Pilgrimage: Off to meditate.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 June
PILGRIM 'pɪl.ɡrəm noun. One who goes to a sacred place for religious reasons.
[Pilgrimage 'pɪl.ɡrəm.ɪdʒ noun.]

Lots of Christians go on pilgrimage.

Might be a trip to Israel, to see where Jesus was born and buried. Might be a famous cathedral, an important monastery, a house of prayer, a room where a miracle happened, a place where revivals have been known to break out. Might even be the campground, chapel, or church building where you first gave your life to Christ Jesus—which is partly nostalgia, partly pilgrimage. Pilgrimage takes all shapes.

Various Christians might go on pilgrimage because they think the holy places might make ’em holier (and certainly make ’em feel holier) but the places aren’t gonna do anything; they can’t. Only the Holy Spirit makes someone holier. And since we Christians carry him wherever we go—collectively we’re his templewe bring the holiness into these places. If we have any profound experiences in them, it’s not because of the places themselves; it’s because the Spirit within us uses the situation to work on us.

Because Christians recognize the Spirit’s in us, so the places don’t convey any special holiness, a lot of us tend to dismiss pilgrimage as unnecessary, wasteful, or even superstitious. (I mean, lookit all the people who think holy places make ’em holier!) So they don’t see the point, and don’t go anywhere. Some of ’em hate to travel anyway… and isn’t it convenient how their beliefs match their comfort level?

But there is some value to pilgrimage, which is why I recommend it. And the most important reason is meditation.

We don’t go to, say, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, because it makes us holier. It doesn’t. We go there because it makes us think. We step in the building, ignore the crowds and the gaudy decorations, and think, “This is the exact location on this planet where Jesus rose from the dead.” We contemplate what he did there… and what he might yet do there. It’s one thing to imagine these places. It’s another to physically immerse yourself in them, see the three-dimensionality of it, touch the walls, breathe the air, be there.

Humans sometimes need tangible things to really grasp an idea. It’s why Jesus has us do holy communion. And it’s why pilgrimage puts some depth into your relationship with God which, frankly, is absent when we don’t go to holy places… and bring the Holy Spirit along for the adventure, and see what he shows you.

Imagination has its limits.

When I was a kid, my parents took me to visit my aunt’s new house. My sibs and I were told all sorts of things about the place, and what we’d do once we got there. Now I’d never seen the house before. Hadn’t even seen a photo. My imagination had to fill in the blanks, and it did; everyone’s does. You’re probably picturing her place. What it looks like, inside and out. What the yard looks like. What the barn looks like. (Oh, you didn’t know it had a barn? Well now you do, and your image has updated to include a barn… and a much bigger yard, likely.)

Then we got there and saw the real thing.

My previous mental images looked nothing like the real thing. Didn’t matter. The instant I saw the real thing, I chucked all those mental images without a second thought. I hadn’t grown all that attached to them, y’know. Besides, the real thing was better.

Well we Christians do the very same thing with the people, places, and events in the bible. We imagine where it happened, what it looked like. We even imagine heaven. We’ve not been to these places! We saw movies, or Sunday school videos; I’m old enough to remember Sunday school flannelgraphs, which used paper cut-outs tacked to a sheet of fabric to make sort of a puppet show for us kids, with White Jesus teaching lessons and curing lepers.

Weird thing is, a lot of us get mighty attached to these imaginings. Which is understandable: The subject is super important. It’s Christ Jesus, heaven, the scriptures. We put a lot of weight on these things. Stands to reason we put a lot of weight on how we imagine them to look.

But sometimes we put so much weight on this imagination, we don’t wanna go to the middle east and have our ideas upended by reality. And this attitude, I don’t understand at all. I always prefer reality. Even if it’s uncomfortable, it’s true—and that’s infinitely better.

I don’t trust my imagination. I would if I were writing fiction; imagination has its uses. But in the field of biblical studies and theology, I need facts, I need history, I need logic (except for the times God is deliberately choosing to be illogical to make a point). I’m dealing with a real Being. Hard data is available—so I want it whenever possible!

And that’s why we Christians go on pilgrimage. We go to the real places where God did real things. We fill our minds with real life from the real environment. We go to Jerusalem so we can put the real Jerusalem in our minds; not some simulation from Son of God or the Holy Land Experience. We go get something real to meditate on.

Substitutes? Nah.

Not every Christian can take the time, or has the money, to visit Israel. Been true throughout history: Serfs were tied to the land they worked on, and couldn’t visit Jerusalem, even if they did have the money to buy boat passage. Nobles might’ve had the money, but had too many duties and couldn’t just leave. People wanted to go, and couldn’t. Sometimes life sucks like that.

So Christians invented substitutes. Like prayer labyrinths: A church drew a grid on the floor, and people could walk it and imagine walking to Jerusalem, and pray and meditate. Or like the stations of the cross: Go from diorama to diorama, remember Jesus’s suffering, and do this instead of going to Jerusalem to visit the literal Way of Jesus.

And of course there are the local religious sites. You don’t have to travel thousands of kilometers to some foreign land, ’cause there are significant holy sites in our own homelands. I live in California, and there are plenty of Californians who travel to the old Spanish missions, or to various revival sites in Los Angeles and San Francisco, or to various Christian campgrounds in the redwoods. They don’t always call it “pilgrimage,” but that’s precisely what this is. Enroute they’re thinking about God, ’cause they expect an encounter with him at their destination. And no surprise, they usually have one. If you wanna encounter God, and submit yourself to him with the proper attitude, he’s quite pleased to meet with you.

Still, I gotta tell you: There’s just no substitute for going to Israel and seeing the real places for yourself.

Take a few years to scrape together the money, and just go. And if you already have the money, get the free time and go. And if you have plenty of money, bless the pants off some unsuspecting poor person and take ’em with you.

Go. Because if you’re waiting for God to take you to New Jerusalem instead, it’s called New Jerusalem for a reason: It’s not old Jerusalem. It’s like the difference between York and New York. God’s gonna flatten old Jerusalem to put the new one there; you’ll have missed it! So don’t miss it. Go look at it.

And while you’re there, remember: Meditation. Fill your brain with images of Jesus’s actual stamping grounds. Go to the actual places. Go to the museums to see the real stuff. Replace your imaginary images with the real thing. True, your new mental images aren’t gonna be 100 percent accurate; 10 minutes of observation doesn’t compare with a lifetime of living with these things in bible times. But it’s way better than the 10-percent accuracy of the Christians who’ve never been there. (Yes, 10 percent. Bible movies really don’t do Israel justice.)

Then, your mind armed with real places, watch your meditational life leap forward.