Coming out of the season of Lent, I was fully aware of all the language of “journey” and “pilgrimage” that filled my in-box from other churches, pastor friends on Facebook, as well as religious books, periodicals, and conferences posted during this season. Many authors of these articles, opinion pieces, and book chapters wrote in general terms about going forward, “when the going gets tough,” walking in deserts, and searching for insights about the Holy along the way of life. I used to be that writer. But as one friend told me in the late 1990s: “You write beautiful parts of the pilgrim life. Too bad you’ve never been on a pilgrimage.” And with that insight, an invitation appeared soon after to go on my very first intentional pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayo, in Chimayo, New Mexico, and nothing has ever been the same. Granted I had hiked around Oregon’s Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson as a youth, taken a bike ride from Spokane to San Francisco, walked around the major cities in the US and Europe, and hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail, but I had never been on an actual pilgrimage. Having walked over 120 miles in 6 days to Chimayo with members from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe, NM, changed not only the trajectory of my personal life, but also how I understood the very nature of church life. With time, I came to understand that the Church is the body of Christ, walking or moving forward, in which the realm of God is breaking in with each encounter and step or move we make as we make our way home to God.
In the next few days, I want to explore the general nature of a church as a pilgrim people. To that end, the starting point is to unpack the words “pilgrim” and “pilgrimage”. Benedictine Br. David Steindl-Rast defines pilgrimage in his observation that pilgrimage is different from a journey or a vacation. In a journey or vacation, a person reaches a goal, a place, a group of people, a vacation destination. In a pilgrimage, every step or move is the goal. And with every step or move the pilgrim makes, the pilgrim says in one’s mind “Now, now, now,” being aware of living in the present. The essence of pilgrimage is love, because in love, with every step you take you reach the goal. And when we say “we love” or “I love,” what we are saying is that we belong. Who do we belong to? God. For God is love. In other words, if a church—the body of Christ—is on a pilgrimage, then every step the pilgrim people make forward, moving towards God, is a step or movement of love.
Pretty straight forward, right? Herein lies the connection which I learn and re-learn every time I go on pilgrimage: I need to go on an actual pilgrimage every year in order to remember the very nature of what it means to be a pastor who works with, walks alongside with, a congregation or parish. In other words, there is an actual pilgrimage that informs our pilgrimage of everyday life. After all, Christians are a pilgrim people who follow Jesus, or what the late Brother John of the Taize Community called “the Pilgrim God.” From the moment of his birth, Jesus was on a pilgrimage, from Bethlehem to Egypt; walking with his disciples around Nazareth, Capernaum, and the towns around the Sea of Galilee, and finally his last pilgrimage to Jerusalem, leading to his death and resurrection. And before our forbearers took on the name, “Christian” we were known as women and men of “the Way.”
The word “pilgrim” comes from the Latin pelegrinus referring to the wayfarer or foreigner, or the journey of a person who travels to a shrine or holy place. To be a pilgrimage on pilgrimage is to be a person who is on the move, making a journey, which may be difficult and often long, to some specific place, such as a religious or sacred shrine or important physical marker, with or without a group of people, over a span of time (Brett Webb-Mitchell, School of the Pilgrim, pp. 10-11).
The connection between being a pilgrim on an actual pilgrimage and being a pilgrim of everyday life as part of the greater Church being on a pilgrimage came when exploring the root of the word, “parish”. Paroikos, which is the root word for parish, comes from “para” which can mean sojourner or pilgrim, and “oikos” which is house. In other words, a parish or congregation, literally means “pilgrims’ house.” In essence, a church is a house of and for pilgrims. And in this house of God, a church, we pilgrims gather together at least once a week for both a place of rest and renewal, of feeding and nurturing of mind, body, and spirit, as we walk along on our pilgrimage of every day life, accompanied by the Holy Spirit, following Jesus, the Pilgrim God.
In the next essays on pilgrimage, there will be further exploration of the way that an actual pilgrimage and the pilgrimage of everyday life feed each other. This will include companions and community on pilgrimage, saints and memory on pilgrimage, hospitality on pilgrimage, and the contemplative life of Christian pilgrimage. So as the pilgrims of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela of Spain say to one another on their pilgrimage and we can say in our everyday life to each other on the everyday pilgrimage, Buen Camino! Good Pilgrimage!
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.