History of Christian Pilgrimages

Leonard Sweet writes in this latest book So Beautiful: Divine Design for Life and the Church.

Any brief incursion into the history of Christian pilgrimages, especially in their heyday from around 1050 to 1550 and a recounting of what happened on the most popular pilgrimage routes (Holy Land, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, Canterbury) reveal five common characteristics:

  1. A deep desire for forgiveness of sins, absolution, or “papal indulgence.” There even arose “pilgrim passports” to be stamped at posts en route to prove one had made the “pilgrimage.”
  2. The expectation of healing was not uncommon.  Pilgrims lived under the sign of “Say the Word!”: Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.” (Matt 8:8)
  3. Pilgrims collected sacred relics and souvenirs, which could be anything from mummified fingers, shells, rocks, “virgin’s milk,” anything.
  4. Pilgrims formed a community of fellow travelers, as was memorialized in Chancer’s Canterbury pilgrims.  Social contacts and stories were prominent features of pilgrimages.
  5. A pilgrimage meant a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, a chance to get away, open one’s life to the unexpected. and see “the other side of the hill.”  Danger was everywhere: Moorish pirates lay in wait; some pilgrims were sold into slavery; there was the ever present threat of robbery, murder, vagabonds. pickpockets, false guides., the danger of daggers, etc.

The essence of a theology of journey that incorporates all these features of a pilgrimage can be found in the thee Hs of the Emmaus Road story: hospitality, honesty, and home.  (pages 75-76)


One Response

  1. I know modern day Christians who still go on pilgrimages for the same reasons.

    I think such journeys provide a break from the everyday and a sense of otherworldliness that opens people to receiving grace from God. For those who don’t have the opportunity to travel, how can we create such opportunities right here?

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