Pilgrims and Immigrants: A People on the Way
Recently I was re-listening to an audiobook of James K. A. Smith’s On the Road with St. Augustine, and was particularly struck by the way he talks about Augustine’s use of peregrinatio to describe Christian spirituality. Peregrinatio is usually translated as “pilgrimage”, and this is indeed one of the most frequent metaphors used to talk about the Christian life. We are a people on the road, called out from among the nations. In a way few others can claim, a pilgrim whose path takes them through cities full of life and energy tangibly experiences what “in the world, not of the world” feels like: in one sense, they are present. In another, they are clearly and distinctly marked as separate, an anachronism, just passing through. The pilgrim’s experience is an enduring icon of the Christian life, one which continues to yield rich insights into our collective experience.
Smith argues, however, that what the 5th-century saint calls peregrinatio is more akin to emigration than pilgrimage. The journey of a pilgrim is a there-and-back-again, Odyssean journey. The pilgrim leaves their home to venture to some far-away holy site, be it Santiago de Compostela, Mecca, or Jerusalem. What remains once they arrive, however, is the journey home and subsequent welcome when they arrive back where they began, carrying something of their time away home with them. The journey Augustine describes, however, is not one of leaving and coming back to where we began, but of setting out for a new country, searching for a home we’ve never been to before, but where a friend promises to greet us at the door and give us rest. We are at present aliens and strangers in a foreign land, in the world, but not of it, bound for a shore beyond this veil of tears. Smith even suggests, somewhat provocatively, that the tent-city or refugee camp is a better picture of the Church than our grand cathedrals of glass and stone.
As I listened, two thoughts came to my mind simultaneously. First, that Smith is fundamentally correct: Christian spirituality is an émigré spirituality. We are like the Israelites being led through the wilderness to a promised land. My second thought was that pilgrimage is yet a constant theme of Christian spirituality as we make our way towards home. These pilgrimages sustain us on our long journey, our manna in the wilderness. In a way, every Eucharist, every time we share in the Lord’s Supper, is a kind of pilgrimage, both physically and spiritually. When we leave our homes on Sunday, when we set aside the everyday cares that occupy our minds and bodies throughout the week, we embark on a pilgrimage. We go to be reoriented towards God’s kingdom and reconstituted as God’s people.
On another level, though, each Eucharist is also a spiritual—even metaphysical—pilgrimage. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the Eucharist is most frequently referred to as “the Divine Liturgy”, a reference to the fact that the liturgy is participating in the eschatological wedding feast of the Lamb—the realized Kingdom of God and eternal reign of Christ at the end of time, the true Sabbath rest. In Orthodox theology, there is only one Eucharist. Every service at every altar around the world and throughout history is a veiled participation in that final joyous banquet. In Communion, when we lift up our hearts to the Lord, we are spiritually transported, brought to this feast, where with all the saints past and future, in heaven and on earth, we worship God and receive the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.
This transportation remains imperfect, however. The call to proclaim Christ with people of every tongue, tribe, and nation remains elusive. As we are carried to that feast, we bring with us our unresolved conflicts, enmities, prejudices, and divisions. We may harbor, consciously or not, resentments towards others in the room worshiping alongside us. The clothes on our backs, and even the bread and wine used at the altar might be tainted by economic and environmental exploitation. The great miracle of the Eucharist—its mystery, its grace, its mercy—is that God takes all of that up and, despite all of our imperfection, returns it to us as the very body and blood of the resurrected Christ, God in human flesh. The beauty of the Eucharist is that God is able to take what we have to offer, broken and imperfect as it is, and return it to us as an act of self-giving love. This is our pilgrimage: in the Eucharist, we receive a glimpse of the kingdom we’re journeying towards and sustained on the road by Christ himself, the bread which came down from heaven, our manna in this wilderness.
Every single celebration of the Lord’s supper is an imperfect pilgrimage to the throne of heaven itself, in which we catch a reflected and veiled glimpse of that home we’ve never been to. Therein Christ feeds us, giving us strength for our journey, reminding us of where we’re going, and then walking beside us along the way. We are pilgrims and immigrants, making our way towards our new home where we, at last, will find our rest in the one who alone can give us rest, sustained along the way by that same God who stands ready to welcome us home.