Making the Most of a Pilgrimage

Paul O‘Keeffe, OFM Features

Pilgrims in Assisi, where they learned about St. Francis and the history of the Franciscans. (Courtesy of Paul)

Holy Name Province’s secretary for missions and evangelization,  who has been leading groups on trips to historic places since 2012, recently reflected on ways to prepare to go on pilgrimage..

If the world, in the simplest sense, as the phrase attributed to St. Augustine states, “is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page,” then the decision to travel to faraway places requires a willingness to experience the unexpected on the journey. Every experienced traveler has a story of the unexpected, whether it occasioned pleasure or pain. Those usually make the best stories.

Yet, there is a different kind of travel possible for those who dare leave home in the spiritual sense. To travel as a pilgrim to distant places displays a desire for even more than adventure or the unexpected. It is a willingness not only to be surprised but to also possibly be transformed. Christian pilgrimage is born of a yearning for spiritual renewal; the pilgrim seeks a different kind of travel experience than the one merely logged by photos and souvenirs. In his Asian notes, Thomas Merton observes, “There is another side of Kanchenjunga and of every mountain — the side that has never been turned into postcards. That is the only side worth seeing.”

Paul, at right, and participants in a mission trip to Cuba in 2017.

Spiritual Wisdom
I have confidence in two spiritually oriented, travel-related maxims. The first is: when you travel well, the most important journey is the one that goes inward, no matter the outward destination. The second maxim is this: you do not have to go anywhere to find ground for the soul’s journey toward God. You just need to be ready for that journey.

The quest for meaningful spirituality is not out there or over there somewhere. Mindfulness of God’s faithful presence is found everywhere by the Holy Spirit’s ministry of comfort and conviction. “Sit in your cell as in paradise,” begins the Brief Rule that guides the Camaldolese monks.

Spiritual wisdom has long insisted on stability and perseverance to build a relationship with the divine. Yet, even with that wisdom in mind, our Christian heritage also tells us that there’s nothing like actually being there. From the earliest centuries, Christianity has had a vibrant tradition of pilgrimage to holy sites associated with the life of Jesus, the apostles, and the saints. Generations of Christians have experienced sacred places as windows to the divine.

A popular way of going on pilgrimage is joining an organized tour group of people traveling with the same intention. Every well-planned pilgrimage involves some time when you are alone. These are occasions when we can be still. They are precious moments for reflection and to experience the unexpected without the need to share.

Opportunity for Spiritual Growth
Travel can be overwhelming. Around every street corner and through every door dwell something that might inspire, enlighten or change you. Constantly confronting the unexpected is perhaps one of the most electrifying and spiritual aspects of a pilgrimage. But like everything, there are drawbacks.

Participants in a mission trip to Morocco in June  2018. (Photo courtesy of Paul)

In the present age, more and more people are traveling around the world – some are doing it for fun, while others are doing it for work. Travel is important because it removes us from our routines and comforts, hurling us into a world and experience that often feels utterly out of our control. This is a good thing. But any traveler will tell you that, at some point during your journey, there will come a time when the going gets rough. Sometimes, despite the amazing place you may find yourself, you simply can’t motivate or find the energy to do anything. Sometimes, all you desire is to be still, to stay in one place with some semblance of familiarity, and ignore the strange, whirling world just beyond your door.

Having a few simple practices outside of your pilgrimage prayer schedule can make all the difference when trying to navigate the inevitable surprises and mysteries that pilgrimage puts in front of you.

Perhaps even more importantly, these practices will help you descend more deeply into the intended purpose for the journey you have undertaken. You might smell the air differently, or see those around you in a new light. You might discover a profound sense of peace, joy, or appreciation. You might indeed be transformed. If anything, by finding stillness on the road, insights and lessons will come. In one way or another, you will grow and learn, and that’s really what pilgrimage is all about.

You won’t hear about this in any Lonely Planet book or TripAdvisor article. These insights have been passed on to me from some of the most devoted and well-traveled pilgrims whom I have met from around the world. I apply them in my daily life on the road, but also during the increasingly rare times when I’m “at home.”

