To Be a Pilgrim: Seeking God and Finding Christian Life

John Bunyan, The Road From the City of Destruction to the Celestial City 1821 Cornell CUL

John Bunyan, The Road From the City of Destruction to the Celestial City 1821 Cornell CUL

As I’ve been preparing to lead our group of youth and adult pilgrims to Banff this week, I have had the famous English hymn “To Be a Pilgrim” going through my head. Despite its 17th century protestant themes (it’s from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress of 1684), the hymn is useful for thinking about pilgrimage beyond the specific allegorical story for which it was composed. I think it is useful for meditation on the Christian life as pilgrimage from where we are to where God is. We make this pilgrimage over and over as new spiritual challenges arise and as we find ourselves separated from God by our sins. Sometimes it can feel like a slog, and sometimes it can feel like a victorious march against evil, but the Christian life is always about movement, reflection, contemplation, and movement again toward God. We go on pilgrimage because this is the practice that reminds us of the whole Christian life and what we are going toward: full maturity in Christ, full union with God. We can do pilgrimage anywhere, but we need to be aware and intentional about what we are doing. The Pilgrim Hymn is a good text to contemplate as we all prepare, either to go on pilgrimage or to pray for those on pilgrimage.

The first element of pilgrimage is preparation for the fight against evil. The world of Bunyan’s story is dangerous and it fights against Christian, the pilgrim, and his wife Christiana, so the first verse of the hymn is about getting ready to face danger and to fight for truth. I am using the 1906 text from the English Hymnal, as that is closer to the text we have in our hymnal:

He who would valiant be
’Gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy
Follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

In this verse, the pilgrim has chosen to be brave against the disasters of life, but still needs to commit to Christ in order to overcome them. Overcoming fear, complacency and discouragement are regular parts of life, but following Jesus in a constant way helps us to do this. Presiding Bishop Curry describes the practices of following Jesus in this way: turning toward God and away from sin; learning more about God in Christ through scripture; praying for the world and ourselves; worshiping God, blessing the World; and going into the world to show others the love of Jesus; and resting in the love of God so that we can start the process again. John Bunyan knew this process was ongoing in our lives, and we would have to be constant in following Jesus’ way in the face of challenge. Pilgrimage is meant to include all of these practices. On our pilgrimage we will face our participation in despoiling creation, we will turn toward God and give thanks for the grace of living in the creation and ask for forgiveness of our sins, we will pray, we will bless, and we will go to learn more about God and humans in our interactions with people we meet on the way and in the scripture. We will reflect on our experience with others, and we will return home having heard God speaking in a new way to us. Surely we will feel foolish at times, and we will wonder what others will think of our doing religious things in public. Bunyan knew that was part of Christian life too:

Who so beset him round
With dismal stories,
Do but themselves confound,
His strength the more is.
No foes shall stay his might
Though he with giants fight;
He will make good his right
To be a pilgrim.

Being a pilgrim is a bit ridiculous. We go out to a place to seek God, when God is already here. We put ourselves into positions of newness, discomfort and ignorance in order to grow in faith and trust in God. We give up our control over what happens to us. Eventually we get where we are going and God is there, with the saints who have gone before us, but we are the same people as we were when we started, just with some new perspectives on life. Why not just stay home and pray? What is the point of spending the time and the money to go somewhere and be with the God who is everywhere? Because going beyond our comfort zone opens up these new perspectives. Putting ourselves to the test in adventures with God helps us to strengthen our relationships with those about us and to realize just what is possible with God. The pilgrims who have journeyed to holy sites since pretty much the beginning of Christianity have done this despite it being a bit ridiculous to think going where Jesus was or where the saints lived and died would give them any more of a spiritual understanding than being at home does. The metaphor of pilgrimage for the Christian life works because we are never really to be at home in our world. We are to witness to how much more God wants for the world and for us. Even living in this strange paradox, we can take heart that God is always sustaining us and that God has more planned for us than the difficulties and even the joys of our transitory life:

Since, Lord, Thou dost defend
Us with Thy Spirit,
We know we at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies flee away!
I’ll fear not what men say,
I’ll labor night and day
To be a pilgrim.

This understanding that what pilgrims (and Christians) do on earth is to prepare for eternal life with God may be difficult for modern and post-modern people who have been living in a world so different than Bunyan’s.We tend to think we are fixing what’s wrong in God’s world. We are not. Instead we are trying to live in God’s world in God’s way, and that entails some sacrifice and some suffering. It means giving up some power and some comfort so that all creatures may live in God’s world as God intended them to. We will have fun adventures on pilgrimage, but I pray that the adventure will continue in our work for God’s love and justice when we return.

Most of us do not suffer the same physical and emotional trials for our faith that John Bunyan did; he wrote his Pilgrim’s Progress from jail, after all. Yet we do have choices to make in our lives that require commitment to the way of Jesus. We do have to decide whether or not we will fight against the “evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” (BCP p. 302), and whether we will “follow [Jesus] and obey him as Lord” (BCP p. 303) every day of our lives as baptized people. Our young people have been baptized into this life, as have we, and we take them on pilgrimage for the same reasons that Christian people have always gone on pilgrimage: to leave our security behind, put our trust in God, and seek the strengthening prayers of the saints who have gone before us. Traditionally this has involved cathedrals, churches and other holy sites. We are going into the holy wilderness with Jesus, and I hope those in the community of saints at home will pray for us and journey with us, perhaps singing the old pilgrim hymn.