Postmoderns like me have been fond of saying that we can worship God anywhere. We like to think of ourselves as spiritual, but not religious. We underline the truth in bold marker that God can be encountered just as much in the mountains surrounded by trees as He can be found in a church building surrounded by stained glass. These values have brought some necessary correction to the notion that you can equate spiritual health with church attendance. I also wonder if sometimes, in not wanting to over-value weekly worship and the place of church in our lives, we inadvertently under-value it.
Ancient people embraced pilgrimage to holy places as a habit of spiritual formation. I wonder what might happen if we re-embraced this idea of pilgrimage in our lives.
Every summer we make a pilgrimage of sorts to northern Wisconsin. Tim has been vacationing “up north” his entire life and I have been tagging along for all 20+ years of our marriage now. The trek up north comes with the same rituals that grow in meaning for the sheer number of times we have repeated them. Our pilgrimage up north always includes campfires, s’mores, swimming star gazing, and supper clubs. It’s inevitable that at some point we start talking about the Grade family history, we always seem to rehearse the roots while up north. That place has become important to us. It is one of those “thin places” as Celtic Christianity says, where the barrier between heaven and earth somehow seems thinner than in everyday life. The journey of going there each summer is like a family pilgrimage spanning generations now. When Tim and I were first married I didn’t really appreciate it. I was like a snooty city girl, kind of wrinkling up my nose at the humidity and mosquitoes and lack of amenities. But over time that place has shaped me and I treasure it now.
Imagine if you woke up on Sunday morning and thought of your drive to the place called church like a weekly pilgrimage. Do you know what a pilgrimage is? “Pilgrimage is journey to places where divine human encounter has taken place.” It is a journey to a place where the holiness of God has touched human beings. It is a journey to a place where people have had an encounter with God and have responded to the voice of the Lord wholeheartedly. We make pilgrimage to places to remember God and how God interacted with humans there. Of course, we do not elevate any place to the level of an idol; we do not worship the place. We worship God in the place. In certain places, we remember how God has encountered us and others there. Of course, we know God can meet us anywhere, but he chooses to meet us in places and those places become meaningful markers in our lives.
In his book A Christian Theology of Place, John Inge says,“Pilgrimage is journey to places where divine human encounter has taken place. It is journey to places where holiness has been apparent in the lives of Christian men and women who have been inspired by such an encounter and have responded to it wholeheartedly in their lives: it is travel to the dwelling places of the saints.”
That is what we do when we come to a sanctuary each week. We make a pilgrimage to a dwelling place of the saints. What a treasure!