Being God’s Pilgrim People: The Contemplative Life of Christian Pilgrimage – Brett Webb-Mitchell

home-small-2Walking to El Santuario de Chimayo in northern New Mexico at 5:00 a.m. is a Holy experience. It is still evening to me, or early morning to other pilgrims. Even though it is a pilgrimage held in late May (right after Pentecost), it is chilly at this hour because this parcel of earth has not felt the hot glow of the sun for hours. I usually wear a heavy sweatshirt.  Rosary beads are in my left gloved hand, though as a Protestant I fumble with the meaning behind each bead. The outlines of mountainous ridges are all around us. Dogs bark at us, waving their tails. There is a sighting of the moon over head, and by around 5:30 we start to see the first glimmer of sun peeking out over the eastern horizon. We are silent as we walk. It is out of courtesy to sleeping neighbors that we are silent as we walk, and because we are so tired, having not quite six hours of sleep the night before. I hear the shuffle of our walking on the gritty soil beneath our hiking shoes and boots. The crucifer ahead of the long line of thirty pilgrims tries to keep the pole, upon which rests a wooden statue of the crucified Jesus, steady and upright, so as not to let the crucified Jesus fall asleep on his side. No songs are sung, or orders barked out by the director of our pilgrimage.  We walk single file. And we pray.

Over the years, this one feature of pilgrimage is golden: prayer or contemplation.  Kathleen Norris talks about pilgrimage as the monastic life taken on the road. Pilgrimage is a transportable monastic experience. The Sisters of St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, MN taught me the contemplative life and the life of prayer, for which I am truly thankful.  There were no such lessons of the contemplative or prayer life when I attended Princeton Seminary or Harvard University, and it was merely an “elective” when I taught at Duke Divinity School. Imagine: prayer an elective rather than a requirement, especially for religious leaders! Yet it was on pilgrimage that I dove into the life of prayer and contemplation on the pilgrim’s way. When walking to Chimayo, two or three times a day we were granted the space to pray silently.  Sometimes we chanted using the rosary, which was a kind of prayer.  But it was the silent times I came to crave. I usually held a list in my pants pockets of people I was praying for during a pilgrimage.  Other times I used phrases or verses from the Psalms or lines from the Beatitudes to guide my prayer. Most often I was silent, which for an extrovert is a huge undertaking.

What I discovered while praying in the act of walking is that my walking became a prayer.  This truth revealed itself while walking with other Presbyterian young people from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill as we walked along Hadrian’s Wall in England. Walking in a single file, usually staring at the ground and the back of the person in front of us, we gave ourselves over to listening to God’s creation: birds, beers, flies, the rustle of leaves, water flowing in a creek near us, and gently tripping over a stone. Some people prayed in a hushed voice, while others were silent. Our pace often quickened during this time that we weren’t talking with each other and yammering to the Holy Spirit.  We found ourselves talking to God in Christ about our life, about what we’ve done, and what we’ve failed to do, and about who we are and who we were, and who are the people we love, and who are the people we don’t love too.  As Frederick Buechner says about prayer, “Talk to yourself about what matters most to you, because if you don’t, you may forget what matters to you.  Even if you don’t believe anybody’s listening, at least you’ll be listening. Believe Somebody is listening.  Believe in miracles” (Buechner, Wishful Thinking, p. 71).

When off the path of an actual pilgrimage, I discovered that my prayer life is, of course, an always event along the road of life. Everyone prays, whether they are aware of it or not. Along with morning and evening prayers, I still find that praying and walking or moving fit nicely together on the pilgrimage of everyday life. I find myself praying when driving a car, riding a bike, or walking city streets, when an idea or a person’s name comes to my awareness and I verbally blurt out a prayer. Intensity of prayer grows during crises such as when I was in the process of coming out of my gay closet, a pilgrimage unto itself.  I pray for and with friends in a conversation when walking with them to an appointment, or with family members over a text when mobile.  I’ve prayed with folks before and after meals, walking city streets with a cup of coffee in hand, walking along a forested trail in the “Christ haunted landscape” (Flannery O’Connor), or when strolling along in an art gallery or museum and wandering from room to room and taking in the art.

In the pilgrimage of congregational life, many parishes and congregations are housed in beautiful structures.  I have created a simple set of 14 prayers to be prayed at fourteen stations or spots around a sanctuary or within other parts of a church building on a set day of the week. Other congregations have created labyrinths. There are rather simple labyrinths like a three-path labyrinth that can be created in a sand lot, painted on a patio in tempera paints or chalk, as well as the more complicated yet beautiful cloth impressions of the Chartres labyrinth.  Labyrinths are wonderful tools that can be used for and with a congregation during Lent or Advent, inviting participants to slow down and enter a Holy space for contemplation and prayer. The playing of gentle music or chants played softly in the background, dim lighting, and maybe votive candles can be conducive to helping people developing a prayer life.  Prayer life can come about with a congregation taking on a walk for cancer or hunger awareness, or hike in the woods, or a pilgrimage between holy places in a suburban enclave or urban roadway, along sidewalks and paths.

To this day, I am thankful for that first pilgrimage to Chimayo which revealed to me the monastic life on the road of life. Each yearly pilgrimage ever since is a re-immerse myself into the beauty of the pilgrimage of God’s pilgrim people as we follow Jesus, the Pilgrim God, on our way home to God.


The Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell is a pilgrim, a speaker, a writer, a teacher, a Presbyterian pastor, a parent, a partner, and a pet lover. Currently, Brett is interim head of staff at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (USA) in Portland. OR.  He is a pilgrim, having written extensively on pilgrimage that includes stories from his pilgrimages from Thailand and Cambodia, to the Holy Lands, the Celtic frontiers of Ireland, Scotland, and England; along with the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, Chimayo, and pilgrimages throughout Central America. He is speaker and writer, covering issues facing people living with disabilities, religious education theory, and LGBTQ parenting in faith communities. He taught at both Duke Divinity School and NC Central University in Durham, NC. He is a dad of two wonderful young adults, and he and his partner are living bi-coastally between OR and NC.

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