Pilgrimages and Holy Places

The familiar Bible story of the Magi portrays the ideal pilgrimage. It is a story of a specific journey; yet it is also symbolic of our own pilgrimage and encounter with Jesus. The Magi recognized and followed the star to the newborn King. They had a guide and a goal on their journey. For us, our guide is the Holy Spirit and our goal is an encounter with the Savior. As the star led the Magi, so too does the Holy Spirit go before us until we reach the goal of our journey – Lord Jesus. When we reach our goal after an arduous journey, we share in the same joy and worship as the Magi: “They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage.” (Matthew 2.10-11)

On a spiritual pilgrimage, the time spent on the journey itself bears much spiritual fruit. Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of the newborn King – a time to prepare the heart to receive Him with humility and complete acceptance. Lent is a time to follow Christ on His way of the cross – a time to allow our hearts to join in His passion in the hope of the resurrection. A pilgrimage at any time of year is an opportunity to prepare our hearts for receiving Christ.

When our hearts are truly on the road to Christ, the Holy Spirit strengthens our faith, upholds our hope, and builds our charity. “Happy are those who find refuge in You, whose hearts are set on pilgrim roads.” (Psalms 84.6) Scripture and the Eucharist sustain us as we journey.

Our lives are also a journey, with time as the pilgrimage and heaven our goal. “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come.” (Hebrews 13.14) As we journey, it is as if we are travelling through a foreign land on this earth. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Phillipians 3.20) The Church herself is on a pilgrimage through time as the Kingdom of God is gradually coming to fruition in creation. The sum of the pilgrimages of her members is itself the pilgrimage of the Church.

For Jesus, the Temple in Jerusalem was often His destination on pilgrimage. The Temple is a holy place, like the cathedrals and shrines of our day. Holy places offer us the opportunity to experience a pilgrimage, and to encounter Jesus within the context of the holy place. At Marian shrines, we encounter Jesus united with the heart of His mother Mary. At shrines dedicated to the Saints, we encounter Jesus through the example of their holy lives and the intercession of their prayers.

Holy places are found, not only in pilgrimage destinations, but also in our local churches, our homes, and in our hearts. The Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, ever present in the Tabernacle, awaits us in silence. The journey to Mass can be a time of pilgrimage to prepare our hearts to receive Him. The place of prayer in our homes, perhaps adorned with the Cross, the Bible, and an image of the Lord Jesus, are a holy place to encounter Him in individual and family prayer. Truly, as St. Teresa of Jesus put it: “we need no wings to go in search of Him but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon Him present within us.” (Way of Perfection, 28.2) In prayer, we encounter Him within our hearts. Each prayer in itself is a pilgrimage and holy place.

This poem expresses the importance of pilgrimage and holy places in our lives of prayer.

Pilgrims

The Magi journeyed by the star:
Pilgrims, led by the Spirit’s grace,
Seeking the Lord, they came afar –
Rejoicing when they saw His face.

Their hearts were prepared on the way:
Through trials, their faith and hope held
As charity grew with each day –
In prayer and joy, their hearts excelled.

In time, our hearts sojourn onward
Towards heaven – our truest home;
Held by this hope, our hearts are spurred
To be prepared and not to roam.

Holy places call the pilgrim:
To encounter the Lord anew,
To rejoice upon greeting Him,
And receive the grace He’ll imbue.

As He dwells in our hearts by grace;
We have become a holy place.

Holy Spirit, please lead the way
Unto the Lord, our journey’s end;
Hold our hearts close, so we don’t stray;
You are our Guide, Teacher, and Friend! Amen.

References:

St Teresa Of Jesus, The Way of Perfection

Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 769, 1419, 1438, 2101, 2685, 2691

(c) Paul Buis, 2005