I am about to depart on pilgrimage to Assisi. This is my fifth serious attempt at being a pilgrim. There are many challenges. The first is resolving to go. There are always hundreds of excuses as to why going on pilgrimage is a bad idea; the wrong time, too many commitments, it will take too long , it will cost too much etc. There are also obstacles that are more subtle – I am not sure how to approach it, I am not sure if it’s worth it, etc. There are also the deeper obstacles that touch the edge of fear – what happens if God calls my bluff? I am not sure if I really want to encounter either the Lord or myself. If this is your experience, be consoled – it’s quite normal.
I have to admit that all some of the most fruitful spiritual exercises I have been through are pilgrimages. The most demanding aspect of them is other people! It is one thing to go to church with them once a week, it is another thing to live alongside them for a week. It is very hard to stay together both in a physical sense and a spiritual sense; people do move at such different speeds and everyone’s spiritual needs and tastes are so different! I have always found pilgrimages a wake up call – “wake up and stop thinking so much about yourself!”
Pilgrimages to Holy Places open up the heart and mind to stories and truths of such power and beauty that we cannot fail to be affected. Challenges to our practice of the faith that arise on pilgrimage are deep and authentic. Pilgrimage is partaking in the mystical body of Christ ( which as the Prayer Book tells us is ) – the blessed company of all faithful people. Pilgrimage relocates us outside the parochial dung heap into the Church Universal in time and space. Pilgrimage is another sign that God is at work among his people and that we are not alone on the journey.
Pilgrimage is at the heart of our Faith; from the pilgrimage of Abraham, through the wandering of Moses, to the journey of Our Lord who set His face toward Jerusalem, we are called to move; to let go of the past and reach out to that which lies before. Pilgrimage reminds us that here we have no abiding city but our home is in heaven.
Let Holy Week be for us a pilgrimage. Let us rejoice in our fellowship. Let us keep company with Christ on the way of sorrow that we might glimpse the city of eternal light. Pilgrims find it necessary, in the end, to jettison all that encumbers them on the journey; let us pray for grace to shed those burdens of our hearts and minds that prevent our forward movement into communion with God. Let us seek grace to be free from all wrong attachments that we might be responsive to His will.
It is facile to say to say that all life is a pilgrimage for many people travel the world and return with the same ignorance and prejudice that they had before their journey. It is true to say that an attitude of pilgrimage can change all life, for pilgrimage, in its essence is a letting go of a world built upon self to seek a life that is founded upon the revelation of the eternal word in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Fr Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House