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Mar 01, 2016 | The Rev. Canon John Newton, IV

See Life as a Pilgrimage


In June of 2014, I took a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The moment I stepped off the plane, I felt an immediate sense that I was truly on holy ground. Jerusalem felt, as a Celtic Christian might say, like a “thin place.” The border between heaven and earth often felt blurred on my pilgrimage: as I knelt in silent prayer on Golgotha rock in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or as I walked the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa—the historic path that Jesus of Nazareth walked on the way to his crucifixion. I recall one meditative walk in particular along the Sea of Galilee that left me awestruck. I intuitively knew that I stood where Jesus, the humble carpenter’s son, began his public ministry. I was walking in the footsteps of Jesus, on holy ground. 


About a week after my pilgrimage ended, I was eager to return, as many who have had a similar experience will attest. Re-entry from a pilgrimage can feel like an unwelcome plummet from the holy to the common, and, for reasons too complex to articulate here, our mind has a strong bias against finding God in what we deem to be common.


Wadi Qelt runs west to east across the Judean Desert in the West Bank from Jerusalem to Jericho. Photo by Carol E. Barnwell

As the thrill of a New Year dies down, and as darkness, cold and routine settle, we find ourselves, yet again, being invited by the Church to the observance of a holy Lent. Lent asks us to ponder how to live every moment in the footsteps of Jesus. As I reflect on how God is inviting me to enter into Lent, I return again and again in my heart and mind to my deep soul-need for pilgrimage, not so much as something I need to take but rather as a way of life that God invites me to live.


We recall that in biblical times faithful Jews were expected to take an annual pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The meaning of Lent, however, is ultimately found in how it subversively negates this expectation. We need not go somewhere special to encounter God, for Lent reminds us that in Christ, God has taken a pilgrimage from heaven to earth to dwell with us. In other words, Jesus Christ is the Perpetual Pilgrim simply because through the power of God’s Holy Spirit the footsteps of Jesus are everywhere. 


Theologians refer to this particular divine perfection as God’s omnipresence. God’s Presence, though radically distinct from creation, nevertheless still infuses our creation right down to the tiniest atom. “Where can I flee from your presence?” the psalmist asks. “If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also” (Psalm 139: 6-7). The point being made, of course, is that we cannot flee from God’s presence for God simply is Omnipresence—not centralized in Jerusalem or a Temple or a shrine made with human hands or any other special locale that we, mere mortals, set apart and call holy. God is in every “where.” 


I still believe in the great value of taking a pilgrimage, to allot time to meditate, learn and pray in a special land we set apart as holy. But such an experience is only valuable to the extent that it awakens us to the great Gospel truth that all places are thin and that the border between heaven and earth is not as strongly demarcated as we may like. 


I have decided what I shall give up for Lent: holiness. This Lent I am a pilgrim, and I will seek the Holy One in what I am far too quick to label “common.” I will seek God in bread and wine, in the homeless beggar and in dirty dishes, in the difficult conversation I have been putting off and in the laughter of my wife and daughter. I will seek God in every “where.”


This Lent I will choose to see my life as a pilgrimage. I will know by faith that Jesus’ footsteps are everywhere and that the omnipresent God walks among us disguised. I will see all roads as the Via Dolorosa, and I will pray that the holy and the common, whether in Jerusalem or Texas, shall be to my heart one in the same. 


Newton is the Chief of Staff for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.