On Being a Pilgrim (Part 3 – Theme Park or Holy Journey?)

One of the most common—if expensive—pilgrimages known to people in the United States is a trip to the “Holy Land.” I had heard about this kind of travel ever since I worshipped as an adult in a Christian church. I have known people to use a large chunk of his or her life savings to make this special journey. I’ve seen tours packaged by large companies, trips sold as educational events, and journeys created by a small groups of like-minded religious travelers.

Religious pilgrims in Jerusalem.

The “Holy Land” is a name for the part of the modern Middle East that we know today as Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. The place is thought to be holy because of the presence of historic sites that gave rise to Judaism, Christianity, and even Islam. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is said to be built over the place of Jesus’ burial and resurrection. The Western Wall is a segment of an ancient retaining wall originally erected as part of the expansion of the Second Jewish Temple. The Dome of the Rock sits on the mount of that very same temple, and is one of the most revered Islamic shrines. As one travels through the geography and populated areas of this region of the world, scores of sites are considered “holy” to Jews, Christians, or Muslims. Sometimes a particular site might be considered holy by all three faiths.

Al Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

There is a built-in danger of a pilgrimage to a place as rich in historical/religious sites as this one is. I have heard this area of the world described as a “religious theme park” or “holy Disneyland.” The point here is that we might think that our travel is about experiencing holy/historical sites as “attractions.” We might even wish there were a “Fast Pass” system to get us though this wealth of places of religious importance in as short a time as possible. You know, get wet in the Jordan, see the site of Jesus’ birth, touch the Western Wall, climb up to Al Aqsa Mosque, and ride a boat on Lake Galilee. Do all these things in as efficient way as possible. But if I see the Holy Land in this way I will miss so much. It will not really be a pilgrimage.

One person describes pilgrimage in this way:

A pilgrimage is a ritual journey with a hallowed purpose. Every step along the way has meaning. The pilgrim knows that life giving challenges will emerge. A pilgrimage is not a vacation; it is a transformational journey during which significant change takes place. New insights are given. Deeper understanding is attained. New and old places in the heart are visited. Blessings are received and healing takes place. On return from the pilgrimage, life is seen with different eyes. Nothing will ever be quite the same again. 

Modern people near ancient walls in Jerusalem.

Traveling can do this for us, but it often does not. When we took our trip, we knew that there was a great danger of missing the transformational aspects of this Holy Land journey if we weren’t careful. So we took steps to make sure we were truly on pilgrimage. We set our intentions about not only where we would go but how we would go. We created space and opportunities to welcome voices from beyond our space and time. We structured opportunities for reflection—in our speaking, our writing, and our thinking. We listened to stories—from rabbis, imams, and priests; from shopkeepers and college deans; from neighborhood children and trained guides. We feasted in places of celebration and mourned in places of tragedy. Very simply, we sought to be open to how the holy would reveal itself to us as we moved through space, as we took our time, and as we walked with other pilgrims. 

Where does holiness reside?

And so I return to the words already shared. What is the evidence that one has been on a pilgrimage? New and old places in the heart are visited. Blessings are received and healing takes place…life is seen with different eyes. Nothing will ever be quite the same again.

If these things are true for you—you have been a pilgrim.

Spiritual Practice: Travel as a Group

I’ve seen and heard lots of words proclaiming the merits of independent travel. In the eyes of many, independent travelers and people touring alone are more noble individuals. They are more clever. They are more outgoing. They are more adventurous.

Perhaps being “independent” is an important aspect of travel. But I would like to offer and alternative perspective. I believe group travel is a spiritual practice. In fact, it can be both a quite difficult and an immensely rewarding activity. One might even argue that group travel is the more demanding than solo touring. It is a holy act to seek “interdependence.”

A group of fellow pilgrims.

When considering schedules—we need to think of the rhythms of others. When deciding about extravagant experiences—we need to factor in the resources of our traveling companions. Some of us might make judgements about a place or a meal—but it may be a revelation to us hear that fellow travelers do not share our perspective. In truth, all of this is a gift to us.

Through the centuries monastic communities have made particular vows. We have all heard of them—vows like chastity, poverty, and obedience. But one vow we often overlook is the vow of stability. Here is how one religious community describes this vow: 

Stability means that the monk pledges lifelong commitment to a particular community. 

Meaningful travel with a group can mean a similar commitment. It may not be lifelong, but we can choose to be together not just because we get a group discount or because we are from the same geographic region. We can actually choose a deep commitment to our traveling group. We share meals and celebrate with one another. We take time to discuss our honest insights. We help a person when she is in crisis. We support a companion when he has a need. As Bono of the rock group U2 sings, “we get to carry each other.”

One of the best things about the trip I took in 2017 to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan was the group of people I traveled with. We laughed. We worshipped together. We wondered about many things. We shared fears, hopes, and hurts. It was significant that we all made a covenant before traveling to the Holy Land to be part of this group. We met and studied together beforehand to cement that promise. In reality, our commitment to traveling together was one of the things that really opened me up to the work of the spirit. It was one of the best things about our shared journey.

3 thoughts on “On Being a Pilgrim (Part 3 – Theme Park or Holy Journey?)

  1. Have never been to the Holy Land but after reading your comments I feel I have been there. It was a great trip! You did a great job writing it.

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