Sacred Places: On Pilgrimage

September 16, 2007
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


For a long time I didn't understand the concept of pilgrimage. I wondered why it was that anyone in these modern times would go to great effort and expense to get to some far away holy place unless their religion demanded it of them.  I knew that Muslims are expected to make the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammed in western Saudi Arabia, once in their lifetime if health and finances permit it.  I knew that Hindus went to the sacred waters of the Ganges River, and I was aware of the pilgrimage tradition in Christian Europe way back in the middle ages, where you might walk hundreds of miles over several months to visit the shrine of a saint. But why go if you didn't have to, commanded by tradition or instructed by your priest?  Why interrupt your life in this way? Why suffer the crowds, the dirty conditions, the sketchy accommodations, the heat, the sad spectacle of suffering humanity around you, the inevitable beggars outside the city walls or the temple, the existential panic, the realization of how small and vulnerable we are? 

This isn't to say that I don't love to travel, and that I don't understand the pleasures of traveling as a tourist.  Tourist traveling is for learning, fun, inspiration, and to encounter a part of the world and myself that brings me out of my comfort zone and gives me a broader perspective.  I have certainly traveled to places that were important to me personally and which I invested with emotional and spiritual significance in both getting there and arriving, but I have never gone "on pilgrimage," a word which comes from the Latin "peregrinum," -- one who comes from foreign parts; a stranger. 

Being a tourist is one thing, but to be a pilgrim is to intentionally enter the identity of the Stranger.  I think of the haunting old gospel song, "Wayfaring Stranger"that goes,

I am a poor wayfaring stranger  

journeying through this world of woe.

Pilgrimage is a humble reminder of this existential condition and requires effort, sacrifice, and blisters.  Perhaps this is why I have thus far avoided making actual pilgrimage.  I prefer to retire to the comfort of a hotel room at the end of a day of sight-seeing, and stick to an itinerary I can control so I might  keep at bay those feelings evoked by the gospel song.  It is one thing to check into a little hotel on a main street in Madrid as I did two years ago and to make my careful way to the Prado Museum to see the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, armed with my guide book.  Even then, the busyness of a faraway city and the challenges of a foreign language and not knowing a soul for thousands of miles can bring on spiritual anxieties.  But you go get lunch and write some postcards and chart the rest of your afternoon by the map.  You have the illusion of control.  If the road is rough, you consult the map and find another road.  If you start to feel too much like a wayfaring stranger, you can go to the nearest internet café and check your e-mail.  Safe and comforting. 

Contrast that careful, controlled experience then, with being in a crowd the size of New York City circling the Ka'aba, the cubical shrine in Mecca, where you could actually get crushed to death while fulfilling your duty to Allah to make this pilgrimage.  Abdul Alim Mubarak, a CNN videotape editor from New Jersey, went in 1998 and reported afterward, "It's huge, and it's so imposing, you're dwarfed by it.  The huge marble columns, the huge marble minarets just dwarf you. And you feel like a tiny ant, walking in this vast expanse.  … The zeal with which people behave sometimes really astounds me, and with the crowds and all, it becomes dangerous.  I almost lost it myself… If you slip out of your sandals, you keep on going.  People just left them there, because if they bent down, they would get trampled…. " (from "The Hajj" in The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt and Repairing the World, Bob Abernethy and William Bole).

"Let us go to the house of the LORD, " sang Jews for thousands of years as they made their way up the mountain to the Temple, as we just heard in Psalm 122.

Well, I don't know.

Is the house of the LORD air-conditioned, and is there a cafeteria and clean bathrooms?  Can I encounter the living God with antiseptic lavender wipes in my purse? What does this really require?  Mubarak says that "Hajj is a sacrifice.  It is a very personal sacrifice, and it's not something to be taken lightly." He claims that making the pilgrimage broadened his humanity, strengthened his intellect and spirit and changed his life in all ways for the better.  But what a way to get there!   I love reading pilgrimage narratives but I cannot imagine undertaking such an arduous physical journey.  I cannot imagine walking El Camino De Santiago, the 500-mile pilgrimage road across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, where the Apostle James' remains were said to have been unearthed in the 13th century and which thousands of pilgrims traverse each year.

Although I have heard that there is much mutual support and camaraderie between the pilgrims, and that there is a thriving hospitality industry all the way across the route, it is the internal unknowing that I fear.  You might have great spiritual insights, but you might break your ankle miles away from proper medical care.  And what if, after all that effort, Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostela or is really disappointing? What if it's not meaningful and deep, and no one gets healed or touched by the divine presence?  What if when  I get to the sacred site, it's not just like I imagined it from the picture books?   If it's not a real thrill, I will feel I have wasted my time and money. 

That is, of course, a horribly consumeristic approach to pilgrimage – everything in the world is wrong with that attitude.   Did you ever go somewhere like the Vatican and see some people head right for the gift shop?  I'm not that bad, but almost.  "We're here at St. Peter's in Rome and we're going to snap a few photos and buy some postcards and a rosary for grandma! But let's get a move on, because we want to see the Coliseum before lunch!"

