Happy are they whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on the pilgrim’s way. – (Psalm 84:5)
From the time of the very early Church until today, Christians have made pilgrimage to holy places as a part of their discipline and life of faith. Long before the notion of vacations, holidays, and mission trips, individuals within the Christian tradition have set out to see the places where our Lord and his saints walked, slept, prayed, and preached the Good News. Individuals confront the struggles of travel in unknown territory, and the demands of living together as a pilgrim community for the time of the journey. In the midst of all that these tasks entail, there is tremendous joy, laughter and growth… and the chance to meet our Lord in new and deeply personal ways.
In the Journey to Adulthood program, pilgrimage is central feature in our ministry to our young people. At the end of the fifth year, the J2A class travels to a “distant land” in search of God and their own destinies. Preparing for this trip takes tremendous amounts of time and energy in the preceding year. Fund raising, filling out applications for passports and medical releases, as well as learning about the country or region to which we travel, all takes time, but it is time well spent. The task of raising money is especially meaningful and important, because it allows young people the opportunity to see first hand how very difficult it can be to earn enough money for something that they deeply desire. Whatever else they may feel about the religious or emotional significance of such a journey, for many of them this will be the first time in their lives that they have traveled across the ocean or across the country without parents or schoolteachers. Something about all of these dynamics occurring together creates an atmosphere in which God can move in new and exciting ways.
Pilgrimage is neither a vacation, nor a sightseeing tour, nor a mission trip. Vacations create time for relaxation and refreshment. Sightseeing tours are a time for taking in the wonders of the distant land and culture. And mission trips are principally a chance to share in the spreading of the Gospel. Pilgrimage is all of that and more – it is the time we set aside to journey in the footsteps of the faithful Christians who have gone before us. By mindfully walking in their footsteps, we put ourselves in touch with our tradition, our roots, our God.
Pilgrimage is a time for seeking and finding God in new ways. Once normal activities, relationships, and obligations which sustain our day-to-day lives are removed, individuals are free to look again at their understanding of God and their need for His grace and presence in their lives. It is important to note here that every moment of pilgrimage does not have to be meaningful, nor should it be. There must be time for play, laughter, quiet, and rest. But somehow, even in the lighthearted activities which enhance our relationships, there is something afoot. God is moving in the hearts of these pilgrims in ways which are undeniable.
The blessings of pilgrimage can take time. It is not always while we are on pilgrimage that its true effects show. Certainly the very fact that we are away for eight days helps, which is enough time for even a free spirit to begin to long for familiar food and the comfort of their own bed. But what happens on pilgrimage has to be processed in the life to which we all must return. Some pilgrims may say very little while traveling and even in the weeks and months that follow, but time will show that the long-term effects are profound. It is not only a trip that will never be forgotten: it is a journey which changes lives.