The air is unusually cold for Austin in March, even for nighttime, as the woman-fronted Nashville hard-rock outfit known as Bully takes the stage at one of South by Southwest’s premier stages: Mohawk Outdoor. But the crowd is warm—in part because so many bodies are crammed into the space between the bar and the stage but also from excitement. They’ve come literally from around the world, making a pilgrimage to this city of art and weirdos for moments like the ones they are about to experience.
All around the space, pilgrims are enraptured: lifting their hands, swaying, some even doing the zulu jump. They haven’t gathered for a sermon, but to experience something transfigurative. They need this.
“Being in crowds, large or small, and feeling the music together; singing along to your favorite tunes to me is one of the great unifying experiences of our lives,” says 27-year-old Devon Bailey, who moved to Austin because of its music scene. “Few things can bring strangers together.”
Festivals like SXSW combine a unique experience with a unique place. One way or another, no one leaves a gathering like this unchanged.
“A concert is an invitation to just pause and share something powerful with others,” Bailey says. “You’re transported with others to a place of solidarity.”
But it’s more than being at a concert; it’s about being in a new place, with new people, sharing new things.
That inherent transformative power of travel is something travel evangelists rave about. Professional photographer Kevin Russ, who travels extensively in his work, says, “Traveling is the best way I’ve found to get me out of my comfort zone. New and unique experiences with people and nature will teach you things about yourself and you will be growing as a person. Then that growth will shape how you view everything else and live your daily life.”
Research shows that travel is good for us. A study from the Global Commission on Aging and several other groups found that travel reduces stress long term and vacationing more frequently is linked to significantly lower risks of heart attacks.
Research in the Academy of Management Journal linked travel to increased professional creativity. Researchers at Cornell University found that “experiential purchases” (like taking trips) “tend to provide more enduring happiness than material purchases.”
But what if travel is better than just good for us? What if travel helps us grow spiritually?
GOING UP TO JERUSALEM
In the Old Testament, God commands the Israelites to observe a rhythm of travel. Three times a year, they are instructed to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and feast together. The command makes feast time for them—like festival time for us—set apart time in the sacred space of Jerusalem. Imagining those ancient worshippers on the road to Jerusalem, singing psalms (there are certain psalms specifically designated for this trip in the Bible) as they go, one can imagine all of the same benefits that exist in travel in general being present in pilgrimage.
Pilgrimage breaks the rhythms of ordinary life, calls people out of their normal surroundings, invites them to gather with people of distant tribes who they don’t see regularly and to experience the most transfigurative experience imaginable: meeting with the living God, suggests author Dr. Todd Johnson, a professor and theology scholar.
Johnson knows a lot about pilgrimage. Along with being professor of Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary, he leads a group of students from Pasadena, California, to Orvieto, Italy, for an immersion course on the practice of worship and prayer. Traditionally, he says, pilgrimage was a big deal, and in some smaller religious circles, it still is.
“Pilgrimage in the early churches was big business,” he explains. “And what happened was, people would travel to Jerusalem during Holy Week, [and] they would literally re-enact the events of that week beginning with Palm Sunday and ending with the resurrection. You still see this [during] Holy Week. You see pictures in the newspaper of people being nailed to a cross, carrying a cross in the street. For the most part, however, in evangelical and broad society, [pilgrimage is] not a big deal.”
But if travel is important enough that God commanded the Israelites to do it somewhat regularly, and has been so integral to the people of God in centuries past, then it seems the people of God today may stand to benefit from learning to travel as a sacred act.
GOING TOWARD SOMETHING
For various reasons, taking a pilgrimage of that kind is not an option for many modern-day sojourners. But today’s pilgrims can still participate in the essence of what a pilgrimage is, no matter where they travel.
Pilgrimages look different to different people.
Travel designer Ian O’Sullivan spends his time helping people experience what he calls “transformative travel.” His company All Bhutan Travel focuses mainly on bringing people to Bhutan, a tiny country in South Asia, where sojourners “almost inevitably have a profound transformative experience … due to the uniqueness of the Himalayan mountains and the nature in Bhutan,” he says.
He says traveling with spiritual intentionality is very different from just “vacationing.”
“The idea of sojourn and pilgrimage and embarking on a travel adventure or a quest of sorts has always been what’s kind of motivated my love for travel,” he explains. “To leave the comforts of where you are at home to go somewhere unknown and unseen and uncertain … to me, that has always been the core of what sets adventure or spiritual travel apart from vacationing or escaping—[the things] you don’t like. It’s really about going in search of something and you don’t always know what that is.”
When talking about his work, he echoes a familiar theme: “I think the difference between conventional vacationing [and a pilgrimage] is that [vacationing is] not as aware and conscious or as intentional as a transformative travel experience that we designed would be,” he says.
“People vacationing, their motive is what they’re escaping from. So if they’re in the cold, they want to go to where it’s warm, and if they’re in a remote place they want to go to the city. Usually it’s just getting away from what you’re lacking; as opposed to going toward something.”
