Pilgrimage: A journey beyond the self towards God and the other

Safwat Marzouk outlines how cross-cultural experiences can be spiritual pilgrimages, and that there's grace for mistakes along the way.

The most common connotation of the word “pilgrimage” is a journey toward a sacred place.

A pilgrim goes on a long journey motivated by a yearning to receive the blessing of a place that enjoys a religious significance. A pilgrimage may be a literal trek to an actual holy place or it may take on a metaphorical force to describe one’s walk with God. Whether the journey is fared individually or within a community, whether it takes place during a holy season or in ordinary days, it reflects a longing to encounter God in a new way by engraving oneself in a spiritual tradition. The yearning and the longing may be ignited by an invitation, out of habit or duty or in response to a crisis. Either way, a pilgrimage essentially is about moving beyond the self towards God and moving beyond the self towards something bigger than one’s familiar world.

A pilgrimage is about going on a journey to come to terms with experiences of otherness and estrangement. Indeed, a possible etymology of the word “pilgrimage” indicates a sense of foreignness, being a stranger and coming from afar or beyond. Hence, the word “pilgrim” has become associated with some migrant communities. A pilgrimage is a journey in which those who have been treated as an outsider find a new home in God and a new home in an old tradition that they were told they are not part of, and now they find new ways to embrace it and be embraced by it. A pilgrimage is a journey in which those who have always assumed to be the insiders and the guardians of the tradition step out of their zone of comfort to enter a new territory that God sanctifies by breaking walls and boundaries.

It’s true that one might travel a long way to discern how God is revealed anew in the lives of communities who live far away. But a pilgrimage may take place in the most familiar places by looking around to encounter God’s work in the lives of those who are taken for granted or have been forgotten or marginalized. A sibling in the church, a colleague at work, a neighbor in the neighborhood with whom one had little meaningful interaction could very well be the pilgrimage destination that we seek. Equally possible, we might be the pilgrimage destination that others yearn for. We are either too busy, too afraid or too self-absorbed that we don’t allow them to be a blessing to us. A pilgrimage, thus, is about mutual giving and receiving. It is about a mutual transformation that results from encountering how God is at work in the life of the other. Every step taken on this voyage anticipates transformation as the pilgrim moves away from a zone of comfort and enters into an unfamiliar space.

Encountering God with and through the other requires the courage to be vulnerable, to express the need for those who are different from us. Building relationships with those who are different does not require mastery of the skills of cross-cultural relationships, but it requires a genuine curiosity to know the other and the openness to be known by them. One should not be oblivious to cultural differences, but one also should not be too afraid to make mistakes to the point of shying away from reaching out to others. Honest mistakes will happen, but seeking understanding, offering apologies and extending grace is capable of transforming uncharted relationships, a new holy ground through which God transforms the culture of fear and hatred. Go on a pilgrimage in your church, your work or your neighborhood. Allow God to reveal Godself anew as you build deep relationships with people who are different from you.