~ Of Pilgrims and Pilgrimages ~
“You shall have a song as in the night when a holy feast is kept;
and gladness of heart, as when one sets out to the sound of the flute
to go to the mountain of the Lord, to the Rock of Israel.”
~ Isaiah 30:29
Dear Members and Friends,
Once in the streets of Oil City, my hometown, a man who looked like Gandalf asked me the way to St. Stephen’s Catholic Church. Gray robe, walking stick, grizzled beard. I told him how to get there, then asked if there was a renaissance fair in town. He gave me a long-suffering smile and said, “No, I’m a pilgrim.” St. Stephen’s is nothing all that special, just a regular bingo-and-fish-fry kind of place. I still don’t know what would draw a pilgrim to a plain old church in a struggling factory town. But then again, this whole concept of religious pilgrimages has not fared well in the Protestant world. It’s true that people in mainline circles often borrow pilgrimesque language when they refer to their “spiritual journey.” But aside from that, the notion of traveling to a sacred spot is foreign to most of us. We know about Lourdes, and Compostela, and the prologue to The Canterbury Tales. But what makes one spot any holier than another? Isn’t God in my basement laundry room as much as in Lourdes?
And yet, pilgrimage is an ancient practice, as demonstrated by the verse from Isaiah at the top of this page. And the notion of “sacred journeys” is making a comeback among Protestants. (This might be a good place to admit that I keep a “sacred places wish list,” mostly made up of European churches that I hope to visit in this lifetime.) God may be equally present in every place, but there are certain spots where that presence becomes more real to us. It’s worth our while to seek those places out.
About a year ago, Pittsburgh Presbytery decided to lead a “youth pilgrimage” to Malawi in the summer of 2019. Malawi is one of Africa’s most storied landscapes, with its broad savannahs, leafy mountains, immense silver lake, and cartoon baobabs. It was in Malawi that Henry Morton Stanley located the long-lost Scottish explorer-missionary and uttered his famous greeting, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Livingstone was the first one to take the Presbyterian faith to that country. Many faith-based hospitals, mission stations, and large churches—built in unique Scottish tropical style—remain important institutions in the life of that nation. Indeed, the church in Malawi is growing and prospering. With its rich religious history and vibrant spiritual life today, Malawi is an ideal place for church kids from Pittsburgh to go on pilgrimage. One pilgrim, my daughter Chloe Snyder, has this to say about the upcoming trip:
A group of our youth are participating in the Presbytery-wide pilgrimage to Malawi, Africa, this summer in hopes of developing relationships that transcend national borders with fellow youth in Presbyterian churches. A luncheon will be held after church on May 19th to discuss this trip, and will include an informational presentation about the pilgrimage. Children are welcome to attend. While admission and food will be provided at no cost, donations are greatly appreciated!
Stay tuned for more information about the pilgrimage. The travelers themselves will be speaking during a minute for mission on Sunday, May 5. Until then, if you were going to make a pilgrimage to some sacred place, where would it be?
In Christ’s Peace,