I haven’t been writing as Country Parson for a while. We were able to spend some time in Europe, with writing time devoted to keeping a daily journal of our adventures. We’re back home, a day earlier than we had planned. For reasons known only to our subconscious, my wife and I were convinced we had another day in Amsterdam, but Delta sternly informed us that we didn’t. We made the plane. But I digress.
What struck me on this trip was the reality of travel as pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is usually thought of as a trek to a holy site, a spiritual quest for a holy grail of one kind or another. The historic Camino de Santiago de Compostela (a system of trails leading to the shrine of St. James) may be the most well known pilgrimage these days. Many of us remember reading at least a portion of Canterbury Tales, the 14th century story of pilgrims on their way to Britain’s Canterbury Cathedral. Our own century is rife with church sponsored pilgrimages to the holy sites in Israel that have attracted pilgrims for millennia.
They all have a religious or spiritual purpose, but the kind of pilgrimage I have in mind is different. Travel can sometime be a form of pilgrimage without the expectation of a spiritual experience, without the goal of reaching a holy site. God’s spiritual presence comes unbidden. A sense that one has stumbled on holy ground where it was not expected to be.
I experienced some of that in our visits to the museums of Paris, a river cruise down the Seine to the Normandy beaches, and time in the museums of Amsterdam. Not unexpectedly, the great cathedrals visited along the way were breathtaking, but not spiritually uplifting. On the other hand, visits to smaller, uncrowded churches, where a worshiping community was still present, provided opportunity for quite time in prayer where God’s presence was unexpectedly and deeply felt.
Churches, as holy places consecrated by centuries of prayer, are one thing, but being overwhelmed by God’s presence in more secular settings is where pilgrimage comes in surprising ways.
It was The Good War, perhaps the only good war, but evil saturated it. The D Day beaches and American cemetery were emotionally overwhelming for nearly everyone with us. Unexpectedly, God’s Holy Spirit came as a gale of outrage over the slaughter of her children brought on by the immoral hubris of evil, and all those who served it willingly. The thousands buried here, the thousand buried elsewhere, the thousands whose bodies were never found, they were teenagers and young adults. Some who opposed them were unwilling conscripts taken from among prisoners of war captured on the Eastern Front. The villages around, destroyed, their people dead or wounded. Milton and Dante could not describe hell more vividly. There are other memorials to other battles against other evils, but this is where we were. In its aftermath the dead were cared for, the land liberated, villages rebuilt, farms again fruitful. Forces of darkness could not overcome the light. It was a sign of hope as the world teeters once more on the brink of conflict brought on by human avarice, hubris and ignorance.
For all our human weaknesses, there is a indomitable spirit in human kind, perhaps a remnant of being created in the image of God. In the extravagant glory of Chartres’ cathedral, there are faint outlines of finger labyrinths traced in the wall where the blind had found a way to experience their own version of a prayerful path to experience the light of Christ. In the village churchyard at Giverny there is a grave for seven British airmen who were shot down not far away. The villagers, bombed, hungry, scared, respectfully cared for their remains in spite of danger from all sides, and care for them still. Love, as deeds done in God’s name for strangers who come uninvited, is stronger and more enduring than evil.
In the Musee d’Orsay is an exhibit of the art of Berthe Morisot, a woman of the last half of the 19th century who was among those ushering in the age of impressionism. Her art, and recognition a century late in coming, are memorials to the courage and perseverance of talented women who were rejected, ignored and ridiculed. It’s one thing to canonize women long dead whose deeds have drifted into legend. It’s another to witness the living work of those who were present at the dawn of our own age. Coleridge said the image of God in us is most evident in our power to create something new out of our imagination, manifesting it through art. Prophecy is not limited to Hebrew scriptures and crusading preachers.
And so to the Rijksmuseum and Rembrandt. What made him the greatest of all Dutch Masters was his grasp of light, light that darkness cannot overcome. Sometimes it illuminates blessings, sometimes our brokenness. In Rembrandt, the human condition is never hidden, our attention is always drawn to questions left for us to ponder. The canon of what is holy scripture remains open –– it may contain more than printed words.
What is a pilgrimage may be more than intentional treks filled with spiritual anticipation. It may come unbidden in bits and pieces, in odd places and at odd times. Travel can get us out of our places of too much comfort, opening the door for pilgrimage to enter.