I received an email from one of the most important people in my life–an old college professor who inspired me and who had a pivotal role in taking me from a timid, shy student to a confident more self-assured young man. He still lives in Caldwell, Idaho where I attended the College of Idaho. I anticipate that I will be traveling through Caldwell sometime around July 18 or 19 on this pilgrimage. I emailed him and said, “I really, really, really want to see you when I come through.” I haven’t seen him for over 20 years. So much to catch up on!
Unfortunately, he is out of the country for the summer in Jerusalem, a regular destination for him. He wrote back and said, “THIS is the place for a spiritual pilgrimage. Next time jog through God’s city and not Caldwell.”
I hate to be the student who disagrees with his teacher, but I think my dear old professor is wrong on this. There was a time I probably would have agreed with him. Spiritual pilgrimages were reserved for one of the great holy religious sites–Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Mecca, Santiago de Compostela, and even Stonehenge. To a Jew to return to Jerusalem was to stand on the sacred ground of one’s faith. To a Christian to reach Bethlehem was to return to where the object of one’s religious devotion, namely Jesus, had its start. And to complete a pilgrimage to Mecca was the ultimate religious act for the Muslim.
Pilgrimages to holy religious sites are all about discovering the places, the events, and the ancestors of old who have shaped one’s religious identity. They are about returning to one’s religious birthplace. I don’t mean to discredit the importance of this at all. Where I believe that my beloved professor is wrong is that in this age of spiritual eclecticism and exploration, the traditional holy religious destinations only capture part of the story of one’s spiritual origins and identity.
For me, this spiritual pilgrimage is as important (actually more so) as taking a trek to Bethlehem, Jerusalem or even Geneva (a Reformed Calvinist Presbyterian pilgrimage!). I will be returning to all those places I have lived (except Wisconsin–just too far!). I will be visiting all those places that have shaped me and nurtured me. I will stop and pause, think and reflect on the people, the events, and the stories of a particular place–places that have become part of my unfolding story, places where my life has been given birth one way or another.
If my identity were solely rooted in the Christian narrative, then yes, visiting Bethlehem or Jerusalem would the ultimate pilgrimage destination. But, my identity is just as rooted in the rugged wilderness of the Rocky Mountains. My spiritual values were shaped as much by the people and education I received in San Anselmo, CA. Who I am today has its origins in Caldwell, ID and my relationship with my professor as much as in Jerusalem and my relationship with Jesus.
So, dear professor, it’s off to Caldwell I go. My only regret is that you are in Jerusalem! But both of us are where we need to be. See you next time, my friend!