Pilgrimage as a Spiritual Possibility

Mar 15, 2022

By James R. Thobaben 

In 1864, as the American Civil War turned toward its inevitable (and proper) conclusion, Methodists in North Carolina published The Southern Zion’s Songster. Included in the work, albeit uncredited, was “I’m a Pilgrim and I’m a Stranger,” a poem written by Mary S. B. Dana Shindler and composed in the midst of war, as well as her own significant personal tragedies. Perhaps she was influenced by Methodist Mary Hamlin Maxwell’s 1849, and similarly named hymn, “I’m a Pilgrim and a Stranger.”   

With slightly different words, but quite common sentiments, the two women drew from pilgrim imagery to describe their own revivalist spirituality. They were not alone. Highly influential 19th century hymnals, such as The Sacred Harp and The Southern Harmony, are filled with songs of pilgrimage. Life is a journey, and an uncertain one at that.  Yet, it is not random, nor a matter of achieving a self-constructed purpose: there is an end, a telos, that draws one through a process toward a goal.

The song “I am a Pilgrim” – as it is generally known today – is a mixture of lyrics from the work of those two women and anonymous contributors along the way. It has been sung as an African-American gospel song (perhaps most wonderfully performed by the Soul Stirrers in 1965), as a Bluegrass / Appalachian music standard (memorably, by Doc Watson, drawing on the shapenote tradition), and by innumerable small country and inner-city church congregations.

But why? Why sing songs of pilgrimage? Why use the imagery? Did not Protestants give up on ‘pilgrimage’ as a spiritual discipline?  Both the Anglican and Methodist Articles of Religion include a rejection of “Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration … of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, [with any such action being but a] fond thing, vainly invented…” 

The Protestant Reformers questioned the value of physical pilgrimage, with more than a few condemning the practice. They were picking up on suspicions that had begun to appear several centuries earlier, in the late Middle Ages. Some had been arguing that pilgrimages simply provided an opportunity for sin, as Geoffrey Chaucer described throughout Canterbury Tales.  Others asserted they were spiritually insufficient – not worth the trouble – as seems to be the argument in William Langland’s Piers Plowman. 

Looking back, it may be that a turning point was reached when pilgrimages to sites associated with Christ in Israel and places where martyrs had been killed or buried (such as Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls in Rome) were forced just prior to 1100 AD to compete with new sites associated with the Virgin (e.g. Walsingham in England, 1061 AD) and, then, eventually those places with “remaining relics of heaven” (e.g. remnants of the body of Jesus, like his umbilical cord, and pieces of the eucharistic bread, such as at Wilsnack in Germany, 1383 AD). 

The proto-Protestants (that is, reformers before the Reformation) began openly challenging the value of such journeys. The true pilgrimage, they strongly argued, is the sojourn of the soul toward heaven. Therefore, physical pilgrimage is, at best, a distraction and, at worst, a corruption.  

• For instance, around 1400 AD, reportedly Master William Thorpe told the Archbishop of Canterbury, “I call them true pilgrims travelling towards the bliss of heaven.” These will not “waste God’s goods in the vain pilgrimages, spending their goods upon vicious hostelars…” 

• Similarly, church reformer Jan Hus condemned the Wilsnack pilgrimage site and comparables in no uncertain terms; it was one factor leading to his martyrdom. In 1403, he proclaimed: “True Christians should rather remember Christ’s words spoken to the doubting Thomas: ‘Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’ Instead of running after false miracles they should turn to the resurrected Christ who is existent in the Holy Sacrament…” 

Rejection of physical pilgrimage was all but required during the Reformation. For instance, the site of Archbishop Thomas Becket’s death in Canterbury likely had in excess of 100,000 visitors annually before the shrine was destroyed in 1538. The site of the supposedly inflammable, blood-stained eucharistic wafers at Wilsnack had drawn its own huge crowds, but suddenly closed down when a reforming priest demonstrated they would burn after all in 1558. 

Within 50 years of Luther, the “de-physicalizing” of pilgrimage was generally accepted in Protestant regions. By the time Bunyan released The Pilgrim’s Progress in 1678, the single most important devotional work written in the English language, few English-speaking Protestants would have considered the behavior anything but blasphemous. 

Does not “earning grace by a work-of-walking” create a sort of spiritual elitism? Yes. Does not required adoration of an object deny the ever-presence of God? Yes. When taken to an extreme, does it not seem more magical than spiritual? Indeed, yes. Could any earthly object or place act as an intermediary when God is directly accessible? No. And, hence the Anglicans and Methodists included that above cited article of religion. Reform was necessary. 

Still, as tends to happen, there was an overcorrection. Might not physical pilgrimage, properly conducted, be an instrument, a tool, a means of grace? Yes, it might. Analogically, even if the sacramental bread and wine is not “transubstantiated” into actual body and blood, is it not still the “real Presence”? Yes, it is. Can it not serve instrumentally as what is called a “means of grace”? It can. So, too, can physical pilgrimage.

