Huston Smith, famed sociologist of religion, once wrote, “To set out on a pilgrimage is to throw down a challenge to everyday life.”
His words might catch us off-guard because when we think of a pilgrimage, dusty roads to Jerusalem or medieval castles come to mind — yet he penned these words in the 20th century. And the “everyday life” he refers to here is all too familiar: the humdrum of day-to-day living, the lingering sense that there must be something more to our lives.
While pilgrimage is an ancient form of prayer practiced in all the major world religions, it is a practice that speaks directly to our needs and desires today. We are all wanderers and wayfarers in this world, and what Smith says about pilgrimage appeals to that innate desire to disrupt routine and to seek out a special and sacred space.
A pilgrimage, succinctly, is a journey to a chosen destination to bring to God our prayers and intentions. Afterward, we return home. In its most direct sense, pilgrimage is that simple — but it is by no means simplistic. Here are two ways to unpack the depth and complexity inherent in the decision to become a stranger in the land.
A pilgrimage means voluntary displacement.
The displacement of a pilgrimage removes us from the familiar experience of the commute to work or the walk to the grocery store down the street, and invites us to embrace new roads. This is a journey that makes us strangers.
At no point does the pilgrim have any claim to the land through which we travel. We do not colonize it nor can we create its meaning. That foreignness invites freedom — freedom to interact with the land and its inhabitants relationally without the need to create a hierarchy and power structure that divides and distorts. As we make our way toward our goal, we become someone new.
Wandering and wayfaring bestows a sort of weirdness that is good for us. It is altogether odd in today’s world for us to upset the routine of the work week or the Saturday hangout with friends to choose to be uncomfortable — let alone to take on a purposeful, prayerful journey to a holy place. The weirdness reminds us that there are holy and sacred places on this Earth that are worth our attention.
The displacement of a pilgrimage also separates us from the aspects of our lives that we normally build our identity around: family, friends, and work. Seeking God, the pilgrim unravels the bonds of excess attachment to these aspects to center ourselves on the singular purpose of the journey. This single-mindedness frees us from the worries of daily life and allows us to be wholly present to God in all things.
Pilgrimage opens our eyes. The brutalist blocks of the industrial side of town and the bucolic fields of yellow and purple wildflowers in the countryside both receive notice in a way we would miss zipping by on our drive home from work. “Pilgrims often journey to the ends of the earth in search of holy ground,” writes Scott Russell Sanders, writer and professor, “only to find that they have never walked on anything else.”
A pilgrimage means putting our lives in God’s hands.
In the routine of life, we typically treat our souls and our bodies as separate entities, yet God made us both body and soul. The two are intrinsically tied up with one another. We often consider soul work to require a darkened room and lots of stillness and silence, and at the same time we often consider the body simply to be a vehicle that needs fuel from time to time to get us from place to place. Pilgrimage helps us reunite ourselves — to see ourselves as embodied souls. We are just as capable of finding God in stillness as we are in tracing the cracks in the concrete of the city sidewalk while people hustle and trucks blare their horns.
In an age of distraction and disillusion, the pilgrim trusts — otherwise, we would not set out in the first place. We have to trust that there is a Presence larger than ourselves in this world that cares for us; we have to trust this Presence enough to become a stranger; and we have to trust that we can have a meaningful relationship with that Presence — one that is developed and deepened by a pilgrimage journey.
Finally, there is one more aspect of that trust implicit in setting out on the road: it is a belief that the pilgrim will return home changed. The embrace of strangeness, the separation from daily life, and the willingness to find and trust God in all things challenge our experience of everyday life. We come home with a new perspective by which to see ourselves, our friends, and our work — a new perspective that reveals God as the answer to the lingering sense that there must be more to life.
This story is produced in collaboration with Modern Catholic Pilgrim, which Will founded. If you’re looking for a way to join others on pilgrimage, MCP has a range of experiences available across the country.