Journeying as Pilgrims

By Lissa M. Wray Beal
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“Guide me, O thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land.” So begins William Williams’ hymn in which Christian life is a pilgrimage along which the believer’s weakness is exposed, and God’s provision abounds. Pilgrimage is a deeply embedded description of the Christian life. It reflects Israel’s own wilderness trek, one which too often included complaint and the fear that God might not provide (Exod. 17:1–7). During Lent, we imagine ourselves into Christ’s own sojourn in the desert and accompany him toward Jerusalem. With Abraham and Sarah, we travel as strangers through foreign territory en route to that City whose “architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). And, as in Williams’ hymn, the pilgrimage of life ends in a Jordan-crossing to the safety of the heavenly Canaan.

Throughout church history – and in increasing measure today – Christians take real-life journeys to holy places. Egeria’s fourth-century account of pilgrimage to the Holy Land might inspire our own travel to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We might don the cockleshell symbol of the ancient Compostela pilgrimage and walk the camino that leads to the shrine of St. James. Or we might follow the traditional path to Canterbury, becoming one more colourful character alongside those of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. For those not granted such opportunities, we (like our medieval counterparts) can trace a contemplative pilgrimage by walking a labyrinth to its symbolic centre: a representation of both the earthly Jerusalem as well as the heavenly City.

Whether metaphor or real travel, pilgrimage is a reminder that we are foreigners and strangers in our world. In a world in which the 24/7 bombardment of the secular vision too easily shapes our thinking (and thus our acting), pilgrimage provides a counter-story for us to inhabit, and through which to have our own worldview reshaped in the image of Christ.

The power of pilgrimage is that it launches us into the unknown, wherein we discover that we are just as inclined to fear and grumbling as Israel – and just as weary and prone to take shortcuts. However, it is also in the unknowns and challenges of pilgrimage (as N. T. Wright reflects in The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today) that you discover whether you are truly “prepared for God to remake you … lovingly to break the brittle ‘you’ that you’ve so carefully constructed, to soften the clay in his hands until it’s ready to be remoulded, and then to make out of you what he had in mind all along, which may be quite different from what you wanted or expected.”

In short, pilgrimage in all its forms confronts us with our least appealing qualities and so invites us to allow Christ the Companion at once to reshape our vision and refashion our living. For those who take up this bold and hopeful journey, Angela Ashwin offers an insightful prayer for the road: “Christ our Guide, stay with us on our pilgrimage through life: when we falter, encourage us; when we stumble, steady us; and when we have fallen, pick us up. Help us to become, step by step, more truly ourselves, and remind us that you have travelled this way before us.” Amen!