What is a pilgrimage?

This time next week I will be sitting in the Newark Airport waiting for our flight from Newark to Tel Aviv. By 7:00pm local time, we will have boarded the 11+ hour nonstop flight and we will be on our way. Of course my pilgrimage will begin the day before as I make my way from Twin Falls to Boise and then from Boise to Newark to meet up with the other pilgrims from Saint James Episcopal Church in Lancaster, PA. Once we get on the EL-AL flight to Tel Aviv we will be in good shape and maybe, just maybe relax for a few hours. But I am getting ahead of myself.

In preparation for this pilgrimage I have undergone the usual inventory of necessary items; everything from clothes and shoes to headphones and camera equipment. It is tempting to just pack absolutely everything one might need on a two-week international adventure, but then again this isn’t just another trip or vacation. A pilgrimage is different. Perhaps the most frequent question I am asked is: how is a pilgrimage different from any other trip?

Pilgrimages can be viewed through different lenses. More broadly, a pilgrimage can be any journey that connects our inner passions with physical places or things; like a favorite vacation spot or annual rafting trip. Or more narrowly defined, it is a physical journey of religious or spiritual nature often to specific holy sites revered by followers of that faith. As a Christian pilgrim, I will be traveling to the Holy Land to specifically connect the stories of Jesus from scripture and the physical landscape in which those stories once took place. I will walk the narrow streets and alleyways of the Old City. From the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives, from Bethany to Bethlehem, from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee, the landscapes, fragrances, the people will inevitably enliven and enrich our reading of the Gospels and our faith. As St. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem (349-386) wrote to his catechumens, “Others merely hear, but we see and touch.”

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I will once again take my place in a long line of Christian pilgrims seeking a deeper connection to God by making a sacred journey to these sacred places. I will walk in their footsteps, treading over the very same stones that countless pilgrims have walked for centuries on their journeys to encounter God along the pilgrim’s path.

There are several aspects to this spiritual journey that sets it apart from any other vacation. For example, a tourist changes their environment, escaping their typical surroundings for something different, new, and often exotic; whereas a pilgrim travels but does so to let the environment change them. I am not traveling to Jerusalem because it is a cool place to rest, relax, and vacation, but because in some small or possibly large way I will be transformed by the surroundings. Pilgrimages often carry some inherent challenges or risks that we would not take while on vacation. And often, people take a pilgrimage to achieve specific goals or to confront life’s most important questions. The experiences and encounters along the way are often just as or more important than the actual destination.

Though we will encounter all that the Holy Land has to offer in the stories of our past, we will also encounter the “living stones,” the people who call this land home. We will meet different people who will share their stories of life and faith in this contested land, and their hope for the future.

If a pilgrimage is about intent and purpose, the question that I must ask of myself is what are my hopes for this pilgrimage? What baggage am I bringing with me and what needs to be left behind?

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