So, what lessons can we learn from the criticisms levelled at pilgrimage, and how might they effect our ‘theology of pilgrimage’?
Lesson 1 – Justification is by grace, through faith, not through works like pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage is not about earning God’s favour or forgiveness. But then neither are praying, going to church, reading the Bible and so on and no one would argue that those things are not necessary for growing in faith and relationship with God. Pilgrimage is also an activity which may help faith grow.
Lesson two – God is omnipresent
God is not present only in some places and not in others, but that does not mean that some places may not be more helpful than others. A journey of pilgrimage is no guarantee of a meeting with God, however open or needy the pilgrim is to such an encounter. But God may surprise us, we may meet God in others, the journey itself may change us as we learn and grow. Or we may end up being disappointed.
Lesson 3 – Pilgrimage is a sort of sacrament
That is to say that by participating in something ordinary and ritualistic we can be participating in something with a spiritual element as well. So just as sacraments like baptism or communion endue something ordinary with ‘spiritual’ significance, so in pilgrimage we may identify with Jesus, who was constantly moving around, open to the leading of his Father. The “Stations of the Cross” would be a graphic example of this: by moving from one station to another we may be participators in the death and resurrection of Jesus; in communion we pray with our bodies (as we receive the elements) as well as with our minds, and similarly our outward journey in pilgrimage may mirror an inward journey of prayer.
Lesson 4 – Signposts to God
There are people, living and dead, whose lives have been an example of life lived in relationship with God.There are certain places where people down through the ages have met with God in special ways.. In a way these people or places become signposts along the way to a relationship with God.
A pilgrimage to a place associate with Jesus, or to a place associated with one of the ‘saints’ becomes a signpost to God.
It could also be argued that the habit of going to large Christian conferences, Bible weeks or conventions fits into this desire to meet with God through the gathering of his people and the ministry of one who has also trodden the path of faith.
Lesson 5 – Danger and Discovery
There is much to be learned from the attitudes of the critics of pilgrimage about the dangers of pilgrimage. Clergy may neglect their pastoral duties to go on pilgrimages and conferences. People may believe that discipleship is simply a matter of going to church, attending conferences and going on pilgrimage rather than engaging in works of social justice. Being away from home, often at vulnerable times and with other vulnerable people may tempt us to follow courses of behaviour we would not contemplate at home.
On the other hand, someone who is self-aware may actually benefit fro being in a strange situation, away from what is normal and ‘everyday’. It may be a time of self-discovery, of the casting off of old baggage and learning new things to help with personal and spiritual growth.
Lesson 6 – Travelling in God’s creation
The whole metaphor of ‘Life as Journey/Pilgrimage’ is based on the idea that God is everywhere, not just at home, at the destination, in church or sacred space; God may be met at any stage of the journey by those whose spiritual senses are tuned in. The realities of joy and pain, suffering and success, tedium and satisfaction experienced on an actual pilgrimage act as a reminder that God is part of all of life, the good and the bad.
In another sense, as the Psalmist reminds us, creation itself is yet another signpost to the one who is behind it. The whole of creation is there to be enjoyed, a lavish gift from God, often best enjoyed by those who pass through on foot and have time to stop and stare.
With acknowledgement to David Osborne “Pilgrimage”, Grove Books, Cambridge, 1996 pages 15-19.