The reluctant pilgrim – Part 1

I am a reluctant pilgrim.

No, this doesn’t mean I have issues with wearing black hats with funky buckles on them for Thanksgiving celebrations. Not that I do that, with the hat and all, but that’s not my meaning.

I’m referring to the fact that I get hung up on one aspect of being a pilgrim, one that thus differentiates it ever so slightly from the general idea of meaningful travel.

Traditionally a pilgrim is one who undertakes a pilgrimage to a place of deep meaning usually related to one’s faith. 

Pilgrimages come in all shapes, sizes and religious traditions. Destinations historically involve sites deemed holy –Jerusalem, Mecca, Kumbh Mela (the Hindu pilgrimage to the Ganges river), Bodh Gaya (a sacred Buddhist site in India), Camino de Santiago (Spain), Canterbury (England), The Shrine of Our Lady of Good Success (in Quito, Ecuador) and many more.

In recent years, however, people have conducted pilgrimages to locations not inherently considered spiritual: Disney World, the National Mall, Wrigley Field, Comicon, PebbleBeach, Graceland. Whatever one’s passion, there is likely an associated destination, a place of meaning for that person.

If that’s the case, then what’s the difference between a pilgrimage and meaningful travel in general? Not much, actually, except for the one little detail about where you end up.

A traditional pilgrimage tends to involve two characteristics.

First, a pilgrimage is an intentional journey to a specific location.

Second, a pilgrimage is as much about the inner journey as the outward one.

Meaningful travel also involves intentionality and an emphasis on your interior life, but the actual destination is sometimes not as critical as with a pilgrimage.


There are times when the destination is everything. You don’t want to drive home after a long trip in the general direction of your house. And you certainly don’t want that flight from LA toHonolulu to stop halfway and call it good.

I love Craig Barnes’ metaphor of the Christian life. Barnes notes that the difference between a pilgrim and a nomad is that the former has a specific destination. In the case of the Christian, that is heaven. When we lose sight of that – when we lose our intentionality and focus – we become adrift as nomads.

In this case, sign me up as a pilgrim. Yet even with this analogy, as much as I want to one day go to heaven, I believe that eternal life isn’t only about the destination. The relationship – Who you travel with – and the journey itself matter just as much.

And that’s where the distinction comes in between a traditional pilgrimage to a specific place and meaningful travel that focuses as much on the process of getting there as on where you arrive. If the destination is everything, what allowance is there for surprise detours or side trips? The unexpected excursions off the itinerary are often the most meaningful.

There is a distinct need in our lives today for pilgrimage, journeys that connect us experientially to certain locations. But even more there is the need to apply the principles of pilgrimage to any trip, even one without a clear destination. When we travel thus, we come to agree with Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous statement:

“To travel hopefully is better than to arrive.”


P.S. If you are interested in the subject of pilgrimage, I highly recommend The Sacred Journey by Charles Foster. He does an excellent job of articulating the historic practice of pilgrimage and its value to us today.


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