What’s the point of a pilgrimage? In the practice of journeying to places of spiritual significance, there’s the adventure of travel. There’s the joy of discovery and inspiration of sites and saints.
But there’s something much more.
Together with Linda, my wife, I had the good fortune of going on a Celtic spirituality pilgrimage during a sabbatical. With itinerary in hand and distant destinations in mind, we set out for Ireland, Scotland and England.
Our journey to the Isle of Iona was especially wonderful. It involved a daylong trek by train through valleys, along lakes and across fields dotted with buttercups, a bus ride and a couple of ferry crossings to reach this island off the coast of Scotland. Founded in 536 C.E. by St. Columba, Iona was the center of Celtic Christianity, with a vibrant community, rich spirituality and energetic mission to Western Europe. So far is the reach of Iona that some songs in our Mennonite hymnal are from the thriving ecumenical community reestablished there.
I note in my journal: “Approaching the Abbey of Iona is enchanting, surrounded by rugged beauty and bare simplicity. There is something almost magical about the place. No wonder it’s regarded as a ‘thin space.’ In this place far, far away from modern civilization, people find a space in which to engage their spiritual quest for God. And in this I discover a labyrinth-like pilgrimage where there is no final destination as much as a continual journey of seeking and finding God along the way.”
Here I realize the journey is the destination. As with a previous pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I thought in setting out on this pilgrimage that its historic sites were our destinations only to discover that the journey is what it’s really about.
Not only is the journey the destination, what matters more than places are people. We traveled in the company of pilgrims and encountered others along the way. We told our stories and touched one another’s lives. We shared our joys and struggles. We spoke of our quest for God. We laughed a lot and had fun. Together we discovered that more than the destinations, our conversations made the journey a joy.
Historic saints certainly have their place as exemplars of Christian faith. But along the way, living people have their stories that speak of God’s presence in life today. With this awareness we can refocus our attention on God’s presence here and now and not simply back there and then in history.
What would it be like to extend this lesson to all of life? That more than past history or future salvation, our present journey is the destination? That greater than the inspiration of holy sites and saints is the power of here and now. That being present to God and others is what matters most in the pilgrimage of life?
Biblical stories emphasize the journey more than the destination. The story of Abraham and Sarah’s movement from Haran to Canaan focuses more on how they journeyed than arriving at their destination. Likewise with Israel’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Rather than leading Israel straight along the King’s Highway to Canaan, “God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness” (Exodus 13:8). This didn’t last four months or four years, but 40 years. It appears that being present to the journey rather than focused on the destination is what God intends.
The Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ journey from the Jordan River, through the wilderness and to the Sea of Galilee, where he calls people to follow him. And where does he lead them? On a journey. At the end of his Gospel, Luke records how the disciples encountered Christ on the road to Emmaus, and at the beginning of Acts he notes how Jesus sends his friends out from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria and on to the ends of the earth. With all the emphasis on traveling it’s no wonder Christians were first called followers of “the Way” (Acts 9.2).
Christian life is a continuous journey of following Jesus. While the biblical narrative speaks of heaven as our destination, it points to the immediate journey of loving God and others along the way here and now, right where we’re at.
Being present to the journey is difficult to practice for those of us stuck in the past, focused on the future or set on goals. Our pilgrimage can be so set on our past that we miss encountering others with us here. We can be so intent on our future that we don’t enjoy and extend God’s abundant life now. We are often so preoccupied with achieving tasks that we are not truly present to life.
It’s hard to remain mindful that the journey is the destination. I recall how I failed to hold this while kayak camping in Alaska in the second month of my sabbatical. One morning I was so intent on pushing myself to Yukon Island that I didn’t enjoy the journey through Tutka Bay flanked by snow-capped mountains, lush vegetation and bald eagles perched in the trees. I was too focused on the goal of getting there that I missed being there.
Then I noticed the jellyfish. Lest in anxious toil I forgot this lesson, God lined the way with jellyfish like ones I saw at Iona—floating in the current, moving with slow, rhythmic pulses, not set on a certain destination but flowing along the way. Here was a call to enjoy the journey by moving with the grace of a jellyfish, carried in the Spirit’s current.
When we returned to our kayak outfitter I “just happened” to find a T-shirt imprinted with “The Journey is the Destination,” which I purchased to remind me of this truth.
Revisiting my journal as we left Iona I read: “This pilgrimage was a compressed spiritual journey. Along the way I realized it is not the end but the journey that matters. Like walking a labyrinth and reaching the center, arriving at holy places is not what counts so much. The journey with others is what was most enriching, revealing that conversation with companions along the way matters much more than reaching certain destinations. What Linda and I enjoyed most was the company of others and what we shared together as people of the Way and encountering other spiritual communities on our journey.”
I want to live with this word. We don’t have to go on a long journey somewhere to find God. In the pilgrimage of life, our call is to be attentive to God within us and all around us. To be present to the Spirit in all things. And to enjoy our journey with Jesus.
Steve Thomas served as pastor of Walnut Hill Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., for 20 years and now directs Peacemakers, a peace education initiative in Goshen. This article is based on his experience with the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary Celtic Spirituality Pilgrimage. His sabbatical was funded by Lilly Endowment’s Clergy Renewal Program.
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