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Prayer and Pilgrimage

Lynne Baab • Tuesday July 11 2023

Prayer and Pilgrimage

“Pilgrimage is the practice of walking to a holy site with prayerful intention to be more than a tourist, as well as prayerful attention to the Holy Spirit’s movements within.”
—Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (italics in original) [1]

Example 1, which felt like a pilgrimage. I lived in Hampton, Virginia during my three years of junior high school, in three different houses. I attended two different junior high schools. In 2000, my husband Dave and I took a trip to Virginia, and for the first time since I was 14 years old, I saw the three houses and the two junior high schools, as well as the Episcopal Church my family attended all three years. “Saw” is a pale and inadequate word to describe the depth of emotion I experienced seeing those houses, schools, and the church. Using Adele Ahlberg Calhoun’s definition of pilgrimage, I definitely intended to be more than a tourist, and I couldn’t help but pay attention to the Holy Spirit’s movements within me because my feelings were so intense and felt so holy. I had such a powerful awareness of the major transitions that happened in the three years of my life when I lived in those houses and attended those schools. Among other transitions, I had pretty deep faith in God when I arrived in Virginia at 12, and when we left, right before my fifteenth birthday, I was almost ready to call myself an atheist. Yet, in that visit in 2000, I could see how God had walked with me in all the ways I grew and developed there. I guess, according to Calhoun’s definition, that makes those houses, schools, and the church holy sites. God’s presence with me as a child and also in 2000 did indeed make those places holy. God spoke to me there.

Example 2, numerous trips in Israel which only sometimes felt like pilgrimages. When Dave and I lived in Tel Aviv, Israel for 18 months as young adults, we got to visit many sites that are considered holy: Bethlehem, Capernaum, Nazareth, Caesarea, Joppa (now called Jaffa), many places in Jerusalem, and many archaeological digs of places mentioned in the Bible. I’m pondering Calhoun’s definition to try to figure out why some of those trips felt like pilgrimages and some didn’t. The sites were holy by most definitions, and I went to see them with the intention to be more than a tourist. Maybe the action of the Holy Spirit within me felt muted and distant in some of the sites we visited in Israel, in part because we were living in Israel and took so many trips to “holy” sites in 18 months. Or maybe I stopped listening to the Holy Spirit when I saw the crowds of tourists in some of the places.

Another factor that contributes to a sense of pilgrimage is the need to trust God. Many people who walk the Camino de Santiago or other pilgrimage walks talk about the way they experience their dependence on God. They have so little control over the weather, the next place to eat and sleep, and the people who are walking at the same time. This opens them to “prayerful attention to the Holy Spirit’s movements within.” They may feel Jesus walking alongside them in new ways because the lack of control and the need to trust focuses their intention and attention.

In some ways the central form of prayer on a pilgrimage is listening to God. In so many church communities, talking to God has been the primary form of prayer. I wonder if pilgrimages have become more popular in part because we long to hear God speak to us, yet we have received so little instruction in how to do that. A pilgrimage opens us to hear God’s voice in new ways, in part because we need to trust God in deep ways.

Calhoun writes that the desire in going on a pilgrimage is “to go on an outer journey that will lead me closer to God.” She gives examples of how to go on a pilgrimage, and she mentions the Camino de Santiago and other walks. She also suggests visiting sites in the Holy Land, a beautiful local church, or a place in creation where God speaks to you. One of her examples is a bit unexpected. She suggests slowing down the everyday activities of life as if you are walking slowly on a pilgrimage path.

I want to give you the four examples of “God-given fruit” that Calhoun suggests that we might experience with a pilgrimage. As you read this list, think about the role that prayer — speaking and listening to God, and resting in God — might play in receiving each of these:

  • A sense of connectedness to Jesus and his journey
  • Integration of body, soul, feet, and faith
  • A deeper sense of being a pilgrim and stranger on earth
  • Gratitude for a body that can follow Jesus

Jesus, we often say you walked on earth with us, and you walk with us still. Help us to know if you are calling us to a pilgrimage, whether that involves traveling to the other side of the earth, visiting someplace local, or approaching our daily lives with a different intention. Holy Spirit, open the eyes and ears of our hearts to sense your movement within us.

(This is the ninth post in a series on spiritual practices and prayer. If you’d like to learn more about spiritual practices and see a list of all the posts in the series, the first post of the series is here. Illustration by Dave Baab: St. Joseph Catholic Church, Seattle. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

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[1] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun’s section on pilgrimage in the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, InterVarsity Press, 2015 edition, is pages 68-70.

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