Sometime in the late 4th century, around the year A.D. 380, a “woman of means” went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. We know this because she left behind a record of her travels. So we know that people were embarking on pilgrimages to the Holy Land as early as the 4th century and quite possibly earlier than that.
People take pilgrimages for all sorts of reasons, to fulfill a promise, maybe to thank God for favors received, or as penance, or perhaps just to close the distance between themselves and God by experiencing those places connected with the life of Christ.
Many people still take pilgrimages today but imagine if they had to do so without modern transportation, no cars, buses, airplanes, luxury cruise ships, not even a bicycle. This was the reality of the medieval pilgrim. Sea travel was dangerous and ships sometimes were lost en route to their destination. They had to contend with bad food, little in the way of even enough straw to sleep on, and of course sea sickness.
On land the troubles continued. The pilgrims tended to travel in groups to protect themselves from outlaws and thieves. They often slept in open fields, courtyards, or under the colonnade of some sympathetic host.
These trials were borne, more or less happily, because they were seen as a test of faith, that suffering in this life would bring rewards in the life to come.
Life as a journey is an apt metaphor. It is the idea that at the end of your life your honors and achievements are less important than the path you took to get there. But a journey with a specific purpose becomes a quest. When the purpose or mission of a quest is spiritual in nature it becomes a pilgrimage.
Our entire life here on this world is a pilgrimage, a word that embodies adventure, journey and quest all in one. We are on the path to eternal life and our mission is to purify ourselves so that we are fit for that life and to bring with us as many people as we are able to.
When the world seems to conspire against us, when we feel that we are constantly out of sync with society, that is simply God reminding us that this is not our home. We are strangers in a strange land, just passing through. We are made for something greater than this world.
Like any journey, along the way we will experience joy and sorrow, good times and bad, exhilaration and defeat. But we can persevere through all that because we know we are not alone, we have our brothers and sisters in the faith, and we have Christ who walks beside us every step of the way. We are all on the “road to Emmaus.”
We know that God can bring good out of evil and so we have the strength to bear the blows inflicted upon us by this fallen world. In the end, Christ’s victory over this world will be ours as well.