In last week’s post we looked at pilgrim personalities, and I asked you to guess mine. Did you? If you guessed the mystic, you’re right. Yes, I’m the consummate armchair traveler! I’ve never been on a pilgrimage—but I take a journey of faith every day. I’m a spiritual pilgrim.
These days, it’s common to discuss spiritual growth in terms of pilgrimage. But there’s a problem. So much of this discussion veers toward the therapeutic—we take a “journey of self-discovery” or a “pilgrimage to our innermost self.” We take to the road to “find out what it’s all about.”
If we look at the Great Age of Pilgrimage—the medieval era—we find a more grounded definition of spiritual pilgrimage; a Christ-centered definition. Medieval masters reveal that the destination of our pilgrimage is not our own self. Nor is it a mysterious unknown. Spiritual pilgrimage describes the heart’s journey to Jesus. When we hit the spiritual road, we’re traveling to the Beloved, the very center of our faith.
This theme is beautifully revealed in the writing of Walter Hilton, a 14th-century Augustinian mystic. Not long ago Carl McColman wrote a wonderful introduction to Hilton and two other little-known mystics, and I encourage you to read his post.
Hilton is best known for his treatise on contemplative prayer, The Scale of Perfection. In Book 2 of this treatise, we learn that an anchoress asked him for advice concerning the formation of her soul. Hilton responded with an extraordinary exercise: he asked the anchoress to imagine her faith as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Any pilgrim in his right mind yearns to reach this sacred city—it is, after all, where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. In the same way, the Christian longs to go to Jesus. Spiritual pilgrimage is the process of daily journeying to the cross of Christ.
This journey is no easy road. As Hilton spins out his pilgrimage metaphor, we learn about the realities of Jerusalem pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. The length of the journey. The physical hardships. The distinct possibility of being robbed or beaten. The doubt that creeps in along the way. Everyone and everything seems bent on deterring a pilgrim from reaching his destination. Only his single-minded desire keeps him on the road.
So it is for the spiritual pilgrim. Enemies (carnal desire and so forth) rear their ugly heads, and the only way the pilgrim will make it is by keeping her eyes on the prize. Hilton advises:
[K]eep on your way and desire only the love of Jesus. Always give this answer: I am nothing; I have nothing; I desire nothing but the love of Jesus alone . . . And if you will keep on this way and do as I have said, I promise that you shall not be slain but come to the place that you desire.
Hilton’s metaphor helps us access the danger and hope of our daily pilgrimage to Jesus. The danger is real. Like a medieval traveler, we risk losing everything—our journey might rob us of all we have and all we’ve come to believe about ourselves.
Like a medieval traveler, we leave everything behind—we tear ourselves away from our distractions and our sin. We walk away from all the things we thought life was about.
Like a medieval traveler, we lose and we leave—but we gain Jesus. That’s why pilgrimage is always an image of hope. It’s not necessarily easy, but it’s worth it.
I encourage you to embrace this wonderful spiritual exercise from the heart of the Middle Ages: imagine that you are on pilgrimage to Jesus. Leave behind what is holding you back. Keep on your way. See nothing but your love of Jesus. He’s waiting for you to take this pilgrimage now.