Why do Christians go on pilgrimages? Several reasons. First, to enrich our imagination. When I first went to Israel, I spent a day sitting along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. I looked across the lake to the same brown hills that Jesus would have seen. The sun was warm, and there were two fishing boats with gray sails out on the water. All at once I could imagine Jesus standing in a fishing boat, a little way out on the lake, teaching the crowds on the shore and giving them hope. Now years later, remembering that scene helps my imagination live into the Gospel Story.
Second, pilgrimages remind us that God works in specific times and places. Christianity is not an abstract philosophy...
It is a story about God bursting into people’s lives in specific times and in definite places. And changing history! I remember visiting the medieval Celtic monastery at Clonmacnoise, where St. Kieran founded a school that helped the Irish save civilization. Clonmacnoise taught thousands of Celtic people how to read and write, and it put them in touch with the Gospel Story. Going on pilgrimage to Clonmacnoise (six or eight times now) reminds me that God changes history though heroes like Kieran, in specific times and places.
Finally, pilgrimages remind us that Christian life is a journey. Often our lives seem random and without purpose. Taking time off, setting time apart to make a pilgrimage, actually moving from one place towards another – all these help us to remember that God’s time is an arrow, not an endless weary circle. Jesus is leading us through life to a definite goal, namely celebration forever in His presence. I have a friend who made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Millions have made that same journey on foot, over the last thousand years. My friend wrote a book about his pilgrimage, called The Way is Made By Walking. That long trek reminds Christians that life itself has a goal and a purpose. Every step counts!