It certainly seems that humans find instrumental spiritual value in journeying. Sometimes it is to a local church for prayer, sitting in the same pew one has used for years. Sometimes it is proclaiming the Gospel from the top of one’s own father’s grave, as John Wesley did when he returned to his home church in 1742. Sometimes it is journeying to early Methodist sites in Britain in what is called a “Wesleyan pilgrimage.” And, sometimes it is something almost identical to a practice of the Middle Ages, such as a journey to Jerusalem to walk in the steps of Jesus Christ on the Via Dolorosa.

Some 20 years ago, while coincidentally (or providentially) re-reading John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and using William Langland’s 14th century poem in a course I teach, I decided I really should walk a pilgrimage route. I chose the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Since then I have walked the Camino a second time (along a different route). In Ireland, I trudged up and down Crough Patrick and fasted three days and stayed awake through the night on the island of Lough Derg. My pilgrimage experience has included walking up a dusty road (with cars driving too fast) to reach Chimayo, New Mexico. In England, I’ve journeyed from Rochester to Canterbury (along the path walked by Chaucer’s pilgrims) and waded the tidal pool to Lindisfarne. Mostly out of academic interest, I’ve walked from just north of Berlin to Wilsnack. I am scheduled to go to Israel this summer, and some day – God willing – hope to visit Ethiopia, Armenia, and maybe Rome. 

What have I gained? Nothing I might not have obtained through another means of grace. That, though, is true about all the spiritual instruments we use – none are necessary, for Christ alone saves. Walking toward a Christian destination, then, can be a means of grace, but is never a garnering of “spiritual credit” nor proof of spiritual heroism. Rather, physical pilgrimage makes known to us at the deepest level, that our true selves are not disembodied spirits (even in heaven according to I John) and that our Lord assumed this same corporeality. 

Physicality matters spiritually. We all recognize that in a hospital room or at the quickening of a baby or when we see cruel injustice. Similarly, the palpable nature of physical pilgrimage reminds one with every step of the tangible nature of the Incarnation and of our journey to be like Him. Pilgrimage is just a tool for focusing one’s mind and will on what the heart should be, but it is a useful tool. 

Here, then, are my five suggestions for Protestants interested in using this means of grace:

• The pilgrimage routes one chooses should be focused on Jesus Christ, the Incarnate God. Christian pilgrimage is not a trip to an interesting place, though it may be interesting to take the trip.  The final purpose is not exercise, weight loss, seeing new places, wondering at beautiful art or architecture, or enjoying nature – it is Christ. Those other things may and will happen, but only properly if Christ is the focus – ideally of each step, but at least of the last few as the end is reached.

• A pilgrimage should be costly, but reasonably so. It may or may not cost money, but it must cost time and effort.  This is not tourism. It is a spiritual discipline. Select a journey that is manageable, but requires effort – significant enough that one moves through discomfort to the recognition of both the cost of discipleship and the joy of walking with Christ toward heaven. By the way, this requires a balance of “means of grace,” so one should commit to the same cost in effort and money for “works of mercy” – some significant service to others – upon return.

• Follow a route that has a history – going where others have gone to worship our Lord. Even if their theology was not always perfect, it is essential to recognize and be part of the community of faith through time and space. Acknowledge one walks in the company of the cloud of witnesses, and seek out places where people knelt, where they gathered, where they stayed.

• The best way to keep that disciplinary focus is to simultaneously use other disciplines – especially, daily Scripture reading and focused prayer (remember, intentionally, those you meet who need Christ and those at home who miss you). Multiple times through the day, journal both as a diary of travel and as a record of spiritual struggle and of the felt presence of the Lord. Take communion. Serve others along the way. Be intentionally polite in accepting the gift of hospitality. 

• And, enter into mutual accountability. Recognize that you, as a pilgrim, need the earthy community of saints. Seriously consider whose company you keep while walking. The criticisms in the late Middle Ages still have some validity – too many walking near you recognize they have a spiritual need, but are too ready to seek gratification in pleasures that are not true joy, but worldly and fleeting. Still, you will certainly have the opportunity to tell some confused and lost seekers why you walk and, thereby, speak the Good News. And, you thankfully will meet faithful others on the Way (just as did the character “Christian” in The Pilgrim’s Progress). 

One final suggestion: do not listen to people who say “all that matters is the journey.” That simply is not true. You must want to “get there.” That is true about the physical peregrination and true about life’s sojourn to heaven. If this, or any supposed “means of grace” does not further your journey with Jesus Christ toward the goal of the kingdom of God, then abandon it and use something else. 

As that old revival hymn “I am a Pilgrim” says, “rough and thorny is the road … but it leads to God.” While that song refers to the pilgrimage to heaven, physical pilgrimage is a foreshadowing that can be a useful tool toward reaching the goal of the upward calling, but it is nothing more.

James Thobaben is the Dean of the School of Theology and professor of Bioethics and Social Ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of Healthcare Ethics: A Comprehensive Christian Resource. In addition to his work at the seminary, Dr. Thobaben is co-pastor at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Mercer County, Kentucky.

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