by Stephen Ingram
Practicing the Spiritual Discipline of Pilgrimage Both Here and There
Do you remember the “Wanna Get Away” Southwest Airline commercials? In youth ministry between the hectic schedule, high stress situations, and lock-ins, wanting to get away seems to be a common mantra. Getting away often comes by way of a vacation to somewhere like the beach or a cabin in the mountains. It can also come by way of an intentional time of Sabbath.
When we think of Sabbath we usually concern ourselves with rest, prayer practices, and other contemplative time with God. For many of us Sabbath is time with our families, friends, and often times of solitude. “Sabbath” is a very hot sort of buzzword across Christian circles right now. This makes complete sense with the fast pace of our society, not only physically but mentally and emotionally as well. It might be more important than ever to stop. Be still. And know. I value this time and consider it a vital part of my spirituality and my relationship with God.
Sometimes Sabbath and “wanna get away” must come together in the form of pilgrimage. It’s summertime and most youth ministers are going, going, going. Even as I write these words, I have a 130 person Senior High mission trip looming over me in just nine days…YIKES! As much as we do need to get away to relax on a beach or mountain (or sleep for two straight days after a mission trip, which I plan to do), we also need to practice the spiritual discipline of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is a unique spiritual discipline in that it connects us to God in both a physical and metaphysical way. In the Celtic Spirituality there is the belief that a veil separates heaven and earth and in some places on our earth that veil is very thin. In these places we experience the divine in whole other ways. Poet Sharlande Sledge says it in this way;
“Thin places,” the Celts call this space, /Both seen and unseen, /Where the door between the world And the next is cracked open for a moment/ And the light is not all on the other side. /God shaped space. Holy. (1)
These places are often the destinations of pilgrims and have been throughout Christian history. This practice went mainstream in Christianity after the fourth century when relic-collecting emperor Constantine began to designate sites and items as holy. Some of these places around the world include the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Notre Dame in Paris, Lourdes in France, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and Hagia Sophia in Turkey, just to name a few. These are traditional sites of pilgrimage to see or commemorate something that happened in the site’s history.
Another example is Canterbury Cathedral in England.
Pilgrims go to the place where Thomas á Beckett was murdered in the cathedral and commemorate his martyrdom. I have had the opportunity to visit many of these places and it is true, they are special. When you walk into a place like the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi and go to the simple lower chapel where the saint is buried, there is a sense of awe and wonder that I have experienced in very few instances. The only way I could respond was with simple but powerful silence. Pilgrimages to these sorts of places move and transform us with the history of the actual place as well as the history of all the followers who have trod these steps before us and will come after us.
I like to prepare for these places by first reading as much of the history as I can about the place. Knowing what to look for and why the place is significant can only add to the experience an ability to worship God in these historically “thin places.” I always make sure, even when my wife and I travel to these places together, to enter into these alone. She does the same; we experience these holy moments alone at first and then find one another and experience and process the place together. I recommend this technique when traveling with a spouse or an entire group. It allows you to be transformed by the place in two different ways.
Historically established pilgrimages are not the only way to experience God in the thin places. There are many places that not only have the historical backing of a pilgrimage spot but also are current places of worship and transformation. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two of my favorite of these places. The first is the Iona Community on the Isle of Iona in Scotland. It is a magical little island off the west coast of Scotland. It is considered one of the holiest places in all of Europe. As soon as you step off the ferry onto the shore of Iona you know that you have stepped on Holy ground. The Abbey at Iona has served as a monastic place of worship for around 1400 years. Its modern incarnation is as an intentional worship community that facilitates pilgrims from all walks of life. Some of the most amazing worship materials and prayers are coming from this community. Other comparable communities are Taize in France and L’Abri in Switzerland. One of the most amazing parts of this sort of pilgrimage is the people you will meet. Too often the historical places of pilgrimage function like tourist destinations. They tend to be places where people come and go in a day rarely interacting with each other rather than occasional conversations standing in a line. Places like Iona and Taize are actual communities where the pilgrim stays for an extended period of time with other pilgrims. For a small time these places allow you to experience people from all over the world in a monastic communal setting. It is wonderful to join with others who are there for many of the same reasons that you are. I spent my days with a Catholic group from Germany, some students from Canada, a few guys from Africa, a young woman becoming a reformed minister from Hungary, a man studying from South Korea and a young woman working at Iona from Sweden. We talked faith, politics, and life. We would eat, worship, and work together. And in the afternoons we would explore the island together hiking through the mountainous terrain knowing that while this was only a moment in time, its effect would last a lifetime.
Finally, I want to mention a third type of pilgrimage. This one does not have to be to a place that is far away or whose lore has been written about in books. I believe that God comes close in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of places. So I want to call these “personal thin places.” These are the places that, for you, are where you experience the magnificent presence of God. I have a few of these places that are very dear to me. Two of them are public and the last is private. Koinonia Farms in South Georgia was and is a hub for social justice and racial reconciliation. It is a special place of retreat and community. I go here to rest, reset, and be challenged. It is a place where God’s love is overwhelmingly present. More than once, in those pecan orchards in South Georgia, have I experienced a thin moment of both clarity and mystery. Another place for me like this is the Gethsemani Abbey in Trappist, Ky. It is a retreat center based in the Abbey where Thomas Merton was a monk and is now buried. Lastly, I love to pilgrimage to water. I know that is not a static place and that it is not specific. When I am on or by water, peaceful water, I feel like I see and hear God in new and wonderful ways. Don’t ask me why and don’t ask me how but those are thin places where I can be still and know.
I encourage you to practice all three of these types of pilgrimage if you’re able. Practice them intentionally and regularly. Schedule them like you would schedule a doctor’s check up. Make them a part of your spiritual practice and when you think that you “wanna get away” maybe it’s just the right time to find God in a thin place.
Stephen Ingram is a dad, husband, and foodie. He serves as the Director of Student Ministries at Canterbury United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Ala. He has a BA in Religion from Samford University and a Masters of Divinity from McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta. Stephen has worked as a student minister for more than 13 years and also serves as a consultant with Youth Ministry Architects. He lives in Birmingham with his wife Mary Liz and their three kids Mary Clare, Patrick, and Nora Grace.
Stephen’s book Hollow Faith: How Andy Griffith, Facebook and the American Dream Neutered the Gospel is now available from CYMT Press. He blogs at organicstudentministry.wordpress.com.
(1) Sharlande Sledge, “Thin Places.” Nonpublished http://www.explorefaith.org/mystery/mysteryThinPlaces.html
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