What makes a pilgrim a pilgrim? Spiritual director and poet Rebecca Cole-Turner offers this post from Florence, Italy in the midst of Holy Week. This is the first of a series of reflections she’ll share with us at Faith Forward from her pilgrimage abroad.
A midlife crisis may not be such a bad thing after all. That’s when Dante begins his Divine Comedy, lost in a “dark wood” at 35 years old:
Midway along the journey of our life,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.
~ Canto I, The Inferno, The Divine Comedy, translated by Mark Musa
My own moment of creative lostness came in 2004 when I was 53 (the new 35). Our daughters were grown. My teaching job was adjunct (in other words, temporary). I had no pets and no plants. I woke up one day realizing that nothing stood between me and the door. If I chose to go on a journey, all I had to do was lock it and leave. In short, I was truly free to be/become/do whatever it was that I hadn’t been able to pursue for the first half of my life.
This new-found freedom was a heady thing: tantalizing, invigorating, mesmerizing, intriguing, and yes, somewhat scary, too. What in the world am I going to do now? The one thing that I was committed to doing was finishing my certificate program in spiritual formation at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, which required that I go on a ten-day pilgrimage.
So I went to Italy. It was probably the fact that I stayed for five weeks that set me on my new path. Or it might have been staying for two weeks in Florence, the city that is known as the seat of the Renaissance and for inspiring renaissance in the spirits of all who journey there. Or it might have been the silent retreat at a little hermitage with two delightful Catholic Servite monks up in the Chianti hills. Or it could also have been the pilgrimage I made with people from my spiritual formation program to sacred sites in Rome, Subiaco, and Assisi.
Whatever inspired the life change, by the time I returned to the US, I was transformed. I wasn’t out of my “dark wood” yet. But I had become a pilgrim, like Dante the Pilgrim.
I know now that all of us are pilgrims. From the moment we are born to the day we die, we are all on a unique path to discovering ourselves in relationship to the Holy. But until that summer, I didn’t know it in the way I have experienced it since then. I have learned to embrace a new way of moving in this universe that is a perpetual and purposive quest for the Beloved, for the Goodness that is in all life. Whether my days take me in a new direction at home or lead me to a new country abroad, I try to set out on a path of God-discovery in all that I see and experience, in every person I meet and in all that I choose to do.
For me, pilgrimage involves a new direction, a change of heart, and a eagerness to be led in new ways and through new ideas, people and experiences by my traveling mate, Wisdom. Sometimes, my husband is with me; other times I go alone or with another friend. But always, always, the Spirit goes with me and is my constant and loving traveling companion.
So now I think of myself as simply una pellegrina errante, a meandering pilgrim, both loved and guided by the Good Shepherd.
In The Pilgrim and the Book, my friend Julia Bolton Holloway writes that the first occurrence of the word for “pilgrim” in the Bible is in Genesis 23:4, “in Abraham’s phrase, ‘strangers and pilgrims.’” Strangers and pilgrims! What a profound dichotomy! Sometimes, we travel because we are pushed out, forced to leave – divorced, disowned, disinherited. Sometimes, we travel because we are searching, seeking to find that place of spiritual wholeness that will be our true home. The challenge is to turn the forced travel of the stranger into the spiritual discovery of the pilgrim. How can I go from disruption to discovery? How can I turn mid-life exile into the path that takes me home?
The word peregrinus embraced the oppositions of exile and pilgrimage, of the profane and the sacred. Medieval pilgrims embraced this doubleness. There were those who vowed a religious pilgrimage and performed it for the love of God, being thereby an Abel. There were those who committed a crime, had been tried in ecclesiastical or secular courts and been sentenced to penitential exile, being thereby as a Cain. A Cain-like murderer could become a pilgrim, rather than be hanged . . .
So how do we exchange our running from into walking toward? If we start by being like Cain, we are running from danger, from our mistakes, from our shame and from our problems. Or maybe we are on the run because of how others have treated us. It hardly matters why we run, because it is only when we choose to slow down and stop the running from that we will be able to face it and begin to learn how to see whatever our life’s circumstances are differently. We can then begin to open ourselves to walking toward a new way of being. With God’s help, we can learn to adopt an attitude of openness to new pathways, new experiences, new people, and new spiritual disciplines for our lives.
What makes a pilgrim a pilgrim? It’s not the sandals or a walking stick or a backpack on our shoulders. It’s not even the journey or the scenery, but the ability to see with new eyes and to turn every moment into a journey.
I like the fact that we do not have to embrace any special idea of holiness or that we have to get ready to become a pilgrim: with all of our warts, with all of our problems, we come as we are into the journey. Whether we are more like a Cain or an Abel or, like most of us, somewhere in between, we can use this word to describe our moving forward with one foot in front of the other in search of the Holy in our everyday lives, wherever that path may take us.
At the moment, I am in Florence, Italy. The point of my being here is not primarily to see the artistic wonders of this great city but to see myself in a new way. It is the middle of Holy Week, and here I am wandering into the churches of this very Catholic city, so different from the Baptist churches of my childhood. How did I get here? I know the steps: Baptist to United Church of Christ to Presbyterian, and now an ever broadening search for the full richness of Christian spirituality. Florence is not the answer to any spiritual question. But I am glad I am here because God is speaking to me here, in every new chiesa or basilica, convent or monastery that I enter, and through the people I meet inside them and out on the cobblestone streets where I meander every day.
As “una pellegrina errante,” my job is to go where the Spirit takes me, observe what there is to see and who there is to meet, and ponder all of it in my heart. I am to allow the rabbi named Jesus to lead me into new knowledge and understanding and thus a larger purpose for the working out of greater compassion and love in this world.
Or, as Dante so beautifully put it over 700 years ago:
But as a wheel in perfect balance turns,
I felt my will and my desire impelled
by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
 Julia Bolton Holloway, The Pilgrim and the Book: A Study of Dante, Langland and Chaucer (Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., NY: 1992), p. 3.