By Michael Gavalas
Within each of us is a heart that is longing for meaning and purpose. It’s only when we turn away from the vanities of this world, reorient ourselves toward God, and begin the struggle to draw closer to Him, that we will learn through experience the meaning and purpose of our being. For Orthodox Christians, this journey of discovery is an effort to draw ever closer to God and seek union with Him.
The concept of our being on a journey, a pilgrimage in this life, comes from the deepest roots of our faith as we see in the life of Abraham in the Old Testament. When the Lord said to Abraham, “Get out of your country, from your kindred and from your father’s house, to a land I will show you,” (Gen. 12: 1) Abraham followed and drew closer to God through perfect faith and obedience. St. Paul explains it best in Hebrews 11: 8-16:
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.
By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude—innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore.
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them,embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.”
Likewise, through faith and obedience we can move “from the impermanence and discomfort of living in tents made by man to the permanence and solace of the city built by God.” (1) Abraham’s journey began the movement of the people of God toward the restoration of mankind in the heavenly kingdom. (2)
The idea of being a sojourner continued during the earliest days of Christianity. As the second-century letter to Diognetus states, “They [Christians] dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners … their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.”(3) The early Christians understood that Christ’s resurrection from the dead had freed humanity from the chains of sin and death and opened to us the path to the heavenly Jerusalem and eternal life.
We too should see ourselves as “strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” But to reach the heavenly city we must first travel through this transitory world. As Orthodox Christians, our journey today is like that of the early Christians and includes partaking of the life and sacraments of the Church and by living an ascetic way of life. The ascetic part of our journey is a spiritual struggle that helps us tame, control, and ultimately transcend passions such as lust, avarice, and pride. It’s a struggle to overcome our ego, to deliver us from the root of all passions, self-love. Ascesis includes prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other spiritual exercises through which we learn discipline and self-control and acquire the grace of God through the Holy Spirit. It’s a struggle that leads to the purification of our heart and mind and fills us with love for God and our neighbor.
Pilgrimage can also be considered part of our ascetic efforts. While our ultimate goal is to reach the heavenly Jerusalem above, there’s great benefit in going on pilgrimage to the earthly Jerusalem below as well as other sacred sites and monasteries along the way. By going on a pilgrimage, we’re able to temporarily abandon our everyday life, separate ourselves from the world, and see things with greater clarity. We’re able to visit sacred sites and seek an encounter with the divine energies of God in the hope that we are shaped and changed by the encounter.
There are many other benefits to making pilgrimages to sacred places, especially monasteries. In Orthodox monasteries, monks live a life of asceticism and continual prayer. They live much like the earliest Christians and exemplify to the fullest the life of a sojourner and exile in this world. Pilgrimage gives us the opportunity to meet these holy people and benefit from their grace and wisdom. It also offers us the opportunity to learn more about the ascetic life, immerse ourselves in prayer, and deepen our understanding of the Orthodox faith. We also benefit from the stark contrast that we see between those living the spiritual life everyday compared to our more materially oriented life at home. Finally, the conversations and interactions with the monastics and with other pilgrims have a way of positively changing us without our realizing it.
Likewise, pilgrimage to sacred sites like Mount Tabor or the Church of the Nativity can deepen our understanding of scripture. We’re able to visualize better what we have read and heard for so many years. At some sites, we’re also able to venerate the relics of saints. And, as the Patriarch of Jerusalem explained to us on our recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, holy sites in Jerusalem and the other places where Christ lived and taught have the power to transform us. The divine energies of Christ and the power of His Resurrection are still present and can transform those of us who go with an open heart.
What follows are blog entries and videos about actual pilgrimages that we’ve experienced over the years. We hope that the words, pictures, and videos presented on our site will not only be informative but also a means of inspiration for your own pilgrimage.
1. The Orthodox Study Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 1667.
3. The Letter to Diognetus, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/diognetus-lightfoot.html