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Pilgrimage Home: Finding Sacred Places Where We Live

by Loyd Allen

In 686 AD the plague killed every monk at Britain's Jarrow Monastery save two, the abbot and a young boy about fourteen. These two determined to carry on the daily prayer services in the monastery's small Saxon sanctuary. The boy was almost certainly the Venerable Bede, who became a Doctor of the Church and the father of English history. Christian worship services have continued regularly in that church that is dedicated to St. Paul for over 1300 years now.

In the summer of 2012, in that little church built of stones from Hadrian's Wall, I sat alongside others on a Celtic pilgrimage. The minister of the church asked one of our pilgrims, who was sitting in the second choir stall on the right, to look down at his feet and tell us what was unique about his particular spot. Our pilgrim, said, "Well, the carpet is worn out here." The minister said, "That's the place where Bede would have sat as he and Bishop Ceolfrith held services alone after the plague. People like to sit where such faith on earth was present."

Pilgrimage is a spiritual discipline of making a journey to such sacred places in order to be physically present in a location where God acted through ordinary people and events in a particularly clear manner. In these "thin places," pilgrims who make themselves fully present to the sacred in creation often experience the Divine Presence in an especially deep and personal way.

Pilgrimage as prayer is similar to lectio divina (sacred reading), the spiritual discipline most like Protestants' quiet time. Lectio's four steps are: read a biblical text, reflect on it, respond prayerfully to what you receive, and rest in the presence of God who speaks through scripture. The goal of this type of prayer is to allow the text to enter those who pray, who then enter the text and respond to what they find there. Pilgrimage invites a kind of sacred reading of holy places, places associated with God's activity in time and space.The pilgrim learns the story of the sacred place, goes to it and becomes fully and prayerfully present in it. Pilgrims put their cameras down, respond to what is given to them in the moment, and rest quietly in the embrace of the One who may choose to be known there.

Almost every church building has some sacred spot within it. Most churches have been hallowed by the sincere prayers and intentions of godly people. Though much happens within church buildings that is neither prayerful nor godly, rare is the church that has not had some faithful Christian, or some "ordinary saints," as Glenn Hinson calls them," whose lives and actions made the place they occupied a "thin place" for others.

The sacred places in a church may differ from person to person. The baptismal font at the Lutheran Church of the Nativity in Austell, Georgia, is such a place for me.My daughter Clare placed her newborn infant, Elijah, with adoptive parents who are members in that church.When they baptized my grandson there, they invited our family to the service.As the adoptive mother, Zoe, rose to take Elijah to the priest for baptism, she gestured to my daughter to come with her. She then placed Elijah in Clare's arms. As we read the baptismal vows, I was overwhelmed with this gesture of hospitality. Surely God was in this place and I had not known it. What places are sacred to your church, and why?

When a group of pastors I led on a 2010 pilgrimage to Israel returned, they continued meeting together regularly at their respective churches. They continued their pilgrimage together by asking the host pastor of each month's meeting to lead them on pilgrimage on his or her church grounds. The leader took us through the church, showing us places the minister considered sacred there. From the sanctuary pew where the aged African-American woman who helped found a faithful, integrated Southern Baptist church in the turbulent 1960s sat to the children's classroom in another church where an innovative education ministry is renewing hope, we heard stories of God's work in those places. We would sit or stand quietly in these "thin places," to be fully present to the One revealed there in such lives and actions. We prayed for ourselves, for the church, and for the community it served. Lastly, we would gather around the church's minister, lay hands on him or her, and pray for the future work of that leader and congregation.

Centuries of prayer have hallowed traditional pilgrimage places. Might we strengthen our congregations by helping them find the sacred places in our churches and teaching them to be fully and prayerfully present in those places? Doing so could rekindle sacred memories and hallow the places on earth where we minister. My church, Parkway Baptist in Duluth, Georgia, has done something similar to this twice. On prayer days at the church we silently moved from room to room individually, praying for those who served in each place. Perhaps the spiritual discipline of pilgrimage can make more specific, intentional, and incarnate our prayer, "Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven."