A Pilgrim's Table: Precious Places, Timeless Tales

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
--Wendell Berry

Well, tomarrow morning bright and early we're off...off to the wide wild prarie (make that the rolling fields of rural Oregon ) in an exploratory move. Been finding hearts in things all over the place lately...or as Britt Arnhild would call it, the prints from God's walking stick. Its helping me feel more hopeful about the journey : )

Well, the heart is still very turned towards pilgrimage, so thought i'd share a bit more that's been gathered there. First, more on the Biblical roots, from

"Psalm 38:13 "Hear my prayer, O Lord, and my supplication: give ear to my tears. Be not silent: for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner as all my fathers were."

The word "pilgrim" comes from the Latin "peregrinus," meaning "foreigner" or "stranger," and in the deepest sense, that is what (we) are: a people whose home is not this world, but the Heavenly Jerusalem, toward which our lives move us. But in that journey to share in St. John's vision, we often make smaller journeys, or "pilgrimages" -- that is, journeys made to sacred places for the purpose of veneration, to ask help from or thank God and His Saints, to fulfill a vow, or to make penance.

Our Hebrew forebears were commanded by God to make a pilgrimage to the Temple:

Deuteronomy 16:16-17
Three times in a year shall all thy males appear before the Lord thy God in the place which he shall choose: in the feast of unleavened bread, in the feast of weeks, and in the feast of tabernacles. No one shall appear with his hands empty before the Lord: But every one shall offer according to what he hath, according to the blessing of the Lord his God, which he shall give him.

They called these pilgrimages on Pesach (the Feast of Unleavened Bread, or Passover), Shavu'ot (the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost), and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles, or Festival of Ingathering) "re'iyah," and on their way they would sing their Pilgrim Songs -- Psalms 119-133, known also as the "Songs of Degrees" ("canticum graduum" to us Latins). Extra-Scripturally, they made pilgrimages to the tomb of Rachel, and to places like Mt. Carmel, sacred to Israel long before Elias there proved that YHWH is God when the fire from Heaven consumed his offering after the unfaithful made their vain appeals to Baal to consume theirs (III Kings 18). But these pilgrimages that weren't a matter of divine command were still in the spirit of Scripture, where memory is seen as important. Witness the making of a memorial out of stones in Josue (Joshua):

Josue 4:1-9
And when they were passed over, the Lord said to Josue: Choose twelve men, one of every tribe: And command them to take out of the midst of the Jordan, where the feet of the priests stood, twelve very hard stones, which you shall set in the place of the camp, where you shall pitch your tents this night. And Josue called twelve men, whom he had chosen out of the children of Israel, one out of every tribe, And he said to them: Go before the ark of the Lord your God to the midst of the Jordan, and carry from thence every man a stone on your shoulders, according to the number of the children of Israel, That it may be a sign among you and when your children shall ask you tomorrow, saying: What mean these stones? You shall answer them: The waters of the Jordan ran off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord, when it passed over the same: therefore were these stones set for a monument of the children of Israel for ever. The children of Israel therefore did as Josue commanded them, carrying out of the channel of the Jordan twelve stones, as the Lord had commanded him, according to the number of the children of Israel, unto the place wherein they camped, and there they set them. And Josue put other twelve stones in the midst of the channel of the Jordan, where the priests stood that carried the ark of the covenant: and they are there until this present day.

We of Israel still mark out sacred spaces and make pilgrimages to them, like our Old Covenant ancestors, but with this difference: we are not bound to journey. The Old Covenant is fulfilled, and we are not Muslims for whom pilgrimage (hajj) is considered a sacred duty. Instead, we go on pilgrimage in the spirit of Josue and of the Gospels -- to remember, and for the purposes of denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and leaving behind our daily lives to follow Him:

Matthew 16:24-25
Then Jesus said to His disciples: If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For he that will save his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for My sake, shall find it.

We might journey in a spirit of penance, fasting and giving alms along the way. We might do so joyously, in thanksgiving for blessings received, or in a spirit of supplication for blessings desired. Or we might do so simply to be blessed by being in the presence of holy relics or by walking on ground hallowed by Our Lord or the Saints. Whatever our more particular purposes, leaving behind what is comfortable to us and visiting a strange place is a way to get out of a "spiritual rut" and step outside our normal routines which can sometimes keep us distracted or focused on the wrong things -- or perhaps focused too much on otherwise good things. When made with the right attitude, pilgrimage is a way to "lose" our lives for His sake. "
And i've been drawn lately to how the tradition of pilgrimage was kept in (pre-communist) Orthodox Russia, how it really grew into such a beautiful art. Particularly as shown through Catherine Doherty's writings...

From "My Russian Yesterdays" (via
here) :

"'At home in Russia we would begin preparing for a pilgrimage by praying and then reading up on the shrine we would be going to. We let friends and neighbors know that we would be glad to carry their intentions with us on the pilgrimage if they would write them down.

"We arranged for our pilgrim's garb which, for women, was a simple shift. Men wore plain trousers and shirt. In a linen bag we carried a loaf of rye bread and some salt, and we took a gourd of water. We started out by participating in Mass and receiving the Eucharist and having a light breakfast. Before departing, we all knelt and asked God's blessing on the pilgrimage, and invoked the angel Raphael (who the Old Testament says was Tobias' guide). The leader sprinkled us with holy water and we were off. We walked barefoot. On the way we prayed aloud together and sang hymns. In between praying and singing there was a great silence in which each talked with God in his own way.

