Pilgrimage: Finding Meaning in the Journey

By Jeffrey Blackwell/Harvard Memorial Church Communications

The practice of pilgrimage is often a journey into an unknown land taken by people with the desire to discover new understanding and meaning through the portal of experience.

For centuries, Christians have traveled the Camino de Santiago from the French Pyrenees to the shrine of Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. Muslims are required by their faith to journey to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. Jewish pilgrims from around the world flock to the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. 

But the practice of pilgrimage does not have to involve extended journeys to far off lands. Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies at the Harvard Divinity School, established a pilgrimage project in the fall that invited students, congregants and other members of the Harvard community to find meaning and discovery closer to home.

Paulsell organized pilgrimages to Walden Pond, the Harvard Art Museums and the “Day of the Dead” exhibit at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, as well as regular book discussions and other activities, during the Fall Term. The Interim Pusey Minister recently sat down to talk about her efforts to establish the practice of pilgrimage into the daily lives of the Memorial Church community this academic year.

Professor Stephanie Paulsell and two students stand on the shore of Walden Pond

Eugene Nam (left), Sarah Fleming and Stephanie Paulsell watch the sun break throught the clouds during their pilgrimage to Waldon Pond in November. Photos by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

Blackwell: What is a pilgrimage?

Paulsell: Traditionally, a pilgrimage is a journey in which pilgrims set particular intentions they hope to meet. They go to a place they hope to reach. Maybe they retrace medieval pilgrims going to visit the relics of a saint, or a piece of the true cross, or a shrine of the Virgin that's sitting out in the field somewhere. There's some material destination or object they want to get close to because it mediates the sacred somehow. And then they go home, hopefully transformed in some way.

The anthropologists say that there's a special form of community that happens on any journey, but on pilgrimages — Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a good example of this — a bunch of people come together who probably wouldn't encounter each other back at home, but who, taken out of their ordinary environment, do encounter each other on the road, learn from each other, and are potentially changed by the experience.

I think pilgrimage is a particularly attractive practice because it does get you out of your familiar environment. That's the point of it, to separate from the familiar, whether that is sitting alone in your room and going more deeply into yourself, or heading out on a journey to Mecca or Jerusalem or Rome.

Blackwell: Why did you choose the theme of “Pilgrimage” as the focus of this academic year at the Memorial Church?

Paulsell: Because it seemed to me that the Memorial Church is on a pilgrimage. Jonathan Walton had a very powerful ministry here, and now he's moved on to a new challenge at Wake Forest Divinity School. There'll be somebody new coming to Memorial Church, but we don't know who that person is going to be, and where that transition will take the Memorial Church.

This time of change is anxiety-producing, but it's also a free experimental space where we can try out some new things. So, I thought pilgrimage would be a good practice to experiment with because the church itself is on a pilgrimage, moving from one era of leadership to a new era of leadership. The congregation will need to think about what its next era of leadership is going to mean in relation to the next minister, but also as a community that stays intact here, as ministers come and go.

It just feels like, in a lot of ways, both in the church and in the world around us, we're in an in-between time, and that being more attentive to how we're moving through the world, and how we might do that more ethically, more spiritually, more compassionately, more attentive to those around us, is a good theme for the year. I think the practice of pilgrimage can both give us some structure for our journey, but also it holds open the possibility that we might surprise ourselves with where we end up.

Memorial Church congregants and Harvard students take a pilgrimage to Walden Pond

Sally Hammel (left), Laurie Sedwick, Angie Cecil and Gretchen Legler embrace following their sunrise pilgrimage to Walden Pond in November. 

Blackwell: You have set out on your own pilgrimages in the past. What did you learn from those experiences?

Paulsell: My father was close to a monk named Matthew Kelty who was a Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani who ran an experimental monastery near Oxford, N.C., near where my family lived. And when I was 9, he decided to walk from Oxford to Washington, D.C. to protest the Vietnam War, and he called it a peace pilgrimage. That was the first pilgrimage I was really aware of. He was really important to me when I was growing up--important to my understanding of God and church and community. My whole family followed that pilgrimage really closely.

I went on a pilgrimage with my sister a couple of years ago, we basically just wanted to take a long walk, but we also wanted it to have a religious significance. We followed the steps of the seventh century British saint, Cuthbert. St. Cuthbert’s Way is a 62-mile trail between the Scottish town of Melrose and Lindisfarne (Holy Island) off the coast of England.

It was a really powerful experience for me. In part, because of the pilgrimage itself, following in the steps of St. Cuthbert and learning about his life. And just the physical challenge of it was really a revelation to me, how out of shape I was.

My sister is a human rights worker and has worked in El Salvador and Chili, and founded an organization on the border in El Centro, Calif., that receives unaccompanied minors and helps reunite them with their families.

She really kept us thinking about immigrants making their way across the desert to the U.S. border. She would say, “We are moving our bodies across this beautiful landscape, but lots of people are running for their lives. Our journey is connected to theirs. We have to keep thinking about them…What if we didn't know where our journey is going to end at the end of the day, what if we didn't know where we were going to sleep, what if predators were on our route, what if we had to walk twice as far as we have to walk.” It was a revelation to me.

Blackwell: What message are you hoping to share with the students, congregants and the members of the community participating in your series of local pilgrimages, readings and discussions?

Paulsell: Transition is scary and unsettling, but it can also be exciting. If we take the practice of pilgrimage that has a long history in Christianity and many other traditions, and experiment with it as a way to move through this year, then we might end up in a sacred spot at the end. I think the thing about pilgrimage is that the pilgrim sets intentions and then tries to get to certain places, but it often doesn't go the way you expect it will.

That's one of the truisms about journeys; you think you're going one place and really you're going somewhere else. So, I think the practice of pilgrimage can both give us some structure for our journey, but also it holds open the possibility that we might surprise ourselves with where we end up.

Peabody Museum Pilgrimage

David Carrasco, Harvard's Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America, gives a talk about the Dia de los Muettos alters at the Peabody Museum during a pilgrimage in November.

For an list of upcoming events go to our Pilgrimage Project page.