On Being a Pilgrim (Part 1)

These days I think a lot about what it means to be a pilgrim. Yet it has only been in the last 10 years or so that I have really begun to get the concept. Growing up, all I knew of pilgrims is that they had something to do with American Thanksgiving and wore funny hats made out of black and white construction paper. (At least that is what we did in my grade school.)

I have come a long way since then, but am still not sure what any of us means when we say the word “pilgrim” or “pilgrimage.” So—since I seem to have a habit of writing about things I understand very little—I thought I would take on the concept and experience of being a pilgrim. I like this definition I heard from someone interviewed on a podcast created by Australian musician and pilgrim Dan Mullins called, “My Camino,”:

A pilgrim a person who leaves home to find themselves.

That seems as good a place to start as any. Even at 65 years old, I still like the idea of finding myself. I like not being finished. I like the fact that there are mysteries to be explored. I like the idea of leaving home to discover a new world. 

Two pilgrims on their way.

I want to spend the next few blog entries talking about experiences in my life that I would consider pilgrimages, and situations where I have taken the posture of a pilgrim. As a preview, here are the four pilgrimages I will talk about:

Some of these experiences were actually structured and described as pilgrimages. Some of them seem to lean into the “holy” aspect of this kind of journey. Many of them are about traveling from one point to another. Most seem to embrace our shared human history. Each (at its best) holds in itself the possibility of individual and community transformation.

Conjuring up his best version of late 60’s counterculture, Steve Jobs is said to have proclaimed, “The journey is the reward.” (Sadly, that saying is now found ignored on way too many corporate motivational posters.) But I think many a pilgrim believes this. I too believe that the journey itself is the gift. But is it? What is so appealing about the journey? I know a number of people who hate traveling. Perhaps the joy and meaning of the journey comes from the willingness to trust a presence beyond ourselves. There may not be something or someone controlling each step, but could there be companion on our way? Thomas Merton put it this way in his book, Thoughts in Solitude:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. 

How does the pilgrim know the right road?

Spiritual Practice: Leaving Home

When I graduated from high school in 1972, I wanted nothing more than to leave home. Mind you—I had a wonderful home life, a loving family, a great neighborhood, a good group of friends—but I needed to leave. This big leaving was the next step in my life. I gave no consideration to how it would affect my parents, my brothers, or others I loved. Somehow I just knew that leaving was the next right thing for me.

In the fall of 1972, I departed my home in Phoenix, Arizona to attend Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. I don’t even think my parents drove me there—I must have traveled with my best friend Matt, who himself would attend Reed College in the same city. I do remember a bit of the early loneliness and semi-regular long distance phone calls to Mom and Dad, but mostly it just seemed so right to be gone. I cannot ever recall wanting to go to a different school, return home to Arizona, or just try something else. In fact, the summer after my freshman year of college was the last time I ever lived with my parents and brothers.

Away from home.

I am not sure it is this way for everyone when they are 17 years old. But I believe there comes a time and place in each person’s life when they are called to leave home. I’m not sure everyone feels they have a choice to leave. I’m not sure that the leaving has to be a literal moving from a place. I’m not sure it has to be physical separation from a family. I am not sure if it comes out of a quiet nudge or a crisis. What I believe is that human growth requires this separation. Maybe it happens at 17, or 37, or 70—but it will happen. If we are to grow, there are things—even things at the core of our being—that we need to leave behind.

So here is the practice. Think about this—have you ever left home? When did that happen? How did it go? Why did it happen when it did? Do you need to leave home now? What will that look like? Where will you go? Will there be others with you in this leaving? What will you need for the journey? How will you know when you have arrived at your new home?

May you treasure the blessings of the place you once called home.
May you find abundant welcome in your new home.
May both your leaving and your arriving be filled with grace.