"At noon the leader would call a halt, either by a clean river or a village where we would refill our gourds, wash our tired, hot feet, face, and hands. Pray and sit down to a lunch of rye bread, salt, and water. And did it taste good! An hour's rest, then a prayer and blessing with holy water, and off for the next lap.

"At dusk we planned to be near a village, where we broke ranks. With a reminder to be ready early and on the road, we made our ways to villagers' homes, knocked on a door, said we were pilgrims, and begged for food and a night's lodging in the name of God. Invariably we would be asked in, and we would bow low before the holy images and the crucifix that adorned each home. People shared their food with us, even if it was only bread and tea. We often slept in sweet-smelling haylofts.

"At sunup we rose, washed, ate a piece of bread, and said a grateful farewell to our hosts who gave us their intentions to bring to the shrine, and were off again. The days passed in walking, praying, begging, resting, and walking and praying again. Then one day came the joy of seeing in the distance the spires of the holy shrine. We knew it would be like this when it came time for us to die in the Lord, after a long, tiresome journey of life.

"We would spend days at the shrine, living in the pilgrim hostels of a monastery. We would go to Mass and other common prayers at the shrine and nearby churches. It was like being in a hallway to heaven. We would bring back a supply of holy oil, holy water, sacred images and medals for those at home.

"Then we returned, the same way we came. We arrived home sunburned, healthy, leaner — and filled to the brim in soul."

And (via
here) from "Not Without Parables":

"Some of the wonderful experiences I had as a child are connected with the stories of the holy pilgrims who passed through the Russia of old on their way to and from shrines. My mother and father welcomed these men and women very hospitably when they knocked on our door and asked for food and shelter for the night. It was a blessing to harbor these saintly people.
I remember one pilgrim who rested with us. She was a babushka. In Russian that means a grandmother, an elderly person.

She arrived at suppertime on an overcast November evening. Her face was full of wrinkles, yet somehow they were laughing wrinkles, pleasant wrinkles. She had the bluest, merriest eyes and she smiled a dazzling smile.

We fed her, made her comfortable and after supper everyone gathered to listen to her tales. The fire in the wood stove crackled as if it were singing a little ditty, very pleased with itself. As usual, I was sitting on the floor at the feet of the pilgrim.

She made a large sign of the cross before she started talking. She told us how she had put her house in order before setting out on her pilgrimage. Her son, having recently married, had brought his bride home. She felt that the young people should have some time to themselves, and that this was a good chance to go on pilgrimage. She took her loaf of bread, her package of salt and her gourd of water and off she went, light of heart, with a soul full of joy and a mind full of prayer. For the next two months she travelled slowly, reverently, prayerfully, never hurrying, from one shrine to another.

Late one rainy October day she was glad to find a lonely log cabin at the edge of a forest. The next village was quite far away and she was tired. Humbly, she knocked at the door. It seemed to her that a low voice inside bade her enter. Enter she did.

She looked around for the holy icons that were to be found in those days in every home, even the humblest; they were always in the east corner. Sure enough, they were there. Then, as is the custom of my people, she blessed herself three times, bowed low before the icons in honor of the most Holy Trinity, and then looked around to greet whoever was there. "Peace be to this house," she said, using the greeting commanded by the Lord (Lk 10:5).

The only person she saw was an old man lying in a bed, looking very, very sick. He didn't seem to know she was there. She wondered who it was who had bidden her to enter, but she soon forgot as she busied herself with the fire which was low. The old man looked as if he had been unattended for a long time. She soon realized he had a fever and she began nursing him.
There was much to do. There weren't many provisions but in the barn she found a cow that also needed tending and a few hungry chickens. It wasn't long before she had the place shipshape and the man was getting better.

Finally he was up and about. He was still weak, but much better, and grateful to her, though he said very little. As she got to know him, she confessed that she began to stand in awe of him. She couldn't explain to herself exactly why; she just did. She especially liked the way he broke the bread at mealtime and handed her a piece, how he poured the tea and always handed her the full mug. There was a certain majesty about the way he made those simple gestures. It reminded her of something—but she couldn't remember what. Eventually she began to think of going on her way. One evening, she told the man she would be leaving in the morning.

The next morning, when she arose, she found the place in perfect order. The kettle was on the stove, boiling for her tea. The porridge was simmering quietly nearby. The table was set—but for only one person! There was no sign of the man. She went out into the barn and to her astonishment found no cow and no chickens. She returned to the house to have her breakfast, wondering, and a bit perturbed.

She spied the bible which the man had read from so often. It was open and her eyes fell on the words, "I was sick and you nursed me. Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me" (Mt 25:36,40).

She began to tremble with great awe. She fell on her face before the holy icons. She blessed herself many times. Then, since there was nothing else for her to do, she continued on her pilgrimage to the next holy place. But she confessed to us that ever since that experience her feet had wings, or so it seemed to her. She seldom was tired, and her heart sang and sang with great joy, a joy that never left her.

After telling her story, she fell silent. I looked at her face. The blue eyes under the dark eyebrows and lashes were as young as a little girl's, even though they were in a face full of laughing wrinkles. It truly seemed as if her youth had been renewed like the eagle's.

Ah, the stories that the pilgrims tell! "

Mutual prayers : )

(Images from
He Gently Calls Us and Holy Cards For Your Inspiration)

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