Maximus kills the evil Commodus, and Dorothy destroys the wicked witch of the west. King Arthur’s knights search for the Holy Grail. Frodo bears the life-stealing weight of the ring all the way to the Fire of Doom. I hadn’t thought about it much, but apparently I’ve gotten much of my inspiration for life’s journey through quest imagery. I read Lord of the Rings, for example, and am inspired by the courage of the protagonists, take a deep breath, and think something along the lines of “Well, if little hobbits can fulfill their calling against all odds, so can I.”
There’s something true and helpful about quest imagery. We are called to specific tasks that only we can do. But quest imagery, with its idea of heroic struggle and emphasis on pivotal moments of encounter, can also make us think it’s only the “big” things that matter, and if I asked you who has most influenced your life, I’ll bet your answer would be less about a figure who performed a grand heroic act than a teacher who believed in you, a friend who stayed and hugged while you fell apart, or a parent who tucked little notes into your lunches.
These days I’m finding more help in the picture of pilgrimage with its daily, faithful obedience. Taking the next step and writing the next page. Loving those we walk with. Hoping. Trusting.
As I read Pilgrim’s Progress and listen to Maxine Hancock’s lectures on Spiritual Pilgrimage, I’m being reminded of the centrality of the pilgrimage motif in the Judeo-Christian faith. The story of God’s people – our story - is a story of pilgrimage: out of Eden, to Ur; out of Egypt, through the desert, and into the promised land. And then into exile, with the promise of, a long while later, return. We are “people of the way, literally and metaphorically seeking a city whose builder and maker is God.” (Hancock; c.f. Hebrews 11)
Pilgrimage. Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms describes it as “an expedition to a place hallowed by religious or similar associations. Often, but far from invariably, it implies an arduous journey or slow and difficult passage.” It’s an intentional journey with religious significance. And it’s not supposed to be easy.
But does it matter, really?
What difference does it make if we think of life as pilgrimage instead of heroic quest?
1) It keeps our eyes where they belong – on God instead of a goal.
2) It help us see who we are and who God is and where our strength comes from. (It isn't our own.)
3) It clarifies our task: we are called to faithfulness, not heroism. There may, of course, be moments in our lives that turn out to look a lot like heroism. But when we know ourselves pilgrims, we won’t see ourselves heroes; eyes on God and living in His strength, we were just doing what was asked of us in the moment.
4) It gives hope when things don’t turn out as planned. After only four years, I became too sick to continue my work overseas - or even medical work here at home. From the quest perspective, I may have failed. Through the lens of pilgrimage, “failure” disappears, and each new valley or hill becomes another step in the journey deeper into God’s heart, another place to experience how deeply we're loved and how carefully provided for.
5) It opens our hands.
We learn to receive. We’re heading to a city not of our own making. The destination is gift, and the journey is gift too. The road may be hard, but our gentle Lord provides resting places along the way, food, companionship, and special protection in times of need.
We receive, and are graciously made gift:
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the valley of weeping, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.” (Psalm 84)
“Those whose hearts are set on pilgrimage are under a special blessing of God” and so “the pilgrim people actually transform the landscape they are passing through. Their passing through [the valley of tears] . . . literally transforms it into a place of well-springs, of joy, and of life. . . . Our being on pilgrimage and the fact that we are passing through this place . . . is in some way making it a place of refreshment for others.” (Hancock)
Blessed! Blessed are you who, when the going is hard and when it is easy, keep setting your hearts on pilgrimage.