by Brett Webb-Mitchell
Cascade Books, November 2016, 220 pp.
The following article is a modified excerpt from Practicing Pilgrimage: On Being and Becoming God’s Pilgrim People, which was released in November 2016 from Cascade Books. The author is a former Resident Scholar who spent a year at the Collegeville Institute shortly after his first pilgrimage.
On my first pilgrimage to Chimayó in New Mexico, and every subsequent pilgrimage since then that involves an overnight stay, I am reminded how much pilgrimage is an act of mind, body and spirit, that involves a kind of discipline. Body, mind, and spirit work in coordination on pilgrimage, with a lot of pushing and pulling. For example, one’s mind and spirit have to at least consent to moving legs, arms, and body forward from a sitting position. The body, responding to the will of the mind and spirit takes the first nonchalant step upon the ground, usually with little ceremony. It can be a first step that starts leaving a house, or from a circle of other pilgrims who have gathered to go on pilgrimage, all done in a spirit of prayer as one fights the inner impulse to question the sanity of the pilgrim.
This trinitarian concept of the body, mind, and spirit working together in going on pilgrimage is usually left out of our perspective in terms of learning and growing in the context of a faith community like the church. For example, I am a child of the church, a veteran of Protestant Sunday schools and youth groups, worshipper in myriad churches, participant and leader in evangelical rallies, participant in many Bible studies throughout college, seminary trained in three seminaries, teacher and leader of mainline Protestant conferences and retreats, and participant on too many academic panels to name (they’re on my curriculum vitae). Without reservation, I can attest to the fact that most education in these contexts is of the mind primarily, and perhaps of the spirit as a byproduct, but rarely of the body. As a Presbyterian, an heir of the Reformed tradition, I realize that the focus on the mind and, secondly, the heart falls in line with Reformed theology.
Scholars who focus on pilgrimage and pilgrims have long understood that there is a connection between an outward bodily or physical experience of pilgrimage, and an internal, inner, or mystical experience, write anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner. Another anthropologist, Michael Sallnow, writes that a pilgrimage is a kinesthetic experience—motoric and movement-based—mapping space and charting bodily movement of the contours of the religious or Christian landscape as it rises upward from the peripheral homeland to a sacred center, such as a shrine. The body does not merely carry around the heart and mind of the pilgrim. The walking experience actually connects mind with body, along with the heart, the soul, of the pilgrim. Indeed, the Benedictine writer Joan Chittister observes that it is when the pilgrim is least prepared, when the pilgrim finds one’s self lost and unsure of the next step, that the Holy Spirit arrives and guides our unsteady feet.
Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.