Pilgrimage as a Path to Holiness

“God evidently loves pilgrims. For to some, like Tobias, he sent angels as guides. To others, like Abraham, he just said, ‘Arise and go’” (Catherine Doherty, Strannik, 7).

Catherine de Hueck Doherty, the foundress of Madonna House, was born and raised in Russia. Her Russian upbringing obviously had an important role in her spiritual formation, which in turn, had and continues to have an important role in Madonna House spiritual formation. The intricacies of that topic can be explored in Catherine’s many books and lectures, as well as many writings by members of the Madonna House community. This little article, on the other hand, is just a reflection on her book Strannik, which is Russian for pilgrim, and how it has helped me to better understand the pilgrimages that I love.

The subtitle of Strannik is “The Call to the Pilgrimage of the Heart” and it expresses a deeper meaning of pilgrimage that Catherine seeks, in her roundabout way, to unpack for the reader. God has placed in the heart of each human being a desire for unity, and this desire can only be satisfied by God. We may try to quench our thirst, to borrow Our Lord’s analogy used with the woman at the well, at other founts, but only Christ is the living water that wells up to eternal life (Jn. 4:1-42).

We are all called to seek true union with God. That is the pilgrimage that we all must embark upon. Many have made the mistake, according to Catherine, of thinking that life is necessarily a pilgrimage and that we are journeying toward God whether we realize it or not. She asserts, however, “We can escape this pilgrimage. We can easily forget it. We can put a screen in our heart between it and all the rest of our life. We can go after many things; we can go on pilgrimages seeking gold and silver, fame, power, and so on. But those are not really pilgrimages; they are shams” (Strannik, 15). The pilgrimage to eternal life, union with the Trinity (sobornost), is only possible through Christ. He is the key.

However, before we become true pilgrims, walking toward sobornost and inviting others to join us, Catherine says that we must first enter poustinia. Poustinia is being set apart for God. Literally, it can be a cabin where one goes to fast and pray to be purified of the things that separate us from God. Figuratively, it is entering into one’s own heart and setting it apart for God. The former assists the latter, but it is not, Catherine says, essential to poustinia that we go to an isolated cabin. Then, she says, “when the poustinia has cleansed me totally, has opened me to God and to others, when I have committed myself to God—the Lord of History, the Triune God—then I can leave all things behind and move on the pilgrimage that God has called me to” (Strannik, 18-19).

True pilgrims are easily recognized because their journey reminds others of Christ – of His Passion and His Resurrection: “They are truly pilgrims because God called them to this and because they have contemplated sobornost, in poustinia. Now they are making this rhythm of sobornost, poustinia, and strannika (pilgrimage) their way of life” (Strannik, 19). Catherine’s poustinia and strannika don’t require us to seek God in far off places. God is pursuing us, and so He offers Himself to us, most importantly, in the Sacraments, in Scripture, in our neighbours, and in the circumstances of daily life. The physical poustinia and strannika should, if they are made in the right spirit, lead to deeper union with God.

Last summer fifty pilgrims set out from Our Lady of Fatima Parish, Renfrew to spend three days on a prayerful journey to St. Ann’s, Cormac for the annual pilgrimage. Thanks to the generosity of many people, St. Ann’s “Walk the Opeongo Line” Pilgrimage was a success. There were some bumps along the way and not everything went according to plan, but that’s all part of the pilgrim experience. Catherine writes, “The pilgrim is totally open; he is not afraid of persecution. He accepts persecution because he is a follower of a persecuted God. A pilgrim is a person of pain. If he is not ready to accept pain, he cannot be a pilgrim. Pain walks with him night and day. But strangely enough, joy does too” (Strannik, 48). We began the journey seeking to deepen our relationship with God, and He took advantage of the time to teach us many lessons.