Some students and I are planning a pilgrimage to the church at Santiago de Compostela via “el Camino,” “the Way.” It’s an ancient series of footpaths for medieval pilgrims to walk towards the church. It occurs to me that many people, including a lot of us going on the trip, don’t really know what pilgrimage is, and in particular, how it’s different from a vacation.
There are definitely overlaps between pilgrimage and other kinds of travel. You might find yourself on a pilgrimage for a day while ostensibly on a business trip because you suddenly saw something that put you in that space. Or you might have the best of intentions for a pilgrimage you’ve planned and find spiritual transformation around every corner, yet still have touristy moments.
It’s a question of your purpose, or your intention. A pilgrimage is a journey to a place of special spiritual significance. The journey part implies some distance from home. Certainly, it is also spiritual distance from one’s home headspace, but you get the idea. The place might be one of suffering and disaster like Ground Zero or a concentration camp, it might be a place where an historical event that’s deeply relevant to you happened (Montgomery, Alabama or The Stonewall bar in New York City). It might be a place of natural wonder where the physical world seems to butt up against the spiritual one (a thin place, our Irish brothers and sisters call it), or a more obviously religious place like Chartres Cathedral or Mecca. One’s coop experience might even be a pilgrimage if approached from that intentional perspective and the location is somehow specially spiritual.
We go on pilgrimage, not to say we’ve been there but to be transformed. This doesn’t mean that we won’t talk about it afterwards or that we won’t take photos while we’re there, but it does mean that we consider our intention and our openness to what the place will show us. See, again, the first point about overlap.
The primary intention is to be in the presence of the divine in a way we don’t see every day. Simply being in that presence changes how we interact with the people around us and with our life at home. It is meant to be transformative.
Let me share quickly about the pilgrimage the Edge House took to Denver, Colorado a few years ago. We slept on the floor of a church there in Denver and volunteered with the Boulder parks department for three days. At the beginning of the week, we attended worship at House for All Sinners and Saints, a small Lutheran congregation with a hugely diverse congregation, semi-famous/infamous pastor (Nadia Bola-Weber), delightful a cappella singing, and a major influence on how we do things at the Edge House. The space itself wasn’t super-fancy, but being in community with the people, singing in parts and praying surprisingly specifically for some of their members was a wonderful start for the week. One of our work days was cancelled because of a blizzard, so we ended up looking around for a labyrinth to walk (google it—I’ll blog another time about those, but they’re meant to be mini-pilgrimages!). We found one at the local Children’s Hospital in their quiet, well-designed interfaith chapel. We found another labyrinth in the lobby of a huge office building with an amazing art gallery just off the lobby. We walked that one, too. After work the next day, we drove up in to the Rockies to stay in a cabin at the YMCA of the Rockies. Nat, one of the students who went that year, upon looking out our windows at the stupidly-beautiful mountains, said, “How is this even in our country?” Those mountains are so much bigger, colder, harder, more colorful, and more beautiful than we could have imagined. God’s fingerprints were all over them.
Additionally, we had several difficult conversations while on the journey, some related to being in close-quarters for a week, others related to our ongoing relationships, and we cared for each other the whole time. Each moment of this trip (well, maybe not every one) served to open us up to something bigger than ourselves. And we chose to go on this journey so that that would happen. We went on this pilgrimage with the intention to be changed by it, and we were.