Just as the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, we might say that the first step on the road to sanctity is the realization that we are in exile, strangers and sojourners, knowing somehow, someway, we belong somewhere else. Ever since Adam and Eve got themselves cast out of the Garden, we have been trying to find our way back. But an earthly paradise is no longer our home, and never really was, for God destined Man not for this world, however good it is, but for heaven, whose goodness we cannot imagine.
We are all therefore on pilgrimage in this journey we call “life,” from birth, through death, to eternal life where, as Leo XIII declared, we will truly begin to live.
It is in this light that we should look at those individual pilgrimages that form a significant part of the Church’s history and tradition, which always involve moving from a place that is pleasant, but more earthly and secular, to one that is better, that is, more heavenly and transcendent. The world is indeed good, in itself, but it is the very beauty and splendor of the “world” that can lead us astray, to becoming too comfortable and conformed to what is transitory, rather than focusing on the “one thing necessary,” in a word, God.
Each such pilgrimage is a window or sign of what this transitory life is “all about,” and helps focus, elevate, and perfect what prayers and intentions we bring along; but more of that in a moment.
Abraham’s journey to the Promised Land was perhaps the first pilgrimage. The Son of God definitively sanctified this land, and all creation, in his own “pilgrimage” from heaven to Earth. In imitation, and for intercession, Christians have since that time made their own journey to what is now the “Holy Land,” no longer to receive valleys and hills flowing with milk and honey, but to retrace the very steps of Christ, so that they might dispose themselves more readily to receive the spiritual inheritance that the Old Testament adumbrated.
The Crusades, whatever their eventual excesses and deviancies, were originally justified to protect mediaeval Christian pilgrims, harassed, to put things mildly, by the Islamic hordes who had conquered the Holy Land, claiming it as their own territory in which they could do as zthey pleased, which included robbing, ransacking, and selling into slavery untold numbers of “infidels.”
But I digress, and we must stay on course, as with a pilgrimage itself: Soon enough, a number of other pilgrimage sites arose, easier to access, closer to home, but still involving some level of hardship, even adventure. Chaucer wrote of a group of rag-tag pilgrims to the shrine of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury, destroyed in the early days of the Reformation by Henry VIII, who did not seem to relish the devotion to a “meddlesome” priest who resisted the plenipotentiary claims of Henry’s predecessor, the second who carried his name. There was the shrine to Saint James the Greater on the west coast of Spain, in the “field of stars” (Compostela), whose numerous trails beginning in the Pyrenees in the southwest of France and elsewhere, still entice numerous pilgrims, of varying degrees and types of spirituality, from agnostic svelte Swedes in spandex, to seasoned older souls trudging along in worn-out boots, lost in meditation, carrying a whole life of joys and regrets. The great shrines of Lourdes, Fatima, and Guadalupe receive millions of pilgrims every year, some curious, many beseeching, and all seeking something. Yet even a walk to a local church or shrine is a type of pilgrimage, or at least we should see it so.
Why bother? Why leave home and hearth, to sweat and toil, usually at some significant expense, to lands unknown, to reach a journey whose purpose is not comfort and pleasure, but rather a spiritual goal, often attained by some degree of suffering?
The answer, in essence, may be found in St. Thomas’s discussion of merit at the end of his consideration of the principles of the moral life in the Prima Secundae, (I-II, q. 114). Merit in the broad sense simply means the recompense or reward owed for some action: “Merit and reward refer to the same, for a reward means something given anyone in return for work or toil, as a price for it” (ibid., a. 1; cf., CCC, #2006).
One of the questions Thomas ponders is this: “What makes our actions ‘valuable’, or worthy of reward, in the sight of God?” Earlier, he taught that God has willed to involve us in our own salvation, so that we might do our part. The first Protestants three centuries after Thomas denied this truth, saying that our actions in themselves have no “merit,” claiming this would be temerity before the all-perfect and all-sufficient God, who needs not our help to save us. As Luther would pithily put it, interpreting Isaiah 64:6 (and at the risk of simplifying the complex views of the “Reformer”), in essence, even the holiest act of the holiest saint is nothing but a “filthy rag” in God’s eyes. There is some small grain of truth in this, in that even our merit is itself a gift of God (CCC, #2008), and we with St. Paul have no right to boast, but such a principle, taken to its logical conclusion (and logic was not Luther’s strongest point), would undermine the very principle and purpose of the moral life.
Immanuel Kant, an evangelical Lutheran two centuries later, would accept the notion of merit, but hold that the more difficult the virtuous act, that is, the more it goes contrary to our sinful will, the greater its power and value in God’s strict eyes. This is closer to the truth, but not quite true.
For as St. Thomas rightly concludes, it is charity that gives an act merit, and the greater the love with which something is done, i.e., with a greater intensity of the will or “devotion.” Contra Kant, this applies even if the act is done joyfully, and especially if done so. Hence, little things done with great love, and alacrity, are of greater value than great things done with little love and grudgingly, or, worse, no love at all. The “little way” of St. Thérèse is founded on this truth.
Yet, as Thomas says in one of the objections, before we get too complacent, love should also inspire and move us to do “great things” (the adjective Thomas uses is magnitudo), which seem as little or nothing to one who is deeply in love. As he puts it:
A work can be toilsome and difficult in two ways: first, from the greatness of the work, and thus the greatness of the work pertains to the increase of merit; and thus charity does not lessen the toil—rather, it makes us undertake the greatest toils, “for it does great things, if it exists” as Gregory says (Hom. in Evang. xxx). Secondly, from the defect of the operator; for what is not done with a ready will is hard and difficult to all of us, and this toil lessens merit and is removed by charity.
Hence, difficult works signify, inspire, and draw forth love. In the spiritual life, and life in general, we should not be pusillanimous, but rather magnanimous, striving with “greatness of soul” to do works of great “magnitude,” especially for God.
Which brings us back to pilgrimage: By using our bodies, walking, trudging, leaving behind our comfort zone, our friends and neighbors, our hearth, and warm beds, we offer something “more” to God, a sign of our love for him and his people, which makes what prayers we bring more perfect, refining them like silver in the furnace of whatever hardships and privations we may experience.
There is a whole world of difference between approaching the magnificent cathedral of Saint James after a month-long 500-mile trudge through the Pyrenees and the crags and plains of Spain, and being taxied there from our comfy room in a five-star hotel, after a first class flight and a fine meal of portoand steak. The former approach was a necessity for the mediaeval pilgrim. There is nothing wrong with modern comforts in themselves, but sometimes, like Bilbo, we must leave our comfortable hobbit holes with their filled pantries and wine cellars, and step outside whatever “shire” we have built around ourselves. The same could be said of going to Chartres (a 55-mile walk from Paris), as well as the numerous shrines, and all those places of varying degrees of spiritual significance on all the mini-pilgrimages upon which we may embark.
Of course, we do what we can, within the realm of our capacity, time, proclivity, and resources. The essence is to do what we do on this pilgrimage through life with as much charity as we can muster with the help of God’s grace, relying upon him rather than ourselves each step of the way. We may well be surprised at what the Almighty will accomplish with the small or great prayers and works we offer.