The School of the Pilgrim

FEBRUARY 2007: ESSAY

by Brett Webb-Mitchell

I am a Christian pilgrim.

This is an odd confession for a former seminary professor, and an ordained clergyperson in the Presbyterian Church (USA) to make. It feels even stranger to make such a claim in this modern day and age. But it is a way of being in this world as a Christian that I have come to understand as more true to our creation and calling than any other practice, metaphor, or analogy. After all, even though many Christians in the twenty-first century may come to a church to sit in a pew for worship, claiming that the church where they worship is “theirs,” first century Christians were called people of “the Way” (Acts 9:2), connoting movement and journey as part of the Christian life.

What do people today imagine when they hear these words, “a Christian pilgrim”? In talking with many people, the image from medieval woodcuts is a favorite representation, showing a wayfarer sporting a simple necklace with a scallop shell (from walking to Santiago de Compostela) hanging from it, the pilgrim leaning on a rustic wood staff, a small knapsack on the back, shaded by a broad-brimmed hat, and wearing leather sandals. Today the outfit consists of sporty sunglasses, backpack with a convenient water bottle on the side, t-shirt, shorts, camera, padded boots, and Birkenstocks for times of rest. Yet what is fascinating is that most Christian pilgrims still carry or wear a scallop shell and use a walking stick, ageless symbols of a pilgrim’s life.

This description of clothes is an apt way of describing what it means to understand that we are–and are always becoming–pilgrims as Christians today: one puts on clothes that announce to others–and remind the pilgrim as well–that one is a pilgrim, and that the Christian life is a pilgrimage. Yet I am still uncomfortable and awkward with such a designation or outfit. Pilgrim FeetSunday school classes, youth group lockins, and college devotions did not prepare me for understanding that the Christian life is a pilgrimage. And in discovering that I am a pilgrim in this Christian life, I understand that the clothes of the pilgrim are too large for me, too baggy; I have no choice but to grow into them. An analogy: I pinch the edge of my young growing son’s shoes to be sure he has room to grow into them. I too am growing into being a pilgrim. There is no smooth instant “hand in glove” fit at first. I have to grow into the clothes of the pilgrim, much like Paul writes that as Christians we are to clothe ourselves with “the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its Creator,” (Col. 3:10), thus growing into Christ as if one literally puts on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Even with such clothes, I have learned that being and becoming a pilgrim not only takes time, but that it takes other pilgrims who walk or move together without haste and without delay. Pilgrimage is not necessarily to be found in a minivan rushing along on an interstate highway, nor flying high overhead in a jet plane. Pilgrimage is a slow but deliberate move–through many places, among a variety of people–moving not only physically, but personally, communally, spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally, as we move from self-centeredness to self-abnegation; from “me” to “us.” I can be a pilgrim only because I am a member of a series of Christian communities who show me that there are many more pilgrims out there than I ever knew. The one-to-one meeting of pilgrims along the way is the Christian version of the modern ages understanding of “networking.”

Personally, this idea of the Christian-life-as-pilgrimage started out as an intellectual curiosity, became a hobby, and has subsequently transformed and become my life. I was teaching a graduate course on human development and was eager to find some language that was appropriate for a Christian understanding of growth, and I began browsing Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, sitting idly on my office bookshelf. My identification in reading these Christian pilgrims was not a dramatic, “hearing-the-voice-of-Christ” epiphany. My discovery of the act and art of pilgrimage and its accompanying gestures came through the process of conversatio: literally a conversion among a community of friends; slowly and gradually turning around towards the presence of God in life, in which we discover the person we are in Christ. Paul Wilkes writes that St. Benedict understood growth as a conversation, the process in which “each person becomes the self-constituting, good, holy, responsible person God intended him or her to be.”

