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.