I recently read Charles Foster’s book, The Sacred Journey, which, according to the back cover, is a book about calling Christians to go on a pilgrimage.
Prior to reading it, I imagined it to be a book about going on a metaphorical pilgrimage, a spiritual trip within your mind. You know…recognizing that we are all “on a journey” and how we can take certain “steps” to “progress” in our life of “following Jesus.”
But it became quickly clear to me that this is not what Foster meant at all. In his book, he calls Christians to go on a literal pilgrimage. Yes, that’s right. Getting off our butts, packing a bag (or just a change of clothes), and setting out (on foot is preferable) to go somewhere. The destination, he says, doesn’t really matter, because it’s the journey that counts. Foster’s book explains the biblical basis behind this idea, and recounts many of his own pilgrimage stories.
I kept on waiting for him to say, “Now if you can’t go on a literal pilgrimage, you can always stay home and go on a metaphorical, spiritual pilgrimage.” He got close to this in the last chapter, but he never really came out and said any such thing.
And so I became very uncomfortable with the book. I have a wife and three young kids. I have a job. I can’t go traipsing off into the wilderness just to see what happens. Sure, I may connect with God, but I may also lose my job, my house, and maybe my family. He didn’t speak about how his own wife and kids handle his frequent journeys other than to say that he leaves them behind and misses them (p. 159). And of course, he writes books as a job, so he can take that with him. If I tried to take my job with me…well, I’d get put in prison. Those of you know what I do understand what I mean.
So while I enjoyed the book, and was challenged by it, I must conclude that most of us do not have the luxury to be a nomad.
But aside from that, is what he is calling for truly biblical? Certainly it is true that the Bible is chock full of examples of nomads, pilgrimages, and journeys. Yes, Jesus and Paul moved about. Yes, followers of Jesus have nowhere to lay their head. I can’t deny it.
But it seems to me that nobody in Scripture ever went somewhere just so they could connect with God, learn something about themselves, or grow on the journey. Whenever God’s people go somewhere in Scripture, it is so they connect with people, or more specifically, to connect people with God. A biblical pilgrim is not one who embarks on a journey to find himself, find God, or visit a holy site. Rather, a biblical pilgrim is one who embarks on a journey to find others.
So our “going” must be with people in mind. Foster did bring this out somewhat. For example, he says, “The purpose is not primarily to ‘inquire,’ but to meet: the ‘wise men’ are all the people you bump into, particularly if they’re on heroin and state benefits” (p. 141). But such statements are rare. I wish he would have elaborated and emphasized this point more.
He said over and over that the destination is not what is important; it was the journey that mattered. However, he seems to have made the journey the destination. To me, the significance of the journey is not the journey itself, but the people on the journey. It is not “Where are you going?” or even “How are you going?” that matters. Rather, the real questions are “Who are you going with?” and “Who are you going to?”
And I think if you answer these questions, you will still go on pilgrimage, but it may not be to Jerusalem, Canterbury, or Rome. Instead, you may find yourself traveling to the next cubicle, the neighbor’s house, or the closest bar.