Last week at the gas station, a man I didn’t know approached me at the pump and asked me if I could give him some change to help him fill up his car. “I’m running short on money this week,” he said.

I hesitated. Should I give this man money? I didn’t know anything about him—where he’d come from or where he was going. I didn’t know what he’d really do with any money I gave him. But then, as the fuel pumped through the hose into my car, the truth pumped into me. Maybe I didn’t know who this man was. But I knew what he was. He was a pilgrim.

I’ve been studying medieval pilgrims lately, as well as biblical pilgrims, and I’ve come to see these travelers as fellow passengers on the journey of life. The guy at the gas station had all the symptoms of pilgrimage. Trust me, I know this condition when I see it. After diagnosing him, I knew I had to help him. He was, after all, a fellow traveler. I just wish I hadn’t hesitated.

For my own benefit, and perhaps for yours, I drafted this list of 4 ways to recognize a pilgrim (hint: it doesn’t have anything to do with a staff, a scrip, or a funny medieval hat):

Pilgrim road signPilgrims are strangers
That person you just met or who just asked you for help may be unknown to you, but their very “strangeness” might make them a pilgrim. In Roman times, a peregrinus, the Latin word from which we get “pilgrim,” was someone “not from these parts.” It was a legal term. The Bible teaches that Christians are pilgrims because we’re not from these parts, either. (Heb 11:13) We don’t belong to the world and its ways. We’re all strangers here.

Pilgrim road signPilgrims are travelers
In the Middle Ages, peregrinus morphed to mean someone on a journey, usually one of sacred import. Have you encountered any travelers lately? Maybe someone fueling up at the pump next to yours? Or someone on a difficult path through life? Every person is on his way somewhere—or trying to be, if he gets a tank of gas.

Pilgrim road signPilgrims are in need
Some pilgrims are happy, healthy, and wealthy. But historically, pilgrims traveled in desperate circumstances. Medieval pilgrims frequently were ill or were atoning for sin or crimes. Many arrived at their destination completely broke. They relied on others to help them. I’m reminded of the guy at the gas station, who didn’t have any money for his journey. And maybe reminded a little of myself. I’ve never lacked money for gas. But I’ve come close to not being able to pay the rent and other bills.

Pilgrim road signPilgrims are the faces in the mirror
I’d have been better prepared to recognize a fellow traveler if I’d glanced in the mirror before I got out of the car. In my own face, I would have seen all the symptoms of pilgrimage—like the man I met, I’m a strange traveler with lots of needs.

I don’t know how much clearer God could have made things. He taught me about the journey of life AT A GAS STATION. I did what I could for the pilgrim I met. It wasn’t much because I didn’t have much to give him. I’m not ashamed of that, because we give what we can. But I am ashamed that I hesitated. I hope my list—and perhaps a mirror—will help me to diagnose a fellow pilgrim more quickly the next time I see one.