Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. (1)

I’ve been reading a book by Ian Bradley titled, Pilgrimage: a Spiritual and Cultural Journey (Oxford, England: Lion Hudson plc, 2009). Bradley is a professor of Practical Theology and Church History at the University of St Andrews, specializing in Celtic Christianity, and a leader of regular pilgrimages to such sites as St Andrews, Iona and Lindisfarne. 

Pilgrimage is still only available in hardcover, and is packed with glossy photos of pilgrimage locations across Europe, including Rome, Santiago, St Andrews, Iona, Nidaros, Assisi, Lourdes, Taize, Medugorje and others. 

Bradley offers a variety of definitions of pilgrimage, including these:
  • A departure from daily life on a journey in search of spiritual well-being. 
  • An individual summons to know God more fully, a spiritual journey to which the pilgrim joyfully responds ‘yes’ to God’s invitation.
  • A provisional, transitory state, often taken as a metaphor for the journey of life, hastening irrevocably from the cradle to the grave. It is a reminder that all things in this world are temporary and that everything is in motion.
  • The outer physical journey mirrors the inner spiritual journey; the excitement of setting out on a new adventure is balanced by the joy of coming home. 
The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 includes chapters titled The Biblical Roots of Pilgrimage, Pilgrimage in the Early Church, Celtic Pilgrimage, The Golden Age of Pilgrimage, After the Reformation, Pilgrimage Today, and How to be a Pilgrim. Part 2 leads readers chapter by chapter into specific pilgrimage sites in Italy, Scotland, Spain, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Poland, France, Bosnia-Herzegovinia, and England. Historic details are woven together with practical and personal insights into making your own pilgrimage to such a place. 

Of the sites emphasized by Bradley, I’ve personally enjoyed spending pilgrimage time in Rome, St Andrews, Iona, Assisi, Taize and Lindisfarne. But one need not get into an airplane and travel across the globe to go on pilgrimage. “Blessed are those whose hearts are set in pilgrimage” the Psalmist tells us. Jesus suffered for us along the Via Dolorosa, the way of suffering, “leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (2), joining Christ along the way of the cross, day by day, setting our hearts on pilgrimage. Jesus came alongside hurting people along the road to Emmaus, comforting them by opening the Scriptures to them along the way home. Later, these two, reflecting upon their encounter with pilgrim Christ recalled, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (3)

May you know the joy of journeying with our Lord along the pilgrim way. If possible, sometime in your life, consider turning travel plans into pilgrim plans, and intentionally step out along the way with Christ as your guide, walking along the way, “in his steps”.

Photo credit: Taize Community Church, Taize, France, by Thomas Robinson.

(1) Psalm 84:5.
(2) 1 Peter 2:21.
(3) Luke 24:32.