Monday over Coffee: Pilgrim

Need a Word of Encouragement?


With summer here and the pandemic increasingly receding into our shared past, it’s my hope we all have a chance in the near future for a vacation. Everyone needs a break, a respite, a time to get away—to somewhere.


David Whyte is an Irish writer. He’s written nine or ten volumes of poetry in which he frequently explores variations on the theme of travel, often using the metaphor of ‘journey’ to illumine matters of faith and spirituality. In a recent interview, Whyte distinguished between two separate approaches we can take to going out into the world. Depending on one’s circumstance, one’s destination, and possibly one’s companions, one might approach a trip as a tourist or—as a pilgrim. 

Whyte’s poem called Santiago for instance offers wisdom for an imaginary traveler who’s set out along the Camino de Santiago, or as it’s known in English, the Way of St. James. This ancient pilgrimage was one of the most important journeys a Christian could take in the Middle Ages. Its route runs across Spain for hundreds of miles eventually leading to the shrine of Saint James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in the northwestern part of the country. Many modern day travelers still hike the Camino—some on vacation simply as tourists, others as pilgrims searching to expand their souls along its arduous path. If you’re interested in more about this pilgrimage in particular, I highly recommend a powerful film about a father and his son written and directed by Emilio Estevez, starring his own father, Martin Sheen, entitled, “The Way.” 

While tourists and pilgrims are in some sense both merely moving through the terrain or sky before them, there’s a profound difference in the posture of their spirits. Whyte characterizes the tourism mindset as one of forgetting, of getting lost in the delight of a pleasant locale. He notes that while there's certainly a need and a place for that in our lives, the pilgrim’s approach is very different. The pilgrim is beckoned to a particular place and wants to change his or her present circumstances. In setting out for the destination, the pilgrim begins to move into the very idea instilled in the place to which he or she is going. The pilgrim is in fact as interested in this part of the journey as in the upcoming arrival itself. The pilgrim’s goal is not just to experience the trip, but to be changed by the trip. 

Whyte goes so far as to say that no one truly survives a real pilgrimage. Indeed, it changes them into a different person. Such travel is meant to change us like this. As you’ll recall if you’ve seen “The Way,” an authentic pilgrimage transforms the way a person sees the world. The pilgrim is stirred to change by their traveling companions and by those they meet along the way. Moving farther down the road also has a way of encouraging the pilgrim to reckon with their past. Finally, as the pilgrim grows closer and closer to the destination and touches the place itself, it is somehow incarnated into their life. It changes their soul. 

These summer months will take us to many different places. Wherever you may go—whether east or west, north or south—to an actual pilgrimage site or to the beach or to Disney World, give some thought to your approach and bring a new depth of attention to your travels. Remember, they are meant to change you. Whether you’re headed to a sports tournament with your son or, as the summer draws to a close in a few months, taking your daughter off to college for the first time, enter both your journey and your destination in a deeper way. Be a pilgrim—fully present to place and time and with those with whom you go.

And even if you’re not going anywhere at all this summer, God stands ready to change you with this summer journey as well if you’re up for it. Just as the poet tells us, we don’t survive a true pilgrimage; the person who brings that pilgrimage mindset to her encounters with God in worship, or to his conversations with God in daily prayer—they don’t survive unchanged either. Or at least they’re not supposed to. That is to say, the very purpose of our faith is to consistently change us, expanding our capacity for grace, devotion, and love.

So whether in the mountains or at sea, whether in the country or in the city, whether simply at home or in homecoming with your church, enter this season of summer with intentionality, with purpose, inhabiting the journey itself all the way through. 

For we are all pilgrims.



Help me on The Way. 


Greg Funderburk

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