Ask Father: October 2019

October 9, 2019

What is a pilgrimage? – Anne from Sacramento

Many years ago, I went on a pilgrimage. At the beginning of my journey, I knew what a pilgrimage was; but after 40 days, 600 miles, two mountain ranges, cities, vineyards, Roman roads and a rooster in a cathedral, I reached my destination and wasn’t too sure anymore. The whole adventure was a series of swings between chaos and serenity. I sort of knew where I was going. I met many fellow travelers on the road, who started walking from different places and took different routes, and all were going to the same destination. Or were we? Very few walked for the same reasons.

This made me wonder: What exactly is a pilgrimage? Can pilgrims walk to the same destination while the internal motivations which move their feet are as varied as: “to live simply,” “to lose weight,” “to recover from a bad relationship,” “to see the rooster”? These disparate intentions made me ponder the true nature of a pilgrimage. I’ve yet to fully understand it, but I offer you my thoughts thus far.

A pilgrimage is a three-part journey: a beginning, a path and an end. The beginning is not so important and is unique to each person. The path is also unique to each pilgrim but only at the outset, for as a pilgrim draws nearer the end his path will join others, and eventually all paths coalesce into a single point on the threshold. Ultimately, the destination is essential to a pilgrimage and separates it from all other trips man can make: it must be a sacred place, and the sacred points to something beyond the earth.

Since the dawn of time, when God “planted a garden,”[1] sacred space was defined. God is everywhere, yet in some places He dwells in a special, personal way. The heavens and the earth cannot contain Him and yet He was in Eden with Adam. The moment man lost that first sanctuary he began wandering through earth[2] with an unquenchable longing to regain Paradise, to return home. Though in exile, man was not completely lost, as the heavens continued to touch the earth at different times and places, and in those places man set up a marker stone[3] and removed his sandals.[4] This constitutes a sacred place. It’s a location where the firmament between Heaven and earth is porous. It’s the place of theophany, a dim echo of the first sacred place where God and man walked together[5]; for this reason man frequents sacred places and by returning to them continually attempts to return to God. All sacred edifices man constructs serve this purpose—to commune with God. All seek to remind man of his ultimate destination and to serve as extensions of Eden. If one enters a sacred building with any other intention, he is an intruder or a charlatan, a tourist or simply lost. In no way can one be a pilgrim without the dual destination in one’s mind—the sacred shrine and to be with the God it serves.

The pilgrim must make a journey, he must move himself to a destination and not simply change locations. The journey must cause sweat and it must be long, perhaps the longest walk of one’s life. This is because the pilgrimage is a living symbol of one’s whole life, it reminds us that we must walk towards the heavenly Jerusalem (probably for this reason the medieval clergy gave it as a penance). By walking to a sacred place, the true pilgrim hopes to walk through the earth and leave it behind.

To go on a journey is not unique to any man; all life is a journey. What is rare is to seek the true destination. Sadly, what is common to almost all is to find oneself lost along the way. Human art has always related this theme of the wandering man. From the opening line of the Odyssey: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns, driven time and again off course”[6] to that of the Inferno, “Midway along the journey of our life I woke to find myself in a dark wood, for I had wandered off from the straight path.”[7] Dante speaks for all of us, the journey of our life, and Homer ends his prologue with a similar perspective: “Launch out on his story, Muse, . . . sing for our time too.”[8] Man is on a journey through life, a homeless wandering vagrant, often ignorant of the path ahead and too weak to keep moving forward. But we can choose to be a pilgrim and not simply a vagrant, to acknowledge that we are “strangers and exiles on the earth . . . desiring a better country, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:13-16). And there is no better way to run to Heaven than to focus one’s energies toward a heavenly destination on this earth, to deal with hardships, unknowns, lack of material goods, to progress down the right path, no matter the fatigue; literally, to subordinate all for the destination. To go on a pilgrimage is to practice what one must do throughout one’s whole life. +

Answered by:
Fr. Dominic Savoie, Assistant Pastor, FSSP Sacramento

  1. Genesis 2:8.
  2. Ibid. 4:12-14.
  3. Ibid. 28:10-22.
  4. Exodus 3:5.
  5. Genesis 3:8.
  6. Homer, trans. Robert Fagles, Odyssey, 1.
  7. Dante, trans. Marc Musa, Inferno, Canto 1.1.
  8. Odyssey, 1.11.