by Bill Tenny-Brittian
In my book High-Voltage Spirituality I introduce nine broad categories of Spiritual Habits: Projection/Reflection, Prayer, Study, Worship, Giving-Up, Taking-On, Accountability, Retreating, and Faith Sharing. With spring encroaching upon us, it seemed to me to be a great time to try the Tenth Habit: The Spiritual Habit of Pilgrimage.
Pilgrimages were popular spiritual practices up through the Middle Ages. Literally tens of thousands of hearty Christians dreamt, planned, and embarked on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and to Jerusalem in particular. Some went for tourism. Some went for repentance. Some went for a hopeful glimpse of the miraculous. But many, if not most, went for healing. Back in the day, pilgrims traversed holy paths seeking Divine dispensation from whatever ailed them.
In today’s North American Christian circles almost no one speaks seriously about a pilgrimage. Oh sure, we’re invited by some pastor or tour group to take a “pilgrimage” to Israel (or Egypt or Rome or…), and though these treks may be invaluable, many of them are at best study trips and at worst touristy whirlwinds that whip through fifteen cities in twelve days.
Perhaps it’s time to re-envision pilgrimages and slip them back into our spiritual habit repertoire. What follows is a simplified overview of what the Spiritual Habit of Pilgrimage looks like.
There are five steps to the Spiritual Habit of Pilgrimage. Outer Preparation; Inner Preparation; Embark; Sojourn; Retreat and Reflect. Each step is a journey within itself as you engage in this transformative spiritual practice.
Outer Preparation: At first glance, outer preparations look a lot like dealing with details…and trivial details at that. However, this is the first hurdle you must leap if your pilgrimage is to be anything more than a sightseeing trip. Enter this phase prayerfully and attentively. In this step you must decide where your pilgrimage will take you. My first meaningful pilgrimage came while I was a student in Atlanta. I made a pilgrimage, along with over 25,000 others, to a monthly Mary visage in Conyers, Georgia. As a lifelong Protestant I was skeptical, but I put on my best “I’ll give this a try” attitude to just “see.” You too will probably need not look too far to find someplace that has holy significance. There are sites of the miraculous, the significant, and the extraordinary in all fifty states…and in virtually every locale worldwide. Once you’ve chosen a site, choose a date for your pilgrimage. The Spiritual Habit of Pilgrimage isn’t a spur-of-the-moment practice. Part of the wonder of a pilgrimage is the anticipation. Then prayerfully consider the details: How will you travel? How long will you be gone? Who will you travel with, if anyone? And so on.
Inner Preparation: Before you go on your sacred journey, wrap your heart and your head into your pilgrimage. Begin by preparing your mind. Learn all you can about your destination. What’s so special about it? What events have transpired there over the years? Who’s been there? And so on. Then, once you’ve got your mind wrapped around the pilgrimage, it’s time to get your heart involved. Spend time in prayer about your journey. Consider what is calling you to go on a pilgrimage. What are your looking for? Allow your Imago Gene to imagine the possibilities, the potential of your travels. You may even want to take some time during this period for fasting or other aesthetic practices.
Embark: On the first day of your pilgrimage, consider leaving early…painfully early. Face the elements. View the sunrise…or the fog…or the rain. Leave the television, radio, iPod, computer, etc. off. Instead, spend your time in silent mindful travel. If you drive, do so with the windows open, even in the winter (don’t be foolish and get frostbite or endanger yourself though); pilgrimages aren’t about comfort, but about experiencing realness. Allow yourself to be hot, cold, hungry, or thirsty. BE where you are. See. Smell. Hear. Feel. Taste. Experience the time and space you travel through. Immerse yourself in the presence of the Divine with all of your senses in the sacred creation.
Sojourn: When you arrive at your destination, ready yourself completely. Again, this is an experience. Although earlier you have envisioned what your pilgrimage might be like, put all that aside in this place and allow yourself to be present to whatever (or whomever) is there. Leave all your expectations behind and simply appear before God empty without agenda – for who knows, perhaps God has prepared an agenda for you. Walk slowly. Breathe deeply. Listen carefully. Speak little. Experience much. Listen more. Listen for God. Listen for direction. Listen for silence. God may speak. But perhaps God will not. Let it all be okay. Dwell in this place as long as you can…and perhaps linger a little longer.
Retreat and Reflect: When you have finished sojourning at your destination, you have really only just begun. Approach your retreat much as you did your embarking…mindfully. This is not the time to rush home, but to deliberately, carefully, and prayerfully retreat from your pilgrimage. Again journey in silence with few distractions…windows down. Listen and reflect on your experiences. File the images, the scents, and the sounds in the deepest recesses of your mind. If you felt God speaking to you, how will you respond? If you felt utterly and hopelessly alone, what might you be learning? How is your life fuller from your experience? As you take this last step, allow yourself to break into grateful worship if your heart so directs. And finally, perhaps most importantly, when you arrive home and especially over the next few days, spend some time journaling your experiences and your reflections. Share what you’ve experienced with those around you, both those who would understand (your Christian companions) as well as those who might not understand (your non-Christian friends and acquaintances). You never know how God might choose to use your pilgrimage.
The Spiritual Habit of Pilgrimage was popular in the years of yore because it was so totally transforming. Spirits were touched at the deepest level as pilgrims communed in the presence of the Divine. I invite you to engage in this practice sometime this month. The trip itself need not be far from home…but it may take you to heights sublime.