Traveling has always been something I have loved to do, and that I long to do more of. I have seen many beautiful, amazing places, and the list of places I would like to visit is long. My younger self dreamed of living an itinerant life, packing up easily, and jetting off to exotic locations whenever the mood or opportunity struck. My current self laughs at that, as the life choices I’ve made have me feeling very firmly rooted in my hometown, living the kind of life I used to say I wouldn’t. I haven’t always felt peaceful about that—the difference between my plans and God’s—but the more I learn to submit my will to the Lord, the more contentment and gratitude I feel for the place in which I have been planted. It has been several years since I have been on any sort of significant trip, and I was thinking about this recently as a friend shared about her experience walking a portion of the Camino de Santiago in France and Spain. It is a great pilgrimage route to the cathedral of St. James the Apostle in Compostela, Spain, that became extremely popular in medieval times that people still travel today. The idea of a pilgrim struck me—a person on a journey to a holy place, facing and embracing obstacles as an integral part of the soul-shaping that takes place along the way, and always keeping the final destination in mind with a hopeful heart.
When we think of a pilgrim, we might think of—especially at this time of year, so close to our American celebration of Thanksgiving—the settlers with the funny black hats who came over from England on the Mayflower. But the concept of pilgrimage is one that is much more deeply rooted in our Catholic faith (as well as others, such as Judaism and Islam). St. Augustine wrote of the Christian life as a pilgrimage to our Heavenly home. In the MiddleAges, pilgrims undertook long, dangerous journeys as acts of devotion, sacrifice, and penance. One of the keys to being a pilgrim was that the journey was not necessarily undertaken for oneself, but to honor God. How many of my own travels were meant to serve me—my curiosity, my vanity, my restlessness? Being immersed in other cultures, encountering people of other places, and seeing the treasures of our planet can be wonderfully good things, and yet, a person can travel the whole world and come home not having any greater understanding of themselves or life’s purpose than when they departed. On the flip side, a person might live their entire life in one place, but if they have the heart of a true pilgrim on an inner, spiritual journey, they can have a broader and deeper perspective on life than if they had been everywhere (think of St. Therese of Lisiuex, whom the Church honors as patroness of missionaries, despite her never having left the Carmel, or convent, from the time she entered at age 15 to her death at age 24).
I recently finished a re-read of Little Women, which is such a cozy, uplifting story to revisit this time of year (or any time, really). While I knew I would find it heartwarming and delightful, I wasn’t expecting how I would be challenged by it this time. In the classic story written by Louisa May Alcott, we follow the lives of four sisters, their family and dearest friends from childhood through adulthood. What struck me this time as I read it was how important the idea of “pilgrim” or “pilgrimage” was to the story. The sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy each receive as a gift from their beloved Marmee a copy of the book “Pilgrim’s Progress.” For each girl, the story inspires renewed and continued efforts to conquer her faults and hardships like the pilgrim in the story. Though only one of the sisters ever undertakes a long physical journey, the book shows how each character becomes a pilgrim at heart, seeking to live more virtuously for her own state in life and temperament. Shouldn’t we all be pilgrims in this way?
How do we start? As with everything, we should begin in prayer. The thing about any pilgrimage, whether a physical undertaking or a spiritual journey, is that we will surely encounter obstacles. There will be difficulties, and the road may seem long, rocky, and dark at times. There will also be joy on the journey. A pilgrim is called to trust in the Lord and in His care in all times. A pilgrim must also keep their eyes and heart set on their ultimate destination. Rather than getting sidetracked by priorities or problems that cause great anxiety, but that may not matter all that much in the end, we must consider all things in the light of eternity. Likewise, a person lured from their way by diversions or the promise of comfort or a more dazzling destination would cease to be a pilgrim and simply become a traveler seeking pleasure and an interesting experience. Lastly, we must let ourselves be transformed by what we experience along the way. Our pilgrimage—to a place, or through life—should open our hearts to those we encounter along the way, and change us into better, more sacrificial, perseverant people.
What would you add? Does the thought of being a pilgrim people help you in your faith journey? We’d love to hear from you… comment below!
When Christian pilgrimage was at its height during the Middle Ages, those undertaking a journey would wear markers to identify themselves as pilgrims. Some popular symbols were the shell (for those on the Camino de Santiago and other journeys), or a key (for those on their way to Rome). While these markers were a sign to others that a person was a pilgrim, they were also a reminder to the pilgrim of his/her purpose. Consider our ChewsLife Women’s and Men’s collections as modern-day markers of a person on a journey with God and to God. With many options to choose from, you’ll find these beautiful, wearable reminders help you remain faithful to prayer as you go wherever life takes you. These are wonderful gifts for anyone that you would like to encourage on their journey as well.