What’s the difference between a pilgrim and a tourist? For a time I struggled with exploring this difference. Innately I knew that when I was exploring the Canterbury Cathedral in England – visiting Thomas Becket’s murder site, walking up to the altar, and even lighting candles – I was a tourist. However, only days later, when I stepped out of a bus onto the streets of Haworth, the home of Emily, Charlotte, and Anne Bronte, I knew that I was on a pilgrimage. I had very different relationships to the stories that drew me to both places. One was to gain knowledge and the other to encounter the place of a well-loved novel. On a pilgrimage, a significant, personal connection to the place and its related stories motivates the travel. In contrast, the intention of tourists to see the sites as other and outside of themselves often keeps the journey on a recreational level.
This difference has something to say about the way we travel, but also the way we live our faith. In the book, The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today N. T. Wright speaks directly to this idea. While leading a group through the Holy Land, he reflects on how the stories, theology and place merge to bring faith to life. The essence of pilgrimage especially comes to the forefront upon entering Jerusalem.
As Jesus heads to Jerusalem – and we follow in his steps whether in Jerusalem walking the via dolorosa, in church as we participate in worship services, in our homes reading the Bible, or in the community serving others – this is not a simple journey to revel in the upcoming passover holiday and see some sites along the way. It was and is a journey into the very midst of God. Wright explores how the “The road to Jerusalem stands for the deeply inviting, yet deeply threatening, journey into the presence of the one true God, where all is known and all is unknown, where all is asked and all is promised” (64). This pathway requires listening, sacrifice, time, questions, and trust on the part of the pilgrim as we enter the story. It’s possible to stand afar and watch as a tourist, but if you’re truly on the journey, you’re in the midst of the mess interacting with the reality of the people and situations along the way.
As Jesus’ journey continues to the garden of Gethsemane the story becomes more intense. Jesus does not skip over this place of profound suffering. He could have gone to another location, kept walking out of Jerusalem, knowing he was pursued. He could have changed his teaching to be more in line with what people wanted. He could have even called down legions of angels to fight. Instead he stayed, prayed, sweated. He remained with God in the pain of suffering. This is pilgrimage. Meeting the difficulties of the place and story head on. Can we do any less?
So what does this mean for our walk today. Those of us who have not been to the Holy Land are still on a journey of following Jesus. As we become more enmeshed in God’s story, we go to the places that are uncomfortable, ask the questions of which we don’t know the answers or know we won’t like the answers, and seek God deeply. Following Jesus’ path from his final meal with the disciples, to the garden and eventually the cross and tomb, where do you find yourself? Are you a pilgrim or a tourist on this Holy Week journey?