“Life is made up of meetings and partings. That is the way of it.” ∼ A Muppet Christmas Carol
The Christian life has often been described as a pilgrimage. For the purpose of self-description, the Catholic Church has used this word in her sacred liturgy and in her Catechism. There is abundant basis for the concept of pilgrimage as a Christian metaphor, rooted in our biblical theology, salvation history, and anthropology.
In the blockbuster film Heat—not ostensibly a pilgrim’s tale—the criminal mastermind Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and his nemesis police lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) share the following remarks about their duty before the wandering lifestyle:
Neil McCauley: A guy told me one time, “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”
Vincent Hanna: What are you, a monk?
Neil McCauley: I have a woman.
Vincent Hanna: What do you tell her?
Neil McCauley: I tell her I’m a salesman.
Vincent Hanna: So then, if you spot me coming around that corner… you just gonna walk out on this woman? Not say good bye?
Neil McCauley: That’s the discipline.
Vincent Hanna: That’s pretty vacant, you know.
Neil McCauley: Yeah, it is what it is. It’s that or we both better go do something else, pal.
Vincent Hanna: I don’t know how to do anything else.
Neil McCauley: Neither do I.
Vincent Hanna: I don’t much want to either.
Neil McCauley: Neither do I.
This exchange illustrates a commonsense principle that most successful people take seriously: in order to chase down the sun, one has to be willing to make difficult sacrifices.
The Christian tradition and the teachings of Jesus Christ also affirm the concept of sacrifice in subservice to him—for example, the total or partial sacrifice of pursuing beauty, a career, a good education, a healthy body—no matter how valid some of these other activities may be. For those of us who claim Christianity as the rule for our life, we might therefore honestly observe that Jesus would perhaps critique how we are so willing to observe McCauley’s “discipline” vis-a-vis the transitory but not the eternal.
Pilgrimage in the Bible
The idea that the Christian life is one of a constant ramble is as old and as venerated as the Jewish Bible itself.
The Christian concept of pilgrimage has its roots in the Genesis story of Abraham. Abraham was called by God to leave his people in Chaldea and go to a city that God would build. As Abraham follows this call and obeys other commands God places on him, he learns the importance of attaching both fear and belief to the promises of God.
Because of Abraham’s fidelity—leaving his own home land, making sacrifices of thanksgiving to God, even being willing to offer his own son—God tells Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. Christians must meditate on the fact that “the father of nations” was himself a pilgrim and that it was in Abraham’s willingness to be a pilgrim that God blessed him.
Throughout Genesis, Abraham refers to himself as a foreigner in the land where God had commanded him to go. In the next major episode of the Old Testament, the Exodus, we see the whole nation of Israel enslaved in a land where God had previously said that they would be “as foreigners.” Even when the Israelites had settled into the Promised Land, they were instructed by Yahweh not to sell the land because they are foreigners there. We find further examples of this identification of Israel as a sojourner in the Psalms and in the harrowing ordeal of Israel’s Babylonian Captivity.
It is in the New Testament that these Old Testament passages possess their ultimate meaning, of course. Here it is beyond doubt that the experience of Israel as sojourner, referring chiefly to the Exodus, is meant to be interiorized in the life of each follower of Christ. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul compares the trial of the wandering Israelites in the desert to the present situation of Christians: “these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.”
Elsewhere in the New Testament, we have the specific designation of Christians as pilgrims. In Hebrews 11:13, again in reference to the ordeal of Israelites in the desert, we read:
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.
Also in St. Peter’s first letters, he addresses the “foreigners” scattered throughout the Roman Empire, admonishing them “as foreigners and exiles to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” In sum, the Bible teaches without contradiction that comfort and autochthonous stasis works against, not for, the salvation of the Christian.
Another historical fact that demonstrates how pilgrimage (peregrinatio) was a central concept for the early Christians is the use of the Greek term paroikia and its derivatives to refer to the local churches. Pope Clement, in his letter to the Christian community in Corinth (92−99 AD), refers to his local community as “the church that sojourns—paroikeo—in Rome” and addresses the Corinthian church as the “church that sojourns in Corinth”; Dionysius of Corinth and Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century would later use the use parioikia in their letters as well. This usage of the Greek term is the origin of the Latin term paroecia from which we derive our word parish. As these historical details show, the early church appears to quickly associate the pilgrim state with not only the identity of each Christian but with the collective identity of Christians as well. In its very terminology for the Christian communities, therefore, we are a pilgrim church.
