Everything in life bends toward change, which is why I suppose there are so many travel narratives in the Christian Bible. In fact, the world “pilgrimage” in Psalm 84 is more literally translated as “highways” or “paths”—blessed is he whose heart is set on travel. But the truth is, the travel of the pilgrims in Psalm 84 looks nothing like the travel that I’m used to. In my experience, travel is an uncomfortable business, filled with lumpy beds and exhausting days.
As we near the end of this series of devotions on pilgrimage, let’s return to where we began, on that highway to Jerusalem in Psalm 84. On that highway travelers have their hearts set on arriving in Jerusalem and worshipping in God’s holy temple. With their focus set on this story, the path they walk becomes one of refreshing springs even in the desert. When we encounter Paul in Athens, he is also following a story, a story that begins on a road to Damascus.
As we muddle our way through liminal spaces on the path to a sacred center, especially with others who also see themselves on pilgrimage, not only do we change, but so do our relationships. A unique community arises that focuses on reaching that goal more than remaining within the usual boundaries and edges of social interactions. The lure of such a community often draws people to the academy.
On a journey to a sacred center, pilgrims often leave behind known and familiar lives to step into an unfamiliar time and place. Even if they have a good image of their destination, they cannot predict what will occur along the way. In this respect, pilgrimage is essentially a time of liminality.
Towards what story are you traveling? That’s the big question of any pilgrimage. When going to Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostela the story seems clear. Pilgrims long to walk in the footsteps of Jesus or stand at the tomb of St. James, following the paths that millions have taken before to come closer to God. For centuries these and many other pilgrimage centers have held the promise of miracles because heaven and earth have met there before – the transcendent God became immanent. However, as Paul reminded the Ephesians it is not necessary to travel to a specific location for the transcendent to become immanent.