There is within the human heart the need to set out on pilgrimage as if there is a power unlocked in the journey. There is a sense of seeking and finding—that through one’s visit to the holy places there will be growth in grace, enlightenment, and new inspiration…

Four years ago my friend Joseph Pearce invited me to join him as chaplain on a pilgrimage to England. The pilgrimage tour was to be based on the Catholic literary figures and the English martyrs.

I was not enthusiastic. The prospect of jogging around England on a bus with forty Americans was not my idea of a good time. I’m not being unpatriotic, but my memory of elderly Americans on tour in England was not the best. The image was of a portly gentleman in a pork-pie hat and his wife with a blue rinse and a track suit clambering off a bus in Westminster Square, gazing open-mouthed at Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament and exclaiming, “Look Sidney, It’s Oxford!”

I demurred, but Joseph twisted my arm. I’m glad he did. We actually had a terrific time. The company we worked with, Catholic Heritage Tours, had everything organized like clockwork. From a practical point of view all rooms, hotels, meals, and travel were taken care of. There was a bus and we did tour around England, and I was glad of it. What, you mean I do not have to negotiate roundabouts, congested motorways, and the eccentric hazards of the English roadways like old women on bicycles, delivery trucks stopped in full traffic, and inscrutable customs like “zebra crossings?” It was actually relaxing, and I realized with some sadness that I am no longer at the stage when studying a train timetable in a foreign country, figuring out an exchange rate, and hoisting a backpack was fun.

Our pilgrimage took us to the Tower of London, Tyburn Tree, Canterbury, Walsingham, Stratford, Oxford, and beyond. Because it was a custom tour all the pilgrims were filled with enthusiasm about Tolkien and Lewis, Chesterton, Belloc, Thomas More, Edmund Campion, and the rest. One particular memory was clambering down into the priest hole at Oxborough Hall with Joseph where we recited a Paternoster and sang a Salve Regina with voices feeble with emotion.

Pilgrimages? I was a convert. The next year it happened that we were building a new church and could only get a first-class relic of Saint Faustina for our Divine Mercy Shrine by going to Cracow in person with a letter from the bishop. This was clearly the occasion for a parish pilgrimage to Poland. After the roaring success of that trip, we took pilgrims to Italy and last year to the Holy Land.

Pilgrimages, of course, are nothing new. They flourished in the Middle Ages when intrepid travelers, in the wake of the Crusades, would trek to the Holy Land, and when that was no longer possible, to Rome, Santiago de Compostella, and Walsingham, and innumerable other shrines associated with the saints and signs of salvation. Now in the modern age, pilgrimages seem to be making a comeback. As the number of pilgrims increases, the price of travel comes down, making the pilgrimage even more accessible. Not only are Westerners traveling, but on our recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land I was delighted to see enthusiastic pilgrim groups from India, Africa, the Philippines, and Central and South America.

Nor is pilgrimage an exclusively Christian tradition. The Muslims make the hajj to Mecca, the Jews to Jerusalem. Hindus head for Varinasi and Buddhists to the Bodh Gaya—where the Buddha was enlightened. There is within the human heart the need to set out on pilgrimage as if there is a power unlocked in the journey.

What is the power of pilgrimage? There is certainly a practical dimension. There is an educational purpose in a pilgrimage tour. The pilgrims learn about the saints and the history of the country they are visiting, but as they pray in the historic churches they also learn about the art and architecture of their faith. With prayer, devotions, and Mass at the various sites, the pilgrims have a “holy holiday,” giving new depth of inspiration and education to their travel. They make new friends and develop a fellowship in their shared faith.

There is something deeper within the pilgrimage instinct. It has to do with setting out on the quest. Even with comfortable air and coach travel and all one’s meals provided, there is the risk and hardship of travel and the adventure of setting out to a world that is new and strange. There is a sense of seeking and finding—that through one’s visit to the holy places there will be growth in grace, enlightenment, and new inspiration.

Furthermore, the quest is, at heart what Joseph Campbell called the “monomyth”—the hero sets out from his ordinary world into a world of adventure where he faces hardships, establishes new alliances, overcomes the darkness, and wins the prize which he takes home for the salvation of his people. Am I over-dramatizing it? Maybe a little, but within the pilgrimage there does lie the pattern of the great quest because it is a journey with a purpose, as opposed to simply traveling somewhere on vacation to relax or have fun.

Finally, the pilgrim connects with the more ancient tradition of belonging to the pilgrim people. Father Abraham set out across the Arabian desert as a nomad to a promised land. Moses went down from Midian to liberate the Hebrews and lead them on a nomadic quest to Canaan, and from the exile and return and the diaspora and return, God’s people have been nomads, a family without a country always seeking the promised land.

Woven into the Judeo-Christian story from the very beginning is the notion that the old gospel song praises, that “this world is not our home, we’re just passing through, our treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” A pilgrimage puts us in touch with our nomadic heritage and reminds us that this is part of the calling: that Jesus Christ calls each one of us to leave the family fishing business and follow him into the unknown.

This truth unlocks another one: There is the memento mori dimension to a pilgrimage. If this world is not our home and we’re just passing through, then just as the pilgrim sets off from home to Jerusalem or Rome, Santiago or Walsingham, so he is reminded that life is a journey. We have a destination. The road beckons, and when you arrive you remember those last lines of the Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Journey of the Magi” (c. 1435) by Stefano di Giovanni (c. 1392-1451), courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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