Tourist or Pilgrim?
By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
There are questions we answer with our lips, and there are questions we answer with our lives. On this first Sunday in Lent, may we consider a question that demands to be answered with our lives. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The question I call each of us to consider today is this: Do I live life as a pilgrim or as a tourist?
Let’s look at what each alternative means. First, the tourist. The tourist travels through life, but wants to the journey to be comfortable. The tourist wants to keep experiencing a familiar world, one that presents no threat or challenge. The food, the hotel, the language, the money should resemble what the tourist has back home. After a safe and happy trip, the tourist wishes to return with photos, souvenirs, and pleasant memories. There are many who, for a price, are willing to accommodate the expectations of the tourist.
The pilgrim also sets out on a journey, but travels in search of something outside the familiar. At its core, pilgrimage is a journey into the unknown undertaken so that something new can happen. Pilgrimage requires an act of faith, a placing of oneself in the hands of God. A pilgrim goes out searching for the holy away from the structures of everyday life. Rather than seek out what’s comfortable, the pilgrim willingly accepts discomfort and even danger. Returning home, the pilgrim often carries something back, but these reminders are secondary. The heart of pilgrimage is that the traveler returns home a changed person. [Regarding pilgrimage, see Jean Dalby Clift and Wallace B. Clift, The Archetype of Pilgrimage: Outer Action with Inner Meaning (Paulist Press, 1996) and Paul Robichaud, C.S.P., “Tourist or Pilgrim?: Rescuing the Jubilee,” America, December 18, 1999.]
Again, the question: Do I live life as a pilgrim or as a tourist?
Pilgrimages are a feature of many religions, Christianity among them. Anglican Christians go on pilgrimages to Jerusalem or Canterbury or other celebrated places. Our pilgrimage destinations include monasteries or retreat houses or Cursillo events or places up north where we find it easy to pray. The practice of pilgrimage in the literal sense is alive and well, and I commend it to you, but my major concern this morning is to offer pilgrimage as a metaphor for how we can live our lives every day. Are we simply tourists or are we pilgrims?
The tourist wants the journey to be comfortable, and the world to be familiar. I’m in a different place, says the tourist, but I want it to resemble the way it is back home. The tourist stays the same.
The pilgrim, however, travels into the unknown and welcomes it. The pilgrim wants to meet God in strange places and among strange people. The pilgrim hopes to return home a different person. There needs to be a button for the pilgrim to wear with these words from John Henry Newman: “Here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
Do I live life as a tourist or as a pilgrim?
The central event of the Old Testament is a pilgrimage. Working through Moses, God calls a bunch of oppressed, dispirited slaves out of their familiar bondage in Egypt. They risk their lives in a break for freedom. What awaits them is a desert, and the chance to worship the God of their liberation there in that desert. By leaving their predictable routines of servitude, these people place themselves in the hands of God. They follow the Holy One into the wilderness. Their exodus changes them, forms them into a people, a people made holy by the Lord.
Today’s reading from Deuteronomy recounts this story, and explains a ritual used to help later generations make it their own. The story is not only about the generation who escaped; it is about their descendants. These descendants are to claim the Exodus for themselves. They too are to live their lives not as tourists, but as pilgrims, never satisfied with what is familiar, but moving out into the unknown where God waits to meet them.
The central event of the New Testament is also a pilgrimage, and Jesus is the pilgrim. He journeys through life, through suffering and death, and returns home to God with Good Friday scars and Easter glory. He travels not as a tourist, but as a pilgrim. Jesus returns home a changed person, because all of us return home with him.
The story of his temptation proves he’s a pilgrim. No tourist goes into the desert for forty days to fast! Prompted by the Spirit, Jesus places himself in the hands of God. He trusts God enough to remain in a strange place, in strange circumstances, for a long time. He trusts God enough that the devil’s offers of food, power, and safety do not interest him. He leaves the wilderness a different person: he has been tested and found to be solid. Jesus has spent forty days intentionally outside the familiar. Now he is fit to continue his pilgrimage into the unknown, even though the horrors of desertion, torture, and death. He is ready to lead his people on their new and final Exodus.
But still, what about us? Do we try to live our lives risk-free, like tourists, or do we pick up our crosses and follow Jesus, as pilgrims?
This season of Lent offers opportunities to follow Jesus on his journey. These forty days can help us live life less as a tourist trap, and more as a pilgrimage. When Lent stretches us and takes us to unexpected places, then we become better prepared for times when life stretches and strains us and even takes us where we would rather not go. Giving up our complacency for Lent may help us do without complacency in life.
To live as a tourist is to desire only some scenery, a view fit for a post card. To live life as a pilgrim is to set our sights on a sacred place. That can mean a shrine on the other side of the earth, or opening up to the holy in our own back yard.
The tourist travels according to established paths, where the guidebooks say it’s safe to go. The pilgrim breaks out of the normal routine, and encounters holiness in the marginal and the strange.
The tourist sleeps soundly. The pilgrim has awesome dreams.
The tourist walks through life with a like-minded crowd; movement to the next location is tightly scheduled, so photos provide proof of having been there. The pilgrim joins up with eccentrics and oddballs; the Blessed One comes in unexpected moments. Proof of having been there is a new heart.
So then, do you want to live as a tourist or a pilgrim?
The choice may seem obvious, but beware! It is possible to think you’re a pilgrim, when you’re simply a religious tourist! It’s all too easy to hang around holy places, and just see the sights, collect the post cards, but close yourself to change, to transformation.
The One we follow was not afraid to live and die for us. He was not afraid to pass through strange places: his abandonment, nailing to the cross, descent to the dead, and frightening his friends when he left the tomb. Jesus did not shirk transformation at the hands of God, and we, my friends, are the fruit of his transformation. The suffering one has become our savior. His flesh and blood have become our food. Once the lone pilgrim, now Jesus is the pilgrimage path, the road we are asked to take–through Lent and through life.
Will you live as a tourist, or as a pilgrim?
Copyright 2003 The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.