On this, the Feast of St James, my thoughts and prayers are drawn to the practice of pilgrimage.
Nine years ago, I thought pilgrimage was a cool concept, and had a list of destinations I hadn’t yet reached.
I had no idea what pilgrimage really means.
Today, I’m getting there, and you may not realize it, but so are you.
In retrospect, this journey of life in faith is, everyday, a pilgrimage. Each chapter in each of our stories describes a moment of striving, struggling, holding on, and letting go. It’s only the ratios of each that change.
In 2013 I planned my first nominal “Pilgrimage” for our high school youth. Along the way I came to understand that in order to lead others on this sort of trip, I needed to grow my own internal understanding of what it meant to be a pilgrim.
Like any devoted scholar of the 21st century, I turned to the internet. And found, much to my surprise, Pilgrimage Magazine, whose mission is to explore story, spirit, place and witness in the American Southwest, which is where we would be traveling for our pilgrimage.
Four years later, our 3rd high school pilgrimage just returned from 8 days of story, spirit, and witness in some truly breathtaking places: the Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley, the San Juan River, and Arches National Park in Moab, UT. This journey, like the two before it, transformed teens and adult leaders alike. Our stories changed, not only to include all we experienced but also to include a renewed understanding of who we are, who we want to be, and how we interpret God’s call to each of us.
The Spirit traveled with us, every step of the way. We took a group of teens who were anxious about being away from the familiar trappings of their daily lives: phones, friends, and possibly most worrying to them, showers. They struggled at first to let go and be fully present with themselves and one another. But through time and connection, by building relationships with our guides and our Navajo hosts, through the daily practice of morning and evening prayer… one day it all clicked into place and there they were, fully immersed and present.
Pilgrimage presents us with the chance to explore our relationship with God and the world by literally changing the scenery and jarring us out of our everyday experience. Witness describes the reality that even in the mundane routines of our daily lives, we are pilgrims.
We are pilgrims on a journey,
we are travelers on the road.
We are here to help each other
walk the mile and bear the load.
Today we celebrate St James, brother to John, son of Zebedee. We find James in some of the most critical moments of the Gospel, including the Transfiguration and at Gethsemane. James and John, like Peter and Andrew just before them, are fishermen whom Jesus calls from their boat where they are mending nets with their father. And they drop the nets, leave their father, and follow Jesus (Matthew 4:21-22).
Reading the Gospel, it is clear that James is by Jesus’ side throughout his ministry. We glean that there is deep friendship there, and witness to Christ’s teachings, his miracles, his death and resurrection. This is witness as most of us can only imagine.
After Jesus commissioned the apostles, James made his way to the Iberian Peninsula and spread the good news in Spain. Eventually he returned to Jerusalem, where he was slain at the command of Herod Agrippa I. He was the first of the twelve to be martyred. The story from there is that he was laid in a stone boat, which was carried by angels to the Atlantic coast of Spain and laid to rest in a tomb there. This is the place where pilgrims on the Santiago (Spanish for Saint James) de Compostela complete their journey.
I dream of someday making that pilgrimage. In the meantime, St James’ example leads me to understand my place as a pilgrim at all times and in all places. My friendship, my witness to the stories of those around me, especially the ‘least of these,’ my ministry to children and youth; all of these are part of my own, lifelong, pilgrimage.
It has been said: “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
Every day of that experience is pilgrimage.
What kind of pilgrimage means most to you: a special journey or a daily walk of discipleship?