I’ve just returned from a two week pilgrimage, and as Americans celebrate Thanksgiving I offer the following reflections that emerge from my deep sense of gratitude and my renewed sense of the importance of hope in our new political era.

My main points can be summed up in three take-aways:

  1. It helps sometimes to get away and return to our routines with fresh awareness;
  2. The Christian practice of pilgrimage is a helpful method for this leaving-and-returning-with-new-eyes; and
  3. The saints provide challenging, confusing and nevertheless inspiring role models as we muddle our way forward in our own confusing times.
  1. Why you should take some vacation every once in a while

Does this really require explanation? Well, from the puzzled looks I received from friends before my trip, I would say so. Many of us work a lot—too much, in fact. I wrote about my own struggles to resist my workaholic tendencies for my Labor Day post, and won’t repeat here. But like many people, I find personal fulfillment in doing the best I can at my job, and to do the best I can, I often work long hours doing tedious things. In my regular routine, I struggle to create time for prayer, self-care, and quality time with my spouse. So I look forward to vacation as a time to indulge in those three important things that I don’t do often enough.

Staycations are great too, but sometimes the process of going away enables me to get into a mental space of self-reflection and prayer that I can’t do when I’m in my usual routine and surroundings. I realize it is a privilege to be able to travel away at all, and it is important to keep that front-and-center and not take it for granted. But at the same time, getting away provides me with the mental space to detach from my everyday tasks and consider the bigger questions with a greater sense of freedom. I can think of my struggles in a wider context, learning about what I take for granted and exploring other new ideas as I travel. All of us are different, but for me, disconnecting from social media and email as much as possible helps me to slow down my pace, refocus my awareness, and detach from daily routines. In my ordinary life I invest a lot of energy in online communication, and most of this is good. But election politics can fray anyone’s nerves, and a few weeks ago I realized how stressed out I was feeling while checking Facebook multiple times a day. Taking time away from social media helped me to think about my deeply held values with fresh eyes.

Finally, leaving work for a bit provides an important check on my ego. As hard as I work, it is important to remind myself that I’m part of a very capable team of people who can manage very well without me. I realize that I’m replaceable. I don’t hold my institution together; indeed I am a very small part of a very large institution. This is a good reminder in a context in which we often tell ourselves how important we are and how urgent our work is. It is good to step away sometimes and see that the world keeps spinning even when we get off the treadmill.

But not all vacations are created equal. Getaways that enable one to think more deeply about one’s identity and culture, one’s deeply held values, and discern how to best follow one’s unique vocation—these kinds of getaways are part of a long tradition of spiritual practice. Tourism is good, but pilgrimage is better.

  1. Why pilgrimage is better than tourism

The Catholic spiritual tradition has long focused on pilgrimage as a spiritual journey that can bring the pilgrim closer to God. This teleological mindset reminds us that our ultimate end is God, and our lives are journeys toward our ultimate end.

In a 1992 article for Spirituality Today, Doris Donnelly describes the differences between pilgrims and tourists, and unpacks what this can mean for contemporary Christians, both in the context of international travel and also as a metaphor for the spiritual life more broadly. Her opening paragraph captures better than I could the inner urge I feel to get away—my yearning to see the world and see my ordinary life anew upon return. It is worth quoting in whole:

“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of roots and in the kingdom of motion. Although a high level of comfort enjoins us to keep two feet on the ground near home, friends and familiar surroundings, the truth is that we are also occasionally grasped by an intense desire to forsake the security of home-base and to travel across uncharted and sometimes hazardous terrain. The kingdom of motion beckons us every so often to pack an overnight bag, to call United or Amtrak, or to ready our own cars in order to make an outward journey which responds to our interior quest toward the center we lose in the clutter of everyday living. It seems necessary to go away from the ordinary and to break ties, even if temporarily, for the recovery to happen. Only then can we be “jerked clean out of the habitual,” as Thomas Merton wrote during his Asian journey, so that we might see what we need to see and find what needs to be found.”

For me, seeing what I needed to see and finding what I needed to find required a break from Facebook, a passport, a partner with a sense of adventure, and a team of people to stay with our daughters in our absence. In many ways, tourism is my default traveling mode. For example, I am prone to over-packing and I am fluent only in English. But Donnelly names some important differences between tourism and pilgrimage, and I find that these describe well my preference for pilgrimage as a mindset superior to tourism. First, pilgrims perceive an internal dimension to pilgrimage, while tourists are concerned with the external journey alone. Second, pilgrims invest themselves, while tourists avoid personal commitment. Third, the focus for the pilgrim is to be shaped by the pilgrimage, while the tourist seeks to be untouched by his/her experience. Fourth, the pilgrim focuses not only on the destination but also on the journey itself as a space of meaning. And finally, the pilgrim seeks community along the way.

Our pilgrimage trod paths many Christian pilgrims have found meaningful for centuries: Rome, Barcelona, Valencia, Fatima. But despite the miles we traveled, I came to see the truth of what Donnelly wrote when she said:

Depth, not distance, is the goal. What is valued is not mileage on the odometer, but lived experience consonant with becoming a more fully alive human being.

Drinking cappuccino in Roma and porto in Lisboa is a good start. I see how other people’s daily lives are both different from mine and yet how we share common concerns. I realize how we are one human family, but with so many different cultures, languages, and ways of expressing truth and meaning. I learn more about the complex history of my faith tradition, including stories of sinners and saints.

