At the end of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Max ultimately gives up being king of the wild things because he wants to be “where someone loved him best of all.” I think that’s really what all of us want, no matter how old we are, and I think that’s what pilgrimage is really all about.
What I treasured most about childhood treks to the family homestead in central Massachusetts was being surrounded not only by my immediate family, but also by all those other people who loved me (and my sister) “best of all.”
Earlier this year when I had lunch with a childhood friend, she commented that I’d always talked about that New England mill town as though it were paradise. It was. Our family visits there were a pilgrimage into the heart of love and acceptance, not perfect like God’s love, but the best imitation I’ve ever known.
Even now, with no living relatives in the town, my sister and I continue to make a yearly pilgrimage to its cemetery; we say prayers, leave bunches of rosemary and photographs of our grandchildren, then check out the old family house and have lunch at the Salem Cross Inn, our grandmother’s favorite restaurant.
I think I was in my teens before we took a vacation that didn’t have extended family as the destination; the reason, in retrospect, was probably economic, but I’m grateful for whatever it was that led us there. I would not have used the word “pilgrimage” in those years, but I did know that I entered a different, blessed reality when I got out of the car and tumbled into the happy chaos of cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles.
It’s been over 60 years since we played canasta on that big porch while Hurricane Carol blew the apples off the trees. It’s been at least 50 years since I climbed the hill behind the house that let us see out over the whole town, and beyond.
That’s the view I think of now when I read Psalm 42: “I will remember You… from the peak of Mizar among the heights of Hermon.” When hard times hit, memories of that high vista in the Quaabog Hills that I shared with family can help restore a sense of peace as I once again remember the grace and goodness of God, who does in fact love us best of all.
As time goes by, however, I’m increasingly aware of how impossible such a pilgrimage might be for a lot of families, my own included. My husband and I are a second marriage. We just celebrated 31 years together, but that earlier breakage and damage and scattering of family may well keep my children and grandchildren from experiencing the absolute assured comfort that my sister and I knew in our family pilgrimages to Massachusetts.
So how do families undertake something more than a vacation these days? What constitutes sacred space? How can we give our children and grandchildren experiences that will provide a deep awareness of being beloved simply by being themselves, vistas that will bring them back to God half a century from now?
How can we turn a family vacation into a pilgrimage?
At the core is probably the question: what do you or your children care most deeply about?
Visits to extended family mattered to me because we always lived at such a distance from our relatives, but for a fellow-deacon here in Maine whose relatives live in town, family camping trips have become a sacred pilgrimage into the beauty of God’s creation, something they talk about and plan and treasure all year long.
For my granddaughter who loves animals and wants to be a vet, a family trip to the Aquarium in Boston was a pilgrimage that awed her as she spent over an hour at the touch tank, gently stroking cownose rays, Atlantic rays, and epaulette sharks – physically encountering these strange and beautiful “others.”
My grandson, on the other hand, was born fascinated by construction equipment and how things are done and made (his parents are both engineers). Twice that family has made a pilgrimage to a theme park called Diggerland where he has been able to play in and even operate some of the enormous construction vehicles, to become for that time a co-creator.
These may sound like simple family trips, but what makes them “pilgrimages” is intentionality: choosing a place that matters rather than randomly heading for a popular vacation spot. Choosing a destination that matters to a child lets them know that their gifts and their passions are meaningful and important.
And when we can honor them in that way, they are already on a sacred journey because we are teaching them that, by us and by God, they are absolutely and forever loved “best of all.”
Have you traveled somewhere that was like a pilgrimage to your family? Where was it?