Tourists, Travelers, and Pilgrims

Too often, we travel as tourists, bringing the comforts of home along with us. Tourists are known for their excess baggage. You can easily spot a group of tourists. They travel in tightly closed groups, surrounded by their own language, tastes in food, and culture. They prefer to keep foreign lands and peoples at a safe distance, touring in a hermetically sealed bubble of the cruise ship or tour bus. Like bird watchers on an Audubon outing, they maintain a safe, sheltered distance and observe through their own presuppositional lenses, content to collect souvenirs and selfies.

Travelers are a different breed. They take the time to study a place, its people, language, and customs. Travelers seek more than sights and souvenirs; they seek experiences. Travelers leave the safe confines of the hotel to venture into the streets and alleys of the city. They eat where the locals eat; they avoid anything specifically geared for “tourists.” They are quite happy never to hear their own language. They blend in. There are no Hawaiian shirts or Bermuda shorts among travelers, except in tropical climates. Travelers are more inclined to reach out with phrases of a foreign tongue they do not know. They are willing to risk the after-effects of a sketchy meal in the relentless pursuit of new experiences. Like traveler Anthony Bourdain, they are always “hungry for more.” I try to be a traveler rather than a tourist whenever possible.

Pilgrims are neither tourists or travelers. Pilgrims follow a distant call to leave home and walk a less traveled road or maybe no road at all. Pilgrims do not collect sights, souvenirs, or experiences; they are in search of meaning and self-understanding. Their road may be the Camino de Santiago, the Pacific Crest Trail, a week of solitude at a local monastery, or some obscure road known only them. Their destination is incidental; the journey is the point. A pilgrim may be sitting next to you on the bus, and you likely would not know it. Pilgrims set out with absolutely no idea as to what the journey entails, where it will lead, or how it will end. They bring no itinerary, no expectations, no ambitions, no measurable goals or desired outcomes.

I fear we approach the Scriptures more in the way of gawking tourists or sophisticated travelers than spiritual pilgrims. Like tourists, we take in a few sights and shop for souvenir proof texts to confirm our cherished beliefs and use against unbelieving relatives. Reclining in our easy chairs, we are safe and secure from any meaningful encounter with God.

Some may venture more deeply into the Scriptures as seasoned travelers, carrying a heavy load of scholarly tools as they “dig deeply” into sacred text like anthropologists at an archaeological site. I recall the heady days of seminary in the depths of the library’s basement, huddled studiously over a dozen books scattered on the table, one of which may have been a Bible.

More often than not, Bible study is a study of everything but the Scriptures – notes, commentaries, and other people’s notions as to what the Bible says. Biblical tourism. While we may grow in our knowledge of text, culture, and context – and these are not to be despised – we return from our travels unchanged by what we have seen and heard. We ate and drank with the locals, and then checked it off as another experience for our spiritual bucket list in pursuit of a “balanced life.”

Pilgrim reading of the Scriptures brings nothing but a desire to hear and be changed by what we have heard. Pilgrim readers leave behind the cozy confines of 21st century modern life and walk the dusty roads of 1st century Rome and the wilderness paths of ancient Israel. They trek through the wilderness with Moses, battle alongside Gideon, sit with Ezekiel and the exiles, walk with Jesus on the Emmaus Road, visit Paul in prison, pray with John on Patmos. They leave behind their own place and time and absorb the perspectives of the Scriptures’ first preachers and hearers. They have heard Jesus’ call “Come, follow me” and embark on a journey to be changed, to be transformed in mind, come to a different way of thinking, or in Scripture terms, a metanoia, repentance.

Scripture pilgrims are “theologians” in the most proper sense of the word. They are fully absorbed in “God-words” (Theo-logoi), God’s self-revelation to us in our word forms, using the images of our everyday life – day and night, evening and morning, sea and land, rain and sunshine, seed and soil, bread and wine, shepherds and sheep, lost coins and sons. As pilgrims in the Scriptures, we leave behind the comforts of what we know to travel the path of what we cannot know by our reason or strength. We sit in silent stillness and listen to the Spirit, our Guide and Companion, as He speaks to our spirit of the Mystery beyond all telling.

This is easier said than done. We know a great deal. The body of human knowledge has grown over the millennia, exponentially so in the last four hundred years with the great scientific revolutions of astronomy, geology, biology, and physics. We know more about the workings of the world than any generation before us, but this knowledge comes at a considerable cost – the loss of childlike awe in the face of Mystery. We can measure the head of a pin to atomic accuracy, yet we scoff at the notion of myriads of angels dancing there in joy over the repentance of a sinner. Our knowledge has become background static, dulling our hearing of holy Wisdom. In knowing many things we have become foolish of the one needful thing. “The fool says in his heart, there is no God.” We have become spiritual sophomores – sophisticated fools.

These times call us to pilgrimage. Now more than ever, we need to walk the dusty paths of the Scriptures, not as casual tourists or sophisticated travelers, but as pilgrims seeking the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Our journey will not be in vain, for God’s Word never returns void; it always fills the emptiness with Light and Life. We will return to our place and people changed for the better with hearts and minds renewed in the way of metanoia – faith in Christ, love for others.

Take and read, my fellow pilgrims.