In a previous post we looked at the theme of ‘ascent’ in Christian spirituality. In this post we explore the theme of ‘pilgrimage’. In both cases we are contrasting biblical and Reformation spirituality with the Medieval and modern spirituality.

In the Old Testament Jerusalem was seen as a place of pilgrimage. The annual feasts encouraged worshippers to journey to Jerusalem. The Psalms of Ascent testify to the significance of this journey.

But with the coming of Jesus the nature of pilgrimage changes. Jesus himself is the temple (John 2:18-22). We come to him rather than journeying to a physical location (1 Peter 2:4-5). And we journey towards our future home in the new creation (Hebrews 11:8-16).

Nevertheless, in the Medieval world pilgrimage became a major feature of spirituality and a major money-spinner if you could establish yourself as a holy destination. Abbeys would compete for sacred relics. Canterbury was the key destination in Britain, partly as the shrine as Thomas à Becket after his martyrdom in 1170 (hence Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales).

Pilgrimage was physical act that required physical movement. For some it was an act that earned merit before God. For others it enacted the ascent of the mind. For most, perhaps, it was journey to sacred relics or sites that were thought to have inherent power. It was a chance to pray to a saint at his or her shrine for a miracle or time off purgatory.

Pilgrimage in Reformed spirituality

All of this might suggest the Reformed tradition would be quick to drop the theme of pilgrimage. But instead it retained it as a central feature of its spirituality, but with a radical reorientation.

The primary change was that pilgrimage became an image for the Christian life. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progress begins: ‘As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream.’ The dream tells the story of how a man named Christian becomes a Christian (losing his burden) and then travels through life to the Celestial City. It is the story of life as a pilgrimage. Even the opening non-dream element alludes to pilgrimage: ‘As I walked through the wilderness of this world’. This world is a wilderness through which Christians are travelling.

Charles Hambrick-Stowe in his fascinating study of New England Puritan piety says: ‘The sense of being on pilgrimage structured Puritan religious experience from the first stages of conversion on through the saint’s growth in God’s grace, and it strongly coloured the daily and weekly disciplines of devotional activity.’ It was a re-appropriation of Catholic ideas of pilgrimage. But it drew primarily on the wilderness wanderings of Israel in Exodus and Hebrews 11. Thomas Hooker, among the first generation of Puritan preachers in New England, said:

There must be Contrition and Humiliation before the Lord comes to take possession … This was typified in the passage of the Children towards the promised Land. They must come and go through a vast and roaring Wilderness, where they must be bruised with many pressures, humbled under many overbearing difficulties, before they could possess that good land which abounded with all prosperity, flowed with Milk and Honey.

The New England Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet wrote a poem entitled ‘As Weary Pilgrim’ (1669) which includes the lines:

A pilgrim I, on earth perplexed

With Sins, with cares and sorrows vext,

By age and pains brought to decay,

And my clay house mold’ring away.

Oh, how I long to be at rest

And soar on high among the blest.

The experience of the Puritans, both individually and corporately, was interpreted in the light of Old Testament patterns, but always in the light of their fulfilment in Christ. Indeed Christ’s own forty-day wilderness temptation was another referent for this theme. So Puritans used the metaphor of pilgrimage in three ways.

First, to describe Christians as those who are estranged from the culture and honour of this world (1 Peter 1:1, 17; 2:11). This was particular expounded in the face of the hostility and corruption of the Established church.

Second, as a metaphor for pilgrimage to the individual soul, travelling through life towards heaven, by faith experiencing en route ever-increasing joy in Christ (Hebrews 11). The idea of keeping a spiritual journal, so popular among Puritans, itself had strong pilgrimage connotations. The words ‘journal’ and ‘journey’ both stem from the same root meaning ‘day’. In the Middle Ages the word ‘journey’ was used of the distance of about twenty miles, a day’s travel. People often kept a journal when travelling. So a journal was the record of a journey – either a literal journey or a person’s pilgrimage through life.

Third, for the Puritans in New England pilgrimage was a particularly strong theme because it had a physical counterpart in their experience. They were, after all, ‘the Pilgrim Fathers’. Their own lives had involved a journey made for spiritual reasons. They had travelled out of captivity in the Egypt of old England and saw New England as a staging post on their journey to the heavenly Jerusalem. They were not a settled people, physically and spiritually. Indeed, many of the first generation feared for the second generation as they began to settle down.

Pilgrimage in post-modern spirituality
The language of pilgrimage and journey remains common today. ‘We are all on a journey,’ we are often told. Or we are encouraged to embrace ‘fellow travellers’, even if we are at different places on our journey. It is a very postmodern affirmation. In other words, it does not affirm much at all. Indeed it is a kind of warning off. It is an exhortation not to assert truth, but to recognise a provisionality in everything.

The key difference between this view of journeying and that of Pilgrim’s Progress is this. The pilgrim of Pilgrim’s Progress knew where he was going. His destination is not in doubt. He is heading to the Celestial City. And the only way to get through was through confidence in the word and reliance of Christ. Indeed the narrow gate of Pilgrim’s Progress is precisely an image of the exclusive claims of Christ.

When ‘post-evangelicals’ co-opt the image, in contrast, they do so to stress the vagueness of the journey. Who knows were they will end up, but it will probably not be orthodoxy! We are in danger of wandering off course and calling this a spiritual virtue by misappropriating the language of pilgrimage.

Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Principles in Puritan New England, University of North Carolina Press is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is readily available online or from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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