A pilgrimage is not necessarily about the destination but about intention, says Dr. Laura Harbert, clinical psychologist and dean of chapel and spiritual formation at Fuller Theological Seminary. “Spiritually, pilgrimage has to do with the spiritual benefit of being on a spiritual journey for the specific purpose of looking for God,” she says. “And I don’t think that has to be in The Holy Land or walking the 500-mile El Camino de Santiago. But I think we can take a pilgrimage to my grandfather’s cemetery. We take a pilgrimage when we go anywhere with the purpose of wanting to notice God. It just needs to be prayerful.” Regardless of where you choose to go, she says, the important thing is that you choose to go. Johnson points to the common thread that ties together very different types of trips as sacred travel. “I think that pilgrimage is like [what we do in] youth ministry,” he says, referencing contemporary Christianity’s short-term mission trip trend. “We take them on mission trips. We take plunges. We go to Appalachia. We dislocate people as a spiritual practice. And it’s successful because it helps you come back and see your own world more differently. But it’s not that you’re going to a more sacred ground, but you’re just seeing the world from a different perspective.”
TRAVELING OUT OF SELF-CENTEREDNESS
Harbert believes the prospective changes that come from a habit of dislocating ourselves as a spiritual practice addresses one of the greatest threats to spiritual maturity: self-centeredness. That is, the tendency to see one’s self and one’s experiences as the focal point around which all other people and experiences are organized.
“We have to get dislocated [to solve] that thing that happens,” Harbert says. “We fall into spiritual complacency, or a rut or a rigidity [of thinking] that [our] social location is everything. I do think there is that experience of travel that dislocates us. To me, there is something so essential about the spiritual life that has to do with that.” The idea is this: We are all shaped by our locations—the countries we grew up in, the values our parents instilled in us, the times in which we live, all of these shape our identity and how we view the world. But many people are as aware of their location as a fish is of the fact that it lives underwater. We live as though our location is the default context of life, and we think of our experience within that context as “normal.”
This narrow view of the world can express itself in different forms of prejudice, superiority and fear of those who live outside of our location. Traveling creates space to encounter the unfamiliar—“the other.” This, according to renowned author and Catholic priest Father James Martin, is a critical part of why travel
is so important spiritually.
“One of the most consistent commands in the Old Testament and New Testament is to welcome the stranger,” Martin says.
“And that has very important implications for refugees and migrants. In fact, Jesus says explicitly in the Gospel of Matthew that ‘when you welcome the stranger, you welcome me’ and pilgrimage brings us in contact with people who—at least on the surface—seem strange to us.”
He says there are even evangelistic implications to this approach.
“When I was in East Africa, we were told that the old view of work of people sent overseas was to help bring God to the people,” Martin says. “But the new work is to help people see that God is already there.”
Father Martin remembers an example of the revelatory power of travel on a recent trip to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. “Our tour guide was a Galilean who spoke Aramaic and at one point, we were in a place called the [Church of the] Pater Noster, where people think Jesus taught [The Lord’s Prayer]. And our tour guide began to sing [it]. And one of the pilgrims grabbed my arm and said, ‘Oh my God! It’s so … Jewish. And she finally got it: Jesus was a first-century Galilean Jew. So this sense of ‘otherness’ helped her understand God—in both His familiarity and His unfamiliarity.”
God’s “otherness” to humanity (commonly known as “holiness”) is one of God’s most essential descriptors throughout Scripture. When people encounter God in the Bible, they encounter the unfamiliar: a voice coming from a bush on fire, a visit from a fearsome-looking angel, a man who opens the eyes of the blind.
When we travel intentionally— looking for the presence of God—we learn to celebrate that which is unusual to us, realizing that difference is the essence of God.
Harbert points to the doctrine of the Incarnation as a biblical example of this idea in action. She suggests even though God couldn’t be more different from us, God moved toward “the other”—that is, humanity—in the person and ministry of Jesus.
And those who are called to imitate Christ can practice that by immersing themselves in the world of those who are different than themselves. And the best way to do that is to go to them through travel.
“I think if there’s a common gathering space for evangelical Christians, it’s the great by-and-by,” says Johnson. “That’s the Promised Land for us. And it disconnects us from physical reality.”
But the idea of pilgrimage reminds us it is a biblical concept that geographic space—just a car ride or plane flight away—can be imbued with God’s presence, which is why God can tell the Israelites essentially, “Meet me in Jerusalem in spring.”
Pilgrimage brings us deeper into time and space, into the very defining characteristics of earthly life, to find God there. And oftentimes, to our surprise, we find that God is in those seemingly mundane places: under the concert lights in Austin, in the foothills of Bhutan, on a prayerful walk down the shore of Daytona Beach.
Somewhere, outside of our comfort zone, God is waiting to meet us.