Pilgrims help each other achieve the goals of the group while exploring ancient Capadokia. Image from our 2013 excursion to Turkey, "In the Footsteps of Paul."
When you go to Jerusalem . . . you go to meet God. Of course, we who read the New Testament know . . . that those who worship the true God are not bound by geography.
While some adventure travelers leave home for the sake of academic engagement, others pack their bags for the purpose of exploring the more sublime dimensions of the human soul. In doing so, they are ushered forward into a dilemma nearly as old as Christianity itself. The question runs as follows: If God is everywhere, as the Apostle Paul argues (e.g. Acts 17:24-27), how can one land be more "Holy" than another? Is not all the universe His footstool? Is not every place His "Sacred Space"? Unlike Judaism with its temple of stone, Christianity released earthly attachments early on. So why pilgrimage?
Answers to this question vary. Some early pilgrims believed that the lands of the Bible, like Scripture itself, were encoded with meaning by God. If properly interpreted (either in the form of inked letters on parchment or mountains sketched on the horizon), the lingering acts of God could be detected by the reader. The mystical act of walking or sitting or praying in the places where the grand events of salvation history occurred produced a physical reenactment whereby the petitioner could transcend his/her own time and space.
Variations of this theme are captured by one Peter, abbot of Jonceles. He described three motivations, and hence, three types of medieval pilgrims.** The first type sought to visit places described in Scripture as an act of piety. The second type of pilgrim ventured forth to experience release from sin; visiting holy sites was viewed as an act of penitence. The third type of pilgrim traveled to holy places (and in this, Jerusalem is at the center) in order to die. This last type is most curious to us, but perfectly understandable if one believes that all of life is a journey that culminates with residency in the "New Jerusalem." Why not wait at its doorstep?
This mix of motivations continues to produce pilgrim groups to our own day (although we sincerely hope that Father Peter's third type will sign on with another outfit!). Many travelers that I encounter are familiar with the contours of the the biblical story. They come to learn more about that story, to deepen their love for God, to experience places that they have heard about since childhood, and to enjoy travel adventure with family and friends. They are pious, but inquisitive people, who seek to buttress faith with fact.
Many pilgrims are pleasantly surprised to discover that the heritage of Christianity continues to thrive in the land of the Bible. Not all churches are museums and not all believers are dead saints. A vibrant faith community exists at local and regional levels and even in ministerial institutions that are committed to training the next generation of church leaders. These groups face challenges that those in the American church will quickly recognize. Beyond these are challenges unique to the church in the Middle East. When allowed to digest, this discovery becomes yet another reason for pilgrimage: partnership with fellow believers.
Thus, in the end, pilgrimage continues as a valuable exercise. This is not because the ground underfoot is special in some way or because God gives pilgrims an extra scoop of grace. Rather, it is because the Spirit of the God is carried by the People of God. To identify with local believers from another culture and to walk with like-minded journeymen from home is a splendid opportunity. To do so in an environment rich with Scriptural memory only enhances the experience. Oddly enough, after traveling thousands of miles, the alert pilgrim discovers that the true Holy Land is found in the human heart.
Those who choose a pilgrimage tour open themselves up to new ways of thinking about the biblical text, its context, and the community of believers. Pilgrimage tours move at a pace that allows for contemplation and prayer (although it is possible that 7 or 8 miles of walking is required each day). Lodging facilities are comfortable (often at 4 or 5 star levels) and priority is given to sightseeing, camaraderie, and casual cultural engagement.
As with study tours, church leaders are encouraged to participate in the planning and execution of the pilgrimage tour. While success in the the area spiritual formation is difficult to measure, there is no doubt that groups who arrive in the land ready to pursue specific goals are at an advantage.
If you are a church leader who is contemplating a pilgrimage tour, I hope you will peruse these pages closely. There are many companies who offer "deals" for you and your congregation, but realize that a deal is only a deal if the the product is what you want. If you desire to bypass the greased palms of the industry, the repeated shopping stops, and the guide-patter, shoot me an email. I can help you meet your own ministry goals.
Come on. Let's explore outside!
*By far the best read on this subject is the volume by N.T. Wright, The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today. Eerdmans, 2014.
**See the article by Ora Limor, 'Holy Journey'" Pilgrimage and Christian Sacred Landscape. Pp. 321-353 in Christians and Christianity in the Holy Land. O. Limor and G. G. Stroumsa, eds. Brepolis: Turnhout, 2006.