An example of conversatio may be found in the very contours of the Christian-life-as-pilgrimage terrain, which is illustrated by pilgrimage narratives, travelogues, and memoirs that I have read over the years. For example, like the distraught “Pilgrim” in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, I have been stuck in modernday Sloughs of Despond, some of my own making. Like Chaucer’s pilgrims, I enjoy telling and hearing stories, even falling into the sin of pride when I try to tell the best story of all. I read Egeria’s travels and focus on the catechetical process of baptism and Eucharist as I baptized infants and participate in a community’s Taize prayers on several pilgrimages. In The Pilgrimage, Paulo Coelho’s “Petrus” is a fantastic companion to Coelho’s clumsy pilgrim: I search for someone like this in my life. Belden Lane and Annie Dillard call me to focus on the landscape, both within and outside, as I walk and travel in my car on what has become to me holy ground. Dorothy Day’s On Pilgrimage instructs me to be mindful of Christ among the people I meet on life’s pilgrimage who are oppressed, hungry, and lonely.

But reading these books was not the only impetus: I fell into the practices of Christian pilgrimage when I went on my first intentional pilgrimage under the auspices of the Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico, walking over one hundred miles with thirty-five other pilgrims to El Santuario de Chimayo, outside of Santa Fe. My fellow pilgrims taught me the movement of pilgrimage: the first step of committing oneself tobeing a pilgrim; the initial step forward on a pilgrimage; the journey itself; reaching the destination; and continuing the journey of the pilgrimlife from the actual pilgrimage.

From that first intentional pilgrimage I have gone on pilgrimage to the ancient pilgrimage site of El Cristo Negro in Esquipulas, Guatemala; to Canterbury, Lindisfarne–the Holy Isle–and Walsingham in England; and finally to St. Patrick’s Purgatory in northern Ireland, along with smaller pilgrimages around the United States. Cultural anthropologists would say I have committed a grievous sin (I think it’s the opportunity of a lifetime): I have “gone natural,” becoming the very thing that I was once objectively studying. The more I studied and read pilgrimage narratives, and visited pilgrimage sites here and abroad, the more I discovered I am a pilgrim of Christ, learning the Christian life anew. That is why I now understand that the Christian life in its totality is a pilgrimage, and that we are but the latest generation of pilgrims with Christ, inexorably moving toward God’s Realm.

Being on these pilgrimages and reading pilgrimage texts became a veritable “School of the Pilgrim,” with Christ–whom Brother Roger of Taize called the Pilgrim God–and the generation of pilgrims before us teaching contemporary Christians the way of living the Christian life as pilgrims.


…learning to be a pilgrim of Christ is itself largely improvisational.


For example, daily I have come to grow in my reliance upon the sacraments and general rituals of the Church to help negotiate my way forward on life’s pilgrimage, embodying the movement of creation and salvation as we perform gestures of the Gospel in our daily life, moving us inexorably towards the in-breaking of God’s Realm. I understand anew that the baptismal promises made over me fortynine years ago are continually refreshed as God’s grace makes itself known retrospectively time after time. At meals with family members or strangers I experience anew the transcendent yet imminent presence of God, a glimmer of what was experienced in the breaking of bread while the disciples were on the road to Emmaus. On life’s pilgrimage, these sacraments and rituals cause me to slow down in order to look carefully and patiently, leaning in closely to creation, observing and touching fleetingly the intricate, labyrinthine ways the Holy is present in all of life. Sometimes the lesson is as big as a breadbox, or huge like a trailing sign flapping behind a bi-plane flying along the North Carolina shore in summer time.On an actual pilgrimage, I am easily overwhelmed emotionally by the terrain upon which I walk. Not only do I move through and upon the land as a pilgrim, but the land moves through me and marks me. I can never forget the breath-taking beauty of desert and mountain in northern New Mexico, the holy soil and cold running mountain streams I crossed on the way to the simple brown adobe chapel in Chimayo. I am transfixed by the sight of indigenous pilgrims streaming into the white-walled Basilica in Esquipulas, Guatemala, surrounded by a thriving rainforest. In the green of England’s spring I come upon the grandeur of the sweeping ocean landscape of the monastery ruins on Lindisfarne–the Holy Isle. Because of these pilgrimages I now look around my backyard in the spring time and see with pilgrim eyes the hand of God in creation’s beauty; I am prone to stop at “view points” on scenic roadways to absorb a glimmer of God’s handiwork.