My travel journal and pictures reflect my own thirst for “depth, not distance” in my recent travel. Part of our pilgrimage focused on devotions to female saints and remembrance of the strong women in the Catholic theological tradition. Many churches we visited honor Mary, the mother of Jesus. Others are dedicated to female saints. Some of the ones that were particularly meaningful to me included Basilica Santa Maria MaggioreSanta Maria degli Angeli e Martiri, Santa Maria ai Monti , Sainte-Dévote Chapel, Santa Maria del Mar, Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia, Esglesia Catedral-Basílica Metropolitana de la Asunción de Nuestra Señora de ValenciaSantuário de Fátima, and Cathedral of St. Mary the Crowned.

The combination of awe and wonder at grand architecture, appreciation of beauty through art and sculpture, and reflection on the lives of Christians who’ve gone before me nurtured my spiritual life and provided a sense of encouragement. Donnelly describes well how pilgrimage can be transformational:

Most pilgrims who undertake physical pilgrimages understand that it is their own interior incompleteness that leads them to seek contact with holy places and persons to do for them what they cannot do by themselves: to deliver them from fragmentation and effect a glimmer of wholeness which invariably opens unto God. The Wall at Jerusalem, Mecca, Bodhgaya, and Kyoto represent in other traditions what Rome, Lourdes and Canterbury do for the Christian, namely, to speak of our inner yearning to walk where the holy ones have walked, to osmose their equipoise, and to be transformed. To this, the pilgrim believes, attention must be paid.

But pilgrimage is about more than praying in pretty churches. It is the mindset of a traveler who wants to immerse oneself in local foods and music, learn about the complex history of a region, and speak with people about their daily lives. In these encounters we learn about ourselves and about the world in which we live. And we build deeper friendships with those who accompany us along the way. I reflected on politics as I read the speeches of Cicero after walking through the Roman Forum; I found myself in total amazement at the colorful fruits and vegetables in the farmer’s market; I enjoyed pizza dinner with friends in the Piazza Navona; and in the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, I reflected on the unfinished nature of the cathedral and of my own “unfinished character.” We laughed hysterically at the antics of the monkeys of Gibraltar, and over dinner in Lisbon, discussed with friends the family recipes that are meaningful to us and our favorite Thanksgiving memories. While I was certainly a tourist many times, I tried as much as possible to have the mindset of a pilgrim. As Donnelly writes:

Of no small consequence is the fact that all parts of the human being are affected in pilgrimage. The senses are heightened as pilgrims breathe the air in Bethlehem at the designated site of the birth of Jesus, or as they walk the route of the Via Dolorosa, or visit the catacombs under the city of modern Rome.

  1. The saints give us a lot to think about.

My final point is about how the saints provide strange, challenging, confusing and nevertheless inspiring role models as we muddle our way forward in our own confusing times.

Our pilgrimage took us to places where saints of the Christian tradition lived, died, or where their relics are on display today. Obviously Rome is a place where Saints Peter and Paul are honored, as are the more recently canonized St. Mother Teresa and St. John Paul II. But each time I travel to these holy sites I find myself drawn to more obscure saints in our tradition, and I find myself both amused, inspired, and puzzled by the devotions to these saints.

During our recent travels we saw relics of Saint Devote, an early martyr honored as the patron saint of Monte Carlo, and the left arm of St. Vincent Martyr, which is displayed at the same Cathedral in Valencia that also displays the Holy Grail. The tradition of saving body parts of holy people and displaying them for pilgrims is a bit bizarre. But while in between our head-scratching there was plenty of time for soul-searching. When contemplating the stone façade of the Passion at Sagrada Familia, I was drawn to the station devoted to Veronica wiping the face of Jesus, and reflected on the importance of mercy in our own times. When contemplating the icon of the patron saint of Barcelona, the virgin martyr St. Eulalia, I wondered what I would be willing to die for. And in Fatima, of course I wondered why Mary would appear to three young children tending their sheep in the countryside of Portugal to explain the importance of prayers for peace and to deliver “secrets” to the pope. But as I lit a candle and stood alongside other pilgrims in prayer that day, I felt buoyed by the faith of others around me.

Lessons Learned

Going on pilgrimage enabled me to gain perspective and nurtured my faith life. I was reminded that I worship in a global faith community. While it was impossible for me to escape the media during my pilgrimage, I saw the U.S. media from a different perspective. I also appreciated the opportunity to hear people from other countries describe their assumptions about Americans and their hopes for global solidarity in the midst of present conflicts. In an interview published in the February 9, 2010 edition of Christian Century, travel writer Rick Steves discussed the importance of travel to expand one’s worldview and challenge one’s assumptions about the right way of doing things. One point that seems particularly relevant to me now is this one:

“People have a lot of fear. The flip side of fear is understanding. When you travel to places new to you, you understand more, so you fear less. And then you can love people, as a Christian should. The less you travel, the more likely that media with a particular agenda can shape your viewpoint. Those of us who travel are a little more resilient when it comes to weathering the propaganda storms that blow constantly across the U.S. media.”

Stepping away from my daily routines gave me an opportunity to reflect on what habits in my daily life are important and must be continued, and what habits I should change. It also encouraged me to have more faith, and less fear. Now that I’m back, and my regular routines will begin again soon, I need to bring that faith into my everyday life, and nurture understanding and solidarity instead of fear. I hope that my travels have made me more resilient, less fearful, and more faith-filled. Now, more than ever, our country needs people who are resilient, faithful, and unafraid.