visits to some of the Catholic Church’s most beautiful shrines and basilicas, including St. Peter’s in Rome, we viewed them mostly as tourists, with a little prayer added in.
As I explored the concept more, I discovered many pilgrimage sites that weren’t churches (though most often churches are erected on or near the site). In the Catholic tradition, sacred spaces are places in which the divine has touched earth, places where God has broken into time and space to reach out to us.
Pilgrimage sites include locations of Marian apparitions (Lourdes, Kibeho, Fatima), places marking the burial grounds of saints (Camino de Santiago de Compostela) and even beautiful, natural vistas (Crough Patrick). Of course, the Holy Land is the preeminent pilgrimage destination, as it is the site of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I’ve made a few pilgrimages at this point in my life — some domestic and others abroad — and recommend the practice to others. Each pilgrimage has been different, although they’ve shared a few similar lessons and themes:
- Pilgrimages are hard. They are physically, emotionally, and spiritually taxing. I don’t know what it is, but something always seems to go awry with logistics. I think back to the hail storm and hurricane that swept through the outdoor vigil during World Youth Day in Madrid or the fact that my bus broke down on my way from Dublin to Galway to visit Our Lady of Knock Shrine. But these types of snafus are par for the course, since pilgrimages aren’t supposed to be relaxing, like vacations. Just as physical fitness requires exertion, so does growth in the spiritual life. And pilgrimages do stretch you spiritually, as they take you out of the familiar. They force you to consider new things about God, yourself, and your neighbor. And they most always involve uncomfortable bedding.
- Don’t expect extraordinary experiences (though you might be given them). I’ve gone on pilgrimages specifically to draw closer to God in prayer and have made arduous journeys to ask God for miraculous healings of loved ones. To date, I have not had any ecstatic moments of prayerful contemplation on a pilgrimage. And despite my sincere belief, I haven’t witnessed any special physical healings take place. But I do believe that the pilgrimage changes the pilgrim, even if those changes are not visible at first. In my experience, the graces are experienced in the days, weeks, and months after the trip. What God is asking of a pilgrim is the simple act of showing up. And because pilgrimage sites are places where God showed up for us, there is bound to be a very real encounter between you and Him.
- You’re likely to meet some extraordinary people. Unlike vacations in which travelers might be seeking some rest and relaxation away from other people, pilgrimages force you to encounter strangers who are also traveling to the same site. I always find it remarkable to discover that while you might have a radically different starting point or reason for making the pilgrimage, you share in common the desire to meet God in one particular place. Pilgrimages are opportunities to share in the hopes and struggles of others. They are places to experience meaningful and life-changing solidarity, to feel a little less alone.
As Catholics, we reflect on the concept of pilgrimage at every Mass when the priest prays for the “pilgrim Church on earth.” Our faith teaches us that we are all making our way to a sacred destination at which we’ll arrive at the end of our life. The practice of making pilgrimages here on earth has softened me to the idea that there’s a good deal to be gained as we wander along the way.