On pilgrimage, pilgrim guides showed themselves along the way. For example, when going to Chimayo my teachers were thirty-five other men and boys, ranging in age from thirteen to sixty-five. The majority spoke Spanish as a first language; some were native to New Mexico, while others claim Mexico as home. All were Catholic. From them I learned gestures that took me from surviving to thriving on a pilgrimage, mentally, physically, and spiritually. The pilgrims in Esquipulas, Guatemala told me of the wide range of personal reasons–and personal as well as financial costs–for going on pilgrimage in the first place. In England, the guides were saints long dead. With a book of the Venerable Bede in my back-pocket, I traversed the countryside, reading the stories of Oswald, St. Aidan, and St. Cuthbert as I visited the places where they ministered in the name of God. Closer to home, the living saints among us continue to teach me of God’s ways in the middle of life, providing opportunities to explore the intricacies of the Christian faith, rooted in the grace and love of God.

In the School of the Pilgrim, the training process of learning to be a pilgrim of Christ is itself largely improvisational. There is no systematic way of learning pilgrimage. For example, among the community of men walking to Chimayo, the lessons took place amid the daily, mundane banter between pilgrims while walking dusty roads together, and at night when caring for another person’s red, blistered feet. The gestured virtue of charity was rehearsed and performed by two brothers, sons of Guatemala, who gladly interpreted the stories of the pilgrims from Spanish to English so that I could understand them better. In England, I came to expect people–accompaniers of pilgrimage–to tell me about the lives of the saints after a series of “out of the blue” meetings with knowledgeable people that I could never have planned. At St. Patrick’s Purgatory, I was surprised at how much the repetition of ancient rituals taught me to see life as a pilgrimage. Once home, I continue to commit myself to the pilgrimage rituals of the Church, thus setting a framework by which I may encounter the Holy in new, unexpected, and profound ways.

Through reading numerous pilgrimage texts, and experiencing many intentional pilgrimages around the world, I am convinced that pilgrimage, as a particular Christian practice, has something to teach the Church about the greater structure of Christian life in general: the Church is a Pilgrim Church on a pilgrimage, and all the people of God are pilgrims in this life. Perhaps the pilgrims and monks of Esquipulas stated it best: “The Christ you seek you will not find unless you bring him with you.” The pilgrimage of the Christian life is not only to a particular place or to be among a certain people. It is also the growing awareness that the Christ we seek in daily life is simultaneously apart from us and already here, within and among us. From time to time we may need to go on an intentional pilgrimage to a special place, or take a journey with a group of people to a different location, in order to understand the truth that Christ is present today as our pilgrim guide in the world in which we live.

The Church, and our life together in the Church, makes up God’s School of the Pilgrim, which is founded on the revelation that we are all sojourners, pilgrims, and travelers upon this earth, wherever we may live. The outward or external pilgrimage becomes not only a metaphor of the life of the soul, but also an inward experience we live daily as we make room for the movement of the Holy Spirit within and among us. With pilgrimage as our common experience of life together in Christ’s body, we may understand ourselves to be ever changing as we journey toward God’s reign in our lives.

And that is the one constant that has prevailed in regard to the life of pilgrims throughout the ages: change. Our lives are never the same once we have been on an actual pilgrimage, and when we come to appreciate that the Christian life is one of pilgrimage we will come to see that change and growth is a constant in this life. Whether or not it was the “miracle” that was sought after in the initial interest in going on pilgrimage, a transformation does occur, and usually that dramatic change affects one’s physical, emotional, and spiritual life. Because there is a change in a person’s life, the relationships that one has with others in Christ’s body are also affected by the change, thus causing a sense of growth and movement within the greater body as we “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15).

As pilgrims, part of God’s School of the Pilgrim, we understand that each day is a new day in our knowing God’s love. As pilgrims, we live in God’s serendipitous love, no matter how mundane our work together in Christian community. We discover that our life in the Gospel story changes and is refreshed through meditation on the Word, prayer, and interactions with one another. We are open to the movement of God’s spirit in all the unexpected and surprising ways it may unfold along the pilgrim’s way.

Brett Webb-Mitchell is a writer, educator, and Presbyterian minister. He has taught at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and lectures widely on Christian pilgrimage. His latest books include Follow Me (Seabury Press, 2006), and School of the Pilgrim (W/JKP, 2007).