Pilgrimages are one of those “Catholic things” that often puzzle our Protestant brethren.
In its most strictly Catholic meaning, a pilgrimage is a journey to a holy place, such as the places of Jesus’ life in the Holy Land or a shrine. But on a more basic level, it’s also a journey of growth.
Pilgrimage as devotion
Pilgrimages as devotions date back in the Catholic tradition from as early as the mid-3rd century. This practice echoes the Jewish one of going to the Temple in Jerusalem for the feasts of Pesach, Shavu’ot, and Sukkot as ordained in Deuteronomy 16:16-17.
Pilgrimages are a journey undertaken to honour God. Some undertake them as a penance for sins, or to ask for special blessings. My favourite definition of pilgrimage comes from St Augustine of Hippo, who said that a pilgrimage is:
a kind of self-imposed exile of the pilgrim in which he searched for God’s Truth in his wanderings while visiting the holy shrines of the Faith.
In the New Testament, we read that whenever Jesus went to pray, He removed Himself from the rest of the world, going to a separate place. The same happened when He revealed Himself to the apostles Peter, James and John–they went to the top of a mountain.
In fact, a mountain separate from other people seems almost omnipresent when there is a revelation from God. This occurs throughout the whole Bible (and Saul met God on the way to somewhere else, even if not on a mountain).
Even when we don’t get such a big theophany, there is just something special about going somewhere to meet God anew.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham
For me, that “somewhere” is, every August Bank Holiday, a little town in Norfolk called Walsingham. There, according to tradition, is the replica of the house where Mary received the visit of the Archangel Gabriel announcing to her that she was to be the mother of Jesus. Today pilgrims can visit a Victorian reconstruction of the house destroyed during the Reformation, as well as the ruins of the Medieval priory, and the original chapel where pilgrims would leave their shoes in order to walk the last mile barefoot.
It’s a humbling experience, which is why I’ve never walked the mile barefoot when others can see. (I go there as part of an organised group). It is both a small degree of suffering–which is infinitesimally small compared to the suffering of Jesus on the Cross–but also something deeply biblical.
In Exodus 3:5, Moses approaches the Burning Bush barefooted because God told him he was standing on holy ground. It is both reverent and intimate at the same time.
The House of the Annunciation
Despite the name of the shrine, which reflects the Jewish manner of honouring the mothers of kings, the place is not about Mary (who gets such a title because she was the mother of the King of Kings).
It’s about Jesus.
In the Gospel of John, we see two parallel emphases in a way that appears reverential: the emphasis on Jesus the King and on Mary the mother of Jesus. This is reminiscent of the Queen Mothers throughout the Bible–they are honoured due to their son’s status.
In Luke 1:35, in the house replicated in Walsingham, the angel said to Mary:
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. (NRSV)
The house is, therefore, a replica of the house where the Word was made flesh. If you close your eyes you can picture the scene where it all began… with Mary’s yes to God’s plan that is utterly terrifying, and the Holy Spirit filling the air.
Meeting God in the wilderness
Unlike the other time of the liturgical year when I remove myself from the world for a few days in order to encounter God more deeply (the Easter Triduum, or the last 3 days of Holy Week from the Last Supper to the Resurrection), my pilgrimage to Walsingham is a joyous occasion throughout.
Hundreds of young people gather together in Walsingham at the same time for a prayer festival. The presence of the Holy Spirit is tangible.
One of my favourite things about this is that it all happens in a tent in the wilderness. (Well, it’s the English countryside, but I am a Londoner, so that’s as wild as it gets for me).
It’s somewhere where the normal rules of propriety that we associate with church get loosened up. Nobody bats an eye lid if you approach the Burning Bush (quite literally, as we place the Eucharist–which Catholics believe is the real presence of Jesus in His body, blood, soul and divinity–on a wooden tree full of candles) barefooted, as God intended. It’s somewhere even I, a shy introvert, can raise my hands in praise and worship without being self-conscious.
This pilgrimage requires more than just worship songs and less legalism, though. I have to let go of my love of comfort to (fail to) sleep in a tent in the cold night in a field.
I also let go of comfort to sit on a floor in the cold, damp night to watch in the chapel, where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, at crazy times like 2am or dawn. In Matthew 26:40 and Mark 14:37, Jesus asked the disciples, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour?” It’s such special time of prayer when I take up this challenge to be with Him, especially when it’s hard.
For a few days, aside from the fact I know where in the field to find phone coverage, I manage not to make everything about me. I manage to encounter God more deeply, in a way that is hard to replicate in the hustle and bustle of my daily life.
That’s what I love about pilgrimages. They may sound old-fashioned. I know they’re not exactly a glamorous holiday idea (although I always manage to get good Instagram posts out of it).
But for me, pilgrimages nourish the soul like the food from Heaven nourished the Israelites in the desert.