1. Slow Down
One of the only regrets I’ve had throughout my travels is not spending more time in certain places. Rapid-fire tours through towns or to monuments don’t do justice to the intent of your pilgrimage but have sadly become a style of travel that is popular today.

Not everybody can leave their jobs or families for months on end. Also, some people simply aren’t the type to enjoy long-term travel. If you have just two weeks, go to one place, and really absorb it. Don’t try to cram in (or consume) experiences.

2. Technology Fast
Tech – it’s all the rage these days. We love technology. We love the fact that it enables us to share our journeys and perspectives and to stay connected with amazing people all over the world. Yet, how often do we give ourselves space from technology?

A practical way of aiding your commitment to slow down, and to aid in clearing your mind a bit so you can be present to the unexpected, is to redefine your relationship to technology and become more mindful and aware of your surroundings. Try going out for the day and leaving your tech behind. Experiment with challenging yourself by setting boundaries on technology maybe leaving your phone behind, or using the Internet once a day, or having a specific time of day where you go online. Let the rest of your experience be tech-free. The best part of any travel experience, be it a pilgrimage, mission trip or vacation, is to see a place free of a camera lens – with just your eyes and ears and perspectives.

3. Reflection and Meditation
Perhaps no group of people knows impermanence more intimately than those who take time for reflection and meditation. Pilgrims are on pilgrimage to connect with the human past of the person who inspired our faith and helped shape our beliefs. The saints learned that life is impermanent and that all things must pass, just as pilgrims learn that they must, like St. Peter at the Transfiguration, come down off the mountain and go back to their everyday existence.

To travel, in general, is to embrace impermanence. Through reflection and meditation, you can learn to savor and be thankful for your journey to the holy place you are visiting.

Here’s the secret to reflective meditation: just do it. In travel and in life, there is rarely an ideal time or place to practice this amazingly simple act. The truth is that you don’t need to sit in your favorite chair or have complete silence to be able to meditate on an experience. You don’t need to be in a church either; it can happen anywhere. Meditation will help you be more present on your journey; it will help you to slow down, notice the details, and navigate the swirl of feelings you may be experiencing as you drift away from the temporal realities of pilgrimage and into the spiritual gifts of your journey. Without reflection and meditation, a pilgrimage becomes superficial and lifeless.

4. Gratitude
It’s easy to get jaded and burnt out by any number of details – the group with which you are traveling, the food, the schedule, or just the journey in general. But the important thing and the hard thing is to be grateful for all of it. Leaving the comfort of your home and undertaking a pilgrimage involves many less than memorable aspects. Flying is no longer glamorous, and navigating cultural differences and linguistic barriers can be overwhelming after the honeymoon feeling wears off. The glorious part is that traveling on pilgrimage can actually help you feel more grateful. There are countless ways to introduce a practice of gratitude into your pilgrimage – that is, practicing daily gratitude for the experiences. Be they enlightening or frustrating, showing gratitude for your experiences on pilgrimage can remind you of the impermanence of life and underline the reasons you felt called to embark on a pilgrimage.

Whatever you do, and wherever you go, being aware of practices of learning to slow down, fasting from technology (or whatever stands in the way of your being present), reflecting on your day, and being grateful for the journey can open you up to the unexpected, where God can enter and transform you.

Make a commitment to yourself to open your spiritual eyes and ears and all of your senses to absorb the unexpected. Take the time to integrate these few insights and watch your pilgrimage become a spiritual adventure.

— Br. Paul, who professed his final vows as a Franciscan in 2010, is assistant director of the HNP Franciscan Missionary Union. From 1997 to 2003, he worked as a lay missioner, serving in Africa and Jamaica. The previous reflection published in HNP Today, by John Anglin, OFM, was titled “My Journey in a Racially Divided Country.”

Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, current event, holy day, or other seasonal themes – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at Additional reflections by friars can be found in the Spiritual Resources page of

