Movement is inherent in the Christian faith. The Gospel is the good news of a God who came down from heaven, traveled Galilee and Judea, and returned to the right hand of the Father after his death and resurrection. That same God sent Peter to Antioch and Paul all over the known world, to share the good news of Christ. Later generations expanded their orbits, carrying the Gospel to even more distant shores. And, like Peter and Paul, they made return trips to their spiritual home, as they venerated the places where Christ lived and died and the places where the apostles carried out their ministry and were martyred. These journeys came to be called pilgrimages, journeys undertaken to holy places for holy purposes. In the Middle Ages, the English made pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, the place of Archbishop Beckett’s martyrdom (See Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). Many also made the long journey to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, to the tomb of St. James. Those who could do so made the ultimate pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Some of those patterns were disrupted by Arab conquest of the Holy Land, others by the Reformation’s desacralizing of place, in its insistence on the primacy of the Bible as the chief location of God’s revelation. In recent decades, however, pilgrimage has found a renewed place in Christian spiritual practice. Modern pilgrimages may be less about visiting the shrine of a saint’s tomb and more concerned with the overall experience of creating an intentional and focused Christian community for a time of movement and growth in Christ. Pilgrims engage in Bible study, worship, and community building before they ever get on a bus, on these pilgrimages that might be seen as retreats on the move.
Some of us at St. John’s are at work on creating a new youth pilgrimage tradition, something we will do every three to four years as a capstone experience for our youth formation programs. A high school pilgrimage will give us something to build our programs toward, a mature, demanding, and life-giving experience that will give our older students another reason to stay engaged in youth ministry at St. John’s.
Our intended destination is Lindisfarne, called the Holy Island, off the coast of Northumbria in the North Sea. Lindisfarne was home to St. Cuthbert, a chief evangelist of the Anglo-Saxons in the north of England. We will walk 62 miles from Melrose Abbey, in Scotland, over the Eildon Hills and along the River Tweed, to the ruins of Cuthbert’s monastery on Lindisfarne, accessible by foot at low tide. Along the way, we will have opportunities to reflect on evangelism, our own spiritual practices, and the privilege we have to meet God in the beauty of his creation, in the Scriptures, and in the church. We may add trips to Durham Cathedral (where Cuthbert and Bede are buried) and Edinburgh as bookends to the journey.
A trip to the United Kingdom is expensive, to be sure. We will need to find church resources to make this pilgrimage affordable for all who want to go. Our St. John’s Endowment is likely to offer some support, as can the 2023 parish budget. Our pilgrims will also work together to raise funds for their trip, inviting the giving of the congregation at some joyful events. With one of these under our belts, subsequent pilgrimages will be easier to imagine. An adult pilgrimage to Jerusalem would be a likely future development. Pilgrimage offers St. John’s another way to answer and grow in the call of God in Christ, God who is always moving us towards the kingdom.