I was at St. Peter's in Rome in 1996, actually, and it was magnificent and breathtaking.  But I headed for the bathroom pretty immediately because I wanted to put a Band-Aid on my heel or something, and as I was headed around the corner I ran into Michaelangelo's Pieta, a massive granite sculpture of Mary holding the dead Jesus.  It's a masterpiece that packs an incredible emotional wallop.

I was totally unprepared for this.  There was this typical American tourist in front of me- I knew he was an American because he was wearing sneakers and a baseball cap and he had a camera around his neck --and he was unprepared for it, too, I think, because he just burst into tears.  He stood there in front of this extraordinary thing and wept.  Of course he got me going, too.  And this was terribly upsetting. I went to Rome as a tourist, not a pilgrim.  I am not Roman Catholic, I do not choose to encounter the living God in this place! And this man and I stood there absolutely helplessly, totally out of control, totally off our itineraries, weeping.

Pilgrimage is the opposite of tourism.  There's a wisdom in that for all of us, who were raised by our materialistic culture to treat everything as a tourism opportunity: see what you like, buy a little souvenir, and leave.  Some people even come to church as tourists.  Hear some interesting sermons, enjoy some pretty music, pick up some brochures, but when it gets demanding or uncomfortable and stops looking like the postcard of church they have in their mind, they skid right onto the next stop.  I always want to say, "Don't miss the gift shop!"

Are we here on a pilgrimage or are we here as tourists?  Do we understand that we are standing on holy ground where we are, and are we willing to be changed by that?

We speak a lot in our religious tradition of the value of the spiritual journey, the beauty of the questions, the fact that it's fine to wander in the wilderness of unknowing for as long as we choose to.  We don't claim to have the theological answers and we insist that each sojourner who joins with us make their own path to the sacred.  Many of us go down three or four different paths at once: we do a little Buddhist meditation, we read a little Bible, we have a yoga practice, we read some books by a Jewish author we admire, we visit a Christian healing service with a friend and are moved by it.   I think that a lot of us like to travel outward in little spokes, keeping our own comfort, our own presumptions, our own prejudices and our own illusion of control right at the center.  It is thoroughly alien to many of us to say "Here I am at Point A, say in Norwell, Massachusetts, and God wants me to get to Point B, in Jerusalem.  My task is to get there over a period of time, walking for part of the journey, and to get to what's left of the Temple (now known as the Wailing Wall)." What then?

Well, the pilgrim would say, that's up to God.

Am I going? I don't know, I have a few questions!  Like "What's the point, what's in this for me, can I turn back if I don't like it, what if I don't like the people I'm traveling with, what if the food's no good? What if I run out of money? Or patience?"

The pilgrim asks none of these questions.  And my sense is that their journey is far more transformational, educational, illuminating, than anything I could create with my guidebooks and my careful choosing of how and when and where and under what conditions I will take each step of my trip. 

Imagine the time before you were born.  Say, a week before your mama birthed you.  Did you get to ask anyone, "What's the point, what's in this for me, can I turn back if I don't like it, what if I don't like the people I'm traveling with, what if I run out of money and the food's no good?" No.  We came into the world poor, wayfaring strangers at Point A, and we're working our ways down the path toward Point B, that unknown shrine in an unknown country.   Going on physical pilgrimage is an outward expression of the human condition.  Pilgrims know this, and have a chance to experience the joining of inward truth with outward action.  Tourists never receive that blessing.  They're not ready for it.

When pilgrims crawled on their knees up the stone steps to the Chartres Cathedral in medieval times, they were unlike you and me in another significant spiritual way: not only were they willing to get somewhere specific, to arrive at a destination, and to say "Here I am in the holy place.  I have arrived" -- they knew that in a very short time they would have to turn around and go back to their ordinary lives.  And I think that, through the experience of having made their pilgrimage, they understood that when they arrived home, their real traveling would begin.  The work of building a generous spirit and a courageous, loving soul is a long, dusty road.  It is mostly really not thrilling or entertaining. It doesn't look like a postcard.  There isn't even always a very good map.

It will be hard we know,

and the road will be muddy and rough

but we'll get there

heavens know how we will get there.

But we know we will.


We are going.  And we are already there.



I invite you to join me for a moment of silent prayer, for all those who travel, for the pilgrims and the seekers, for the refugees and the wanderers, for those who travel in danger, and for those who provide them shelter and hospitality.  We lift up at this time Sue Robinson, on a mission trip to New Orleans, and Jane and Stan Wilderoter, in Transylvania visiting our partner church.  We lift up Kai and Avery Nickerson, our newest pilgrims on the journey of congregational life.  We wish them, and all those who sojourn in body or in spirit, traveling mercies and safe passage.  In the name of the One who calls us all out onto the road of life, we say Amen.