On Pilgrimage

July 17, 2017
Professor Stephanie Paulsell
Professor Stephanie Paulsell. Photo by Justin Knight.

Stephanie Paulsell is the Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies. On July 2, she delivered the sermon during Sunday Services at Memorial Church. Below are her remarks.


Psalm 84; Hebrews 11:8-14                                                
O send out your light and your truth,
Let them lead us
Let them lead us to your holy hill
And to your dwelling
Then we will go to your altar, O God,
O God, our exceeding joy
And we will praise you with the harp,
O God, our God.  Amen.

Chaucer once wrote that spring inspires people to go on pilgrimages. But it was in the dead of winter that my sister and I began dreaming of taking a good long walk. In her snowy neighborhood last Christmas, wrapped in our heavy coats, we began imagining unfolding our legs from beneath our desks and walking, day after day, in sacred landscapes.

We chose a pilgrimage route that began at the ruined abbey of Melrose in the Scottish borderlands and ended on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England. The route would take us through woods and hills and fields but also across an ancient pilgrim path only crossable at low tide, over the sands that separate the Holy Island from the rest of England. We wanted to put our feet in the same salty mud in which earlier pilgrims had walked. We wanted to join our prayers to theirs.

Our pilgrim route was dedicated to St. Cuthbert, a seventh-century holy man of the British Isles, known for his pastoral presence, his love of solitude, and his deep affinity with the natural world. Stories about him tend to emphasize the in-between space he occupied, between Celtic Christianity and the Christianity of Rome, between community and solitude, between the lives of humans and the lives of animals. After standing all night to pray, waist-deep in the North Sea, one such story goes, the otters followed him out of the water and breathed their warm breath on his cold feet.

Cuthbert was also a walker who loved to leave the monastery to wander from village to village in the hills and valleys, preaching and offering pastoral care. Even when he was at home on Lindisfarne, he would sometimes do his praying and psalm-singing as he walked around the island, pausing to ask people how they were getting along. Even after he died, and Vikings repeatedly attacked his monastery, the broken-hearted monks fled the Holy Island with his body and carried it around Britain for nearly a decade. Cuthbert was a saint on the move, in life and in death.


And so at the end of May, my sister and I met at Melrose Abbey to follow him. Our pilgrimage took us up and over gorse-lit hills where Cuthbert might have watched over sheep as a boy and into woods so still and quiet that it was easy to imagine him falling in love with silence there. We peered into a cave where the Lindisfarne monks might have laid his body for a time. Some days the only living creatures with whom we shared the path were sheep and cows. Other days, we experienced the sweetness of what anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner called “communitas”—the intimacy that can arise among strangers on the road, when we are all freed from the social hierarchies that structure our lives at home. But mostly, it was just my sister and me, walking side by side or single-file, talking or silent, spending more time together than we had since we were children growing up in the same house.

The world is dense with sacred places and criss-crossed in every direction by well-worn pilgrimage paths. Millions of people travel each year to Medina and Mecca, to Rome, to the river Ganges, to Jerusalem. Thousands make a circuit around the Japanese island of Shikoku to visit the eighty-eight Buddhist monasteries there and thousands more make their way along the network of pilgrimage routes of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. The small country of the Netherlands alone contains more than 800 pilgrimage sites. And that doesn’t begin to count each person’s own pilgrimage paths—the ones that lead to the house where we grew up, or the place where we first declared our love to another, or where we once sensed the elusive presence of God.

Like other religious practices, the practice of going on pilgrimage crystallizes a larger longing:  to know where we are headed and what we are looking for. From birth to death we are all on pilgrimage, although we don’t always pause to notice the sacred sites that surround us. Making a pilgrimage can remind us of the holiness of the paths we walk every day, can remind us to look around for the divine presence suffusing our familiar landscapes. Making a pilgrimage can also remind us to leave the marked path in search of the sacred, to get a little lost. For while pilgrimages have destinations, those destinations are not themselves the end of our journey. That is further off in the distance, difficult to see, obscured by all we do not know.

We can hear a pilgrim singing in the reading from Psalm 84 this morning. How lovely is your dwelling place, the pilgrim sings:  I long for it, I faint for it. Even the sparrows and the swallows can find a home there at the beautiful altars of God.

This pilgrim sings to us of whole bands of pilgrims converging on Zion, traveling on roads that are not only beneath their feet but in their hearts. They get stronger and stronger with every mile. Water springs from the earth where they pass; they renew the land itself with their desire. When we get there, the pilgrim sings hopefully, we are going to see God.

