THE BLOG
03/25/2014 04:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2014

How Pilgrimage Teaches Us About Lent

For Christians, Lent is a season that is almost synonymous with the word "journey". In preparation for Easter, for 40 days, many people choose either to give up something, as Jesus did when he practiced fasting in the wilderness, or to re-focus on a Christian spiritual practice with a renewed sense of purpose. Whether one relinquishes something favored or adopts new habits, such activity is meant to lead people to remember the pattern of the Last Supper that prefigures an act of Godly love, the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross, culminating in the celebration of the divine resurrection of Christ.

While I am usually drawn either to surrender or take on new during Lent, my attention this year is on the high incidence of traveling metaphors commonly used by writers, speakers, pastors, and priests alike, when describing Lent. The intent of using this language is to assist believers in focusing on the progress or process of transformation in this hallowed season. As I read and hear from religious leaders, some of my favorite ways of traversing over the 40-day period of Lent is as follows: one goes on a mysterious journey as one follows Jesus; Lent is a sacred pilgrimage into the desert of our lives accompanied by Christ's spirit. Or it is a solemn trek into an unknown land requiring us to rely upon the Spirit to give us strength in our time of praying and fasting. Other teachers talk of wandering on the road of temptation and forgiveness, or maybe a trail of remembrances, reflecting upon what Jesus has done and is doing for us. A few seek to be on a quest for a deeper understanding of the mystery of forgiveness as we make our way along a pathway toward more meaningful faith, one step at a time.

Such use of metaphors is fascinating, because this language is so far removed from our contemporary Christian experience in this modern age. This is not a condemnation as much as it is observation: in our contemporary age more people will choose to drive, bike, ride a horse, fly, paddle, or if possible select Star Trek's transporter, as a way of moving from point A to point B. The purpose is to find the most comfortable and convenient way to travel over the distance in the quickest period of time. The journey is not the point; being at our destination is.
But when we use the convenience of modern modes of transportation, we live lives largely detached not only from the land, water, fire, and air that is the stuff of our lives, but also from the engagement of our minds, bodies and spirits. In a sedentary manner we often travel through a neighborhood by opening Google Maps to tell us the most expedient passage. Then we read books, see movies, and listen to music that can take us to faraway lands. But until the last two hundred years -- thanks to marvelous inventions like bicycles, trains, powered steamers and ships, and finally cars, buses, and planes -- travel was never easy. More than a walk in the woods or a jaunt through one's neighborhood, to move great distances was an arduous challenge to ordinary capacities, because a journey over considerable distances involved one's mind, body, and spirit.

And what does this have to do with faith and Lent? While fewer people these days choose to peregrinate by foot, fewer people can envision the journey of faith -- language commonly used during Lent -- as an act of not only mind and spirit, but also body. In a sense, our discipleship today -- which is primarily in the form of teaching and preaching, reading and writing -- echoes how we travel today: it too is largely an act of mind and spirit, relegating the body to being merely a vessel to carry what is deemed essential to our daily existence.

In attempting to find a way of entering and sojourning anew in this season of Lent, along with daily devotions and exercising our intellectual life, our fasting as part of a spiritual habit of life, consider going on an actual pilgrimage by foot for over a mile or two and actually walking. The grounding of Lent as a walking pilgrimage is symbolically connected with "40," which is not only attached to Jesus wandering in the wilderness, but also Elijah's pilgrimage to Mt. Horeb, and Moses leading the people in the Sinai wilderness. All of these were intentional walking pilgrimages. People's feet hurt from walking on the rough ground; blisters appeared when sandal straps rubbed on bare feet; backs ached from carrying satchels of one's clothing and supplies for daily life; and disease spread quickly among people when one's body, mind, and spirit were worn down from the tedium of walking. By walking, we learn what it literally means to walk in the footsteps of those who know the trail better than we do, or the peril and thrill of charting a new path of faith when walking in a forest. We learn to walk as a community of care and faith, to support those who are most weary, and what it means to be a wounded healer in tending to someone else's blisters when they tend to ours. We experience the challenge of walking with and being with each other, accompanied by the Spirit And at end of day we will have gained insight into a simple, beautiful act of hospitality as we receive a cup of water and daily bread, an echo of the Lord's Prayer.

The late Bros. Roger of the Taize community talked about Jesus being the Pilgrim God. A way for us to be in touch with the Pilgrim God in and beyond Lent is not as daunting as it might seem but quite simple: go on a one day or two day walk that pushes you beyond your comfort zone, maybe 10 miles each day, reciting a Psalm or prayer along the way some weekend with a family member or friend. Or consider an intentional pilgrimage, like walking St. Cuthbert's Way, which I'm leading with the School of the Pilgrim (www.schoolofthepilgrim.com) from May 24-31, 2014, walking 65 miles between Melrose Abbey, Scotland and Lindisfarne, England. Jesus invites us to not only go on a metaphorical pilgrimage when extending the invitation to "Follow me" during Lent. We are invited to drop everything, and move mind, spirit and body to be on pilgrimage with the Pilgrim God.