I have recently had the opportunity to participate in two pilgrimages: one in Italy with a family I know from home, and one in Jerusalem with a group from Texas led by a priest who is a friend of mine. Since I am fast approaching the end of my time in Italy, these pilgrimages were opportunities for me to revisit, as a priest, some of the places that have made such a difference in my life.
I recall four years ago, when I spent the entire summer in Jerusalem, encountering a priest in Jerusalem who had a mixed opinion about the importance of pilgrimages. Very often, the pilgrimage experience is not much more than religious tourism: going from place to place to see and experience amazing sights, but without much attention to prayer and conversion. To the extent that a pilgrimage remains nothing more than an exotic vacation, surely its spiritual value is hindered. In this opinion he is joined by St. Gregory of Nyssa. But Gregory feels even more strongly about the issue. He condemns the entire pilgrimage mentality:
When the Lord invites the blest to their inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, He does not include a pilgrimage to Jerusalem among their good deeds; when He announces the Beatitudes, He does not name among them that sort of devotion. But as to that which neither makes us blessed nor sets us in the path to the kingdom, for what reason it should be run after, let him that is wise consider. Even if there were some profit in what they do, yet even so, those who are perfect would do best not to be eager in practicing it…(Gregory of Nyssa, On Pilgrimages.)
The fruits that pilgrims receive on a pilgrimage are, in Gregory’s opinion, available to all as a result of the sacramental life offered by the Church in all times and places. So, for him, those who seek after the graces of pilgrimage are seeking after their own vanity, ignoring the interior life available to them in all places because of the Spirit, and instead seeking after an absurd physicality in their faith, as if a historical setting can lead to future glory.
Of course, the mentality of many “pilgrimages” is even worse than what Gregory mentions. Often people are seeking nothing more than a physical experience that confirms their own pre-conceived notions of their own holiness and relationship with God. Add to that the drone of tourism – merely plodding from place to place and seeing the glory of the past through a digital viewfinder – and truly pilgrimages start to seem like a bad idea. One who visits the Holy Land and returns with nothing but photographs and sore feet has, in the thought of Gregory, not profited their soul at best, and at worst, has done serious harm. Indeed, his analysis of the situation in Jerusalem in the 4th century is not all that different from the one pilgrims find in the 21st:
Again, if the Divine grace was more abundant about Jerusalem than elsewhere, sin would not be so much the fashion among those that live there; but as it is, there is no form of uncleanness that is not perpetrated among them; rascality, adultery, theft, idolatry, poisoning, quarrelling, murder, are rife; and the last kind of evil is so excessively prevalent, that nowhere in the world are people so ready to kill each other as there; where kinsmen attack each other like wild beasts, and spill each other's blood, merely for the sake of lifeless plunder. Well, in a place where such things go on, what proof, I ask, have you of the abundance of Divine grace? (On Pilgrimages)
Here’s the problem: I am left with a paradox. Everything that Gregory is saying makes sense, and yet I just finished with two pilgrimages which I am certain redounded to the spiritual benefit of (at least some) of the pilgrims involved. The first pilgrimage involved some dear friends – a father and a son – who flew to Italy as gift for the newly-graduated high schooler. Now these men are my friends, and we could frankly have been easily justified in just having a food, wine, and photo tour of Italy, but that is not what they wanted, and it’s not what I wanted. Instead, we woke up early every morning for Mass. We broke all the rules and sang everywhere; we prayed in the holy places; and we learned and experienced the dramatic history of the coming of age of the Church in Rome and Italy. Is there no benefit, as Gregory of Nyssa would argue, to celebrating Corpus Christi in the chapel of the relic whose miracle forms the basis of the feast? Is there no benefit to celebrating Mass in the house that Francis built – a foreshadowing of the profound renewal in the entire Church that his life would provoke? Is there no benefit to praying at the tombs of martyrs who died defending the truth of the faith, especially in times such as these? I think there’s something more to it than Gregory understood.
The second pilgrimage was with a group of Texans – mostly Aggies – in the Holy Land. Much ink has been spilt over the historical veracity of the sites we today venerate as the locations in which divine mysteries occurred. One might question: if the Tomb of Christ in the Holy Sepulcher was destroyed and rebuilt – a couple of times, and if we’re not even sure it’s in the exact spot, then what is the benefit of celebrating the Mass of the Resurrection there? Even if it is the empty tomb, the operative word is empty. And yet, there is no question that Mass in the Empty Tomb changes lives. It changed mine several years ago.
I think Gregory misunderstood the purpose of the pilgrimage. It is true, objectively speaking, there is no more divine grace available in Jerusalem than there is in Walla Walla. God’s gracious gift of his own divine life was for all men at all times, and no change in latitude or longitude will amplify or diminish the availability of the gift. What changes on pilgrimage is not God, but us.
Gregory of Nyssa was not a great lover of the body. He came from a line of patristic thought that considered the image of God to rest primarily in the soul of man. The body was truly part of a human person, but it was not a very exalted part. So for Gregory, to reduce oneself to seeking after bodily experiences – which a pilgrimage is, at least on the level of geography – is to value the input of the lesser part of man’s condition more than that of his greater part.
Over time, Gregory’s own position changed. He was forced to deal with the fact of the Resurrection of the Flesh, which indicates on an objective level that God places some serious value on the body. We know that all of our information comes through the body – through the senses. We are historical creatures, and seeing the spots and context of our Christian history can help us to understand where we have been as a Church and where we are going. Pilgrimages incarnate Christianity for us. The same principle lies behind relics and physical actions such as processions and kneeling and embracing the cross on Good Friday. Gregory was defending his flock from the notion that a pilgrimage grants the pilgrim some sort of necessary grace that would be otherwise unavailable, but in the process he trampled on the notion of unnecessary grace – gratuitously given that we might be better Christians.
Pilgrimages that function as they should have a retreat-like effect on people. Removed from our normal contexts and circumstances, absent the distractions and headaches of normal life, pilgrimages give us a chance to give unfettered attention to God and his Church. I do lament that, with increased mobility of communications, too often pilgrimages today are not the escape they should be, and to the extent that we remain “wired” while journeying to God, we rise with a tether on our foot, neglecting the higher things for the lower, which is precisely Gregory’s criticism.
I do know this: pilgrimages in Italy and to the Holy Land have changed my life. Could God have given me that grace in other ways? Without question, yes. But was I ready to accept it? No. And so I thank God for pilgrimages, and especially for the two I recently had the pleasure to accompany. I pray that the pilgrims I met will be changed by their experiences and be enriched as Christians by their new perspective.