But in the midst of all of this vigorous striding across valleys and highways, the pilgrim introduces the possibility that this pilgrimage might not lead all the way into the presence of the glory of God. Possibly, the pilgrim will end up at the threshold, neither wholly inside nor wholly outside. If so, the pilgrim won’t complain. “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God,” the pilgrim sings, “than live in the tents of wickedness.” Even as the pilgrim longs to arrive in the courts of the Lord, the pilgrim also acknowledges that the pilgrim trail may lead not to a place of rest, but to a further threshold: a place of movement, of coming and going, of permanent quest. St. Cuthbert seemed to know this, as he journeyed to the sea in search of greater solitude, moving further and further out to islands beyond the Holy Island. But also returning now and then:  to preach and teach, to serve as bishop for a time, to care for the people who lived in the hills and valleys on the other side of the tidal path.

Abraham, who the reading from the letter to the Hebrews celebrates as the model of a faithful life, certainly knew about permanent quest. He was called by God, our reading says, to leave his home and set out for “a place that he was to receive as an inheritance.” But he never arrived in that place. He left his home and all that was familiar to him to become a stranger in the world. And he remained a stranger, a foreigner, his whole life long. He “died in faith without having received the promises,” the author of Hebrews writes. But “from a distance,” he “saw and greeted them.”

What is it Abraham saw and greeted? A land he would never get to claim? Grandchildren whose names he would not know? Maybe what Abraham saw in the distance is that his journey, his pilgrimage, didn’t stop at the boundary of his own life. Maybe what he saw was that his journey was part of a larger journey. Maybe he saw that his faithful pilgrimage, with no destination in sight, would makes the journeys of others possible.

There’s surely no one earth who knows what it means to leave home on faith, not really knowing where you are going, than the refugees moving across the world in larger and larger numbers. My sister has spent much of her life working with and for refugees, particularly the children who make it to our southern border unaccompanied. It is impossible for her to walk for days, as we did in Scotland and England, without thinking about those children and the movement of people across the world who have been displaced by violence and poverty. Imagine, she would say as we struggled up a hill, if we had to walk twenty miles today instead of ten. Imagine if there weren’t a bed waiting for us at the end of the day. Imagine if there were predators along our route. Imagine if we didn’t know how our journey would end. I watched her carry not only her own concerns on our journey, but the concerns of others that she has made her own. Her pilgrimage was a prayer, every step, and I tried to follow in the path she made.

As the current administration tries again to implement a travel ban, aimed so squarely at those who, like Abraham, have set out in faith without knowing where their journey might lead but who know they must take it, these stories remind us that we all on a journey through this world, whether we ever leave home or not. We are all part of the journey of humanity; our journey is bound up with the journeys of others in ways that are both visible and hidden. Certainly our journey is bound up with the journey of our faith communities. Certainly it is bound up with the journey of our nation. As a nation, we are in unfamiliar territory. Where are we going? What are we looking for?

In my summer school class, we just read The Quest of the Holy Grail, in which the knights of King Arthur’s round table are called to go out into the world to seek a holy object with the power to heal the land. There is no map for this quest, and no sure path to follow. In fact the knights go out of their way to avoid any well-marked paths, launching themselves into the most trackless parts of the forest in the hopes of encountering an adventure. Because an adventure will present them with a choice—a moral choice—and if they choose well, then the next part of their journey will unfold. Not the whole thing, but the next little bit. And that’s how the successful knights move toward their goal:  little by little, adventure by adventure, choice by choice, learning as they go to choose mercy for their enemies, sacrifice on behalf of strangers, and courage to stand up for the vulnerable.

St. Cuthbert’s Way is very well marked, but my sister and I did occasionally get lost. We’d get to talking and miss a sign and have to stop and figure out where we were. The psalmist sings of pilgrims navigating by the maps that are written on their hearts. Our resources were less mystical:  we had a map of the trail and a book that described it, and we usually needed both to get us back on track. My sister would unfold the map and try to locate where we might be. I would read from the descriptions in the book, and we’d compare them until something clicked—until we realized we had walked through the wrong gate or skirted around a stand of trees that we should have entered.

This is how we are going to have to navigate through the travel bans and health care bills and border walls and voter suppression, my sister said as she wrestled with our map, trying to unfold it on her knees. We’re going to have to stop and consult everything we have, every time. We’re going to need scripture and history, hymns and prayers, the wisdom of communities and of each other, and a vision of where we should be heading. Our choices about which way to turn, she said, are really going to matter.

On the seventh day of our pilgrimage, we reached the sea and saw the Holy Island across the water, with dunes at one end and the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory at the other. Tall poles marked out the ancient pilgrim’s path through the ocean and two refuges on stilts waited for any pilgrims who might get stuck out there at high tide. As we waited for the tide to withdraw, a fog rolled in, obscuring the poles and the island, covering the sands with a thick mist. But we’d seen where we were going, and it filled our minds. We looked behind us hopefully. We could see some figures coming along in the distance, and we hoped they’d want to walk out onto the sands with us. We took off our shoes, and we waited.