The topic of pilgrimage is a complex one, and one close to my heart. My life’s journey has thus far been a pilgrimage, a searching after a connection with God. I have for almost all my life been an active Christian and I have “journeyed through” the Catholic, Anabaptist, Restoration and Pentecostal traditions. In the end, I am a Christian – denominational tags meaning little to me.
This journey has also taken me through “actual” pilgrimages. A pilgrimage is a journey of spiritual or religious significance, usually to a site associated with figures or events of faith in the past. It is not a holiday (British usage) or vacation, as it is not meant for leisure or recreation, but for contemplation and spiritual revival. There is an old English word – Stowe – that can be associated with this. It means “meeting place” or “special place,” and pilgrimage sites are often both of these.
The Sikh religious leader – Nanak – was against ritual pilgrimage. He had observed people making obligatory ritual pilgrimages and saw that they often were “ticking the boxes,” as we would say, so lost any spiritual benefit. Here I can agree with him. I have been to sites of religious significance, and seen the tourists, the ritualists, and the true pilgrims – there does seem a difference in the reactions and what is gained by the experience.
I have been to Auschwitz and seen the curious, the tourists, and historically mindful, but found it far more spiritually moving to see the reaction of those finding their roots, their losses, and feeling their humanity. I have been to Jerusalem, and trod the paths of Jesus and the prophets. This was spiritually moving to me, but incidental mistakes in my navigation took me to places which came to have greater significance. I came upon the Via Dolorosa unintentionally, but found that pathway overpowering in my own soul. I have sat and watched worshipers in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and seen simple faith. Jerusalem was and is a stowe place for me, and it is the one pilgrim badge I wear (despite being a “low churchman”).
I find wonder in spiritual places. Ancient cathedrals are not just wonderful pieces of architecture, but to me acts of faith. I often, when visiting such places, thank God for the expressions of faith which the buildings and their art are monuments of. I try to catch a feel of the millions of prayers that devout hearts have uttered in the place, and humbly add my own to the collection heard not by the stones, but by the creator of the stones themselves.
We humans strive to find something to fill the voids within us. We all have them. Some try to fill them with the temporal – money, food, alcohol, even fame – but in the end the need is spiritual. Finding the divine is the only long term fulfillment.
I hope you can find your stowe place today.