Pilgrimage in Salvation History
In the early church period, we also find robust affirmation of the idea that in order to be one with Christ, one must depart from one’s usual surroundings and strike out in search for the “one thing necessary.”
The “Desert Fathers” included Anthony the Great, Athanasius, and Benedict. From the late third century throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, those desert monks who followed Anthony’s stark example of wilderness prayerfulness pushed the concept of the pilgrim church as far as it would go. Up to the point at which Constantine “legalized” Christianity—bringing it out from under three centuries of subterranean “survival mode”—Christian spirituality was an entirely private matter. But just before the Edict of Milan, Christianity proved to be mainstream enough for the first time to perfect upon its interior life, rather than fight for mere survival. In short, once Christianity could afford not to scratch its living in private catacombs and locked meeting halls, it could afford to turn toward its innermost truth: asceticism and the spiritual life.
The desert was the natural forum for this perfection. While the first three centuries of Christianity represented an existential wilderness for “the Way,” the next three centuries turned to the actual wilderness to inculcate in Christians the concept of being a proverbial “unwelcome foreigner” anywhere on earth. As uninviting as such a proposition sounds to the untrained ear, Athanasius reports that “the desert had become a city.” The deserts in the South of the Roman Empire teemed with Christians who rightly understood monasticism as their truest faith and worldliness as the opposite thereof.
When Christianity was on the ascent, it was in a state of burgeoning desert spirituality.
The cyclical nature of the phenomenon is not to be missed. Desert spirituality and pilgrimage made Christianity wildly successful in the fourth and fifth centuries. Once it had become popular, its “engine” (asceticism and pilgrimage) kicked out and complacency and decadence kicked in. In the ensuing “dark” and even frightening period of the ninth century, the best minds came to realize that asceticism works and decadence does not.
Such a cycle has repeated itself in the latter Christian millennium. The Desert Fathers enrich our sense of pilgrimage because worldly detachment, as we saw above, is the very locus of both the Old and New Testaments. Conversely, worldly attachment is the very opposite of both.
Pilgrimage and Analogy in the Anthropology of Thomas Aquinas
Pilgrimage bears even greater relevance when examined in its anthropological context: the Thomistic realm of analogia. For Thomas, the concept of analogy is central to mankind’s ability to conceive of his own contingent being in relation to God’s necessary or pure being. The existence and properties of God are real; the existence and properties of creatures are only real insofar as they participate in those of God. (For example, the Creator’s generosity is infinitely higher than—but by analogy relatable to—the generosity of the created saints.) From this, Thomas’s analogy of being, we seek to draw out an inference we call analogia excessum, the analogy of departure: the concept that a pilgrim’s progress may only be marked by the undesirable event of inevitable and constant departure. It is essential to the analogy of being, and to human being itself.
In other words, we may engage the anagogical only through the analogical. We “get there” only by departing, and we should practice during our earthly life. Paradoxically, our Christian discipleship is most stable from an unsteady, traveler’s perspective. Counterintuitively, living out of a suitcase, as it were, is altogether natural to man—a lifetime of serial partings with both things and people (which Kermit as Cratchitt reminds us above). In other words, peregrinatio is the only fair way to construe the proper role of the human being, especially in light of Jesus’s Christmas incarnation before wandering parents amid a shepherd’s desolation.
Here’s the proof: whether or not a human being accepts the propositions of Christianity (or even of theism), he must accept the excise tax laid from the outset upon his life: the rendering of one death, no more and no less. As such, members of the pilgrim church, Christ’s actual body here on earth, rightly tend to inoculate against strong attachment to things seculorum. “That’s the discipline,” and it is so whether one commits oneself to theft (like McCauley) or to the Sermon on the Mount. Traveling light, the faithful peregrino will attach to nothing besides the love of the Lord.
Pilgrimage chastens us with the following unrestful proposition:
When chasing the sun of our life’s endeavors, traverse the graveside path with neither the wraith of regret nor the wraith of anticipation upon the heels. In the sunbath of noontide, one boldly denies the proffered company of such a caravan: the sun, oneself, the wraiths. One lights out alone, dignified by his singularity, loudly proclaiming and even extolling it … if he is sufficiently bold of heart. But in tormented dreams or, worse still, sleepless midnights, one feels the weight of such a dismal solitude and such wandering restlessness, no longer celebrated, that its cipher hangs about the silhouetted corners of life’s landscape. One then comes again to crave even the perfidious company of the wraiths.
Even the intrepid come to want fellow feeling, in the end, but alas, it may be found only in the desert!
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Pilgrims from Canterbury” was painted ca. 1455-1462.