19th December 2022
If I’m honest, pilgrimage is not a concept I’m comfortable with. Something about it grates whenever it is mentioned. Even the word makes me feel… itchy. Instinctively, I don’t like the concept. But I got to thinking… why do I have such a big reaction to it?
I think my aversion to pilgrimage is partly because it’s not a word or concept that was talked about in the church tradition I grew up in. It feels alien to me. The idea is too esoteric and the language too medieval for the context I was brought up in. It clashes with my expectations of what Christianity looks like and so I recoil… But hang on! Not fitting the stylistic preferences of my corner of the church isn’t a good reason to reject something.
So I ask myself then, theologically, what is it that bothers me?
I worry that it’s too sacred/secular; that it attaches too much importance to specific places being designated more special than others. I worry also that it’s elitist – promising ‘better’ spiritual experiences to those with the resources to travel, while those who don’t enjoy those privileges just have to make-do. The theology I feel most at home in emphasises God being accessible everywhere, to everyone, at all times – democratic ideas I am much more comfortable with.
I know that’s not the whole story. Jesus wasn’t conceived in the ether, he was conceived in Mary’s womb. He grew up in a distinct time and place. If the Shepherds and the Magi wanted to meet Jesus, they had to go find him. I know fine well that most of the places Jesus went as an adult weren’t glamorous and that the people who followed him were rarely rich. They followed him to places of poverty and distress – worshiping with their feet, by their choice of location. So how dare I accuse modern pilgrims of privilege. It seems I’m being very selective in my criticisms and of the practice.
So… what’s really going on with me? Why do I prefer to focus on only half the story, that of God being present where I am?
Well for one, he is! I’m exhausted. Physically and emotionally I’ve barely begun to recover from the upheaval of COVID. I’m also dizzyingly busy. I’m juggling poor health, two kids and three jobs as well as my church, family and friendship commitments. I work very hard to earn very little and get precious little time to myself. It’s no wonder that I really, really, really like that God meets me where I am! It’s an act of grace, and one I am very grateful for; that God is with me at all times, in all places. Hallelujah that I do not have to go on pilgrimage to meet with God!
But what about the other side of the story? What if God wants me to worship with my feet? To not excuse inaction because of poverty or pressures? What if there are experiences or insights waiting that I won’t glean by staying put?
And the more I think about it, the more I’m not sure I am averse to pilgrimage. Most of the defining moments in my walk with God have happened away from home, when I’ve stepped out of my daily routine. I might not have used the word ‘pilgrimage’ but that’s what I’ve done. SU camp each summer in my teens – that was a pilgrimage. Attending New Wine Conferences – pilgrimage. Praying in the hedonistic clubs of Ibiza – pilgrimage. Walking out under Scottish skies to breathe and sing and talk to God – pilgrimage. Home is where my faith has been worked out but away is where it flourished.
And so perhaps the itchiness I feel is not about a flaw in the idea of pilgrimage but uncomfortableness at my own settledness; about and the long list of reasons I have to avoid disruption and change (“I’m too poor! Too busy! Too tired!”). Maybe, just maybe, that itch isn’t a problem at all. Maybe it’s a nudge that says staying put won’t meet my every need? Maybe it’s the call to ‘come follow me’ once again?
Chris Lindsay is a proud dad to two small girls and husband to photographer Anneleen, is a screenwriter, a musician at The Years Shall Run and in his spare time, serves as a 24-7 Prayer Scotland trustee.