Emilio Estevez's beautiful film The Way tells the story of a grieving father who completes his dead son's unfinished pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, in Spain. The journey, of course, reawakens the man's faith and revitalizes his weary soul.
The concept of pilgrimage is age old, and it is common to virtually all cultures. We think of the epic pilgrimages by Muslims to Mecca or of Buddhists to the Gangetic plains.
Pilgrimage is central too for Christians who are asked to understand themselves as "pilgrims and strangers on earth" (1 Peter 2:11), and many undertake journeys to Lourdes or the Holy Lands to connect to this wider spiritual understanding.
In Luke's Gospel, we're told that Mary and Joseph made an annual pilgrimage at Passover, and it was during one of these visits that Jesus "stayed behind in Jerusalem" (Luke 2.43) to debate with the teachers. It is safe to say that all of Christ's life, including his time in the desert, was one great pilgrimage for the salvation of us all.
Father Tom Rosica describes pilgrimage as "an essential element for being Christian. It's what happens along the way, the bonding, the connections. Even if you can't go on one . . . it's very important to keep the sense of pilgrimage alive."
But it is critical that we examine the reasons for our individual journeys. Without a sincere attempt at self-understanding, the sojourn is just entertainment. There is an old joke that tells of a man announcing, "I can't wait to make the trip to the Holy Land, climb to the top of Mount Sinai, and shout the Ten Commandments," to which his priest replies: "Why not stay home and keep them?"
In essence, a pilgrimage must be more than simple tourism. Such a journey must be an act of introspection, and an understanding of one's belief. As Frederick Buechner once said: "Religion points to that area of human experience where in one way or another man comes upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage."
It is because of the importance of pilgrimage as an enrichment of faith that St. Mary's University established a Lenten pilgrimage of its own. Designed to celebrate our acquisition of the Saint John's Bible, our pilgrimage invites travellers on a tour that celebrates ecumenism and faith journeys more widely.
In the end, all of us have the responsibility to set on our own path; but we have the wonderful gift of being able to call on a higher power to help us chart our course. As John 8.12 reminds us: "He who follows me shall not walk in darkness."
Life may feel like a marathon, but it is undertaken one step at a time, and we must cherish both the journey and the destination.
(Dr. Gerry Turcotte is president, St. Mary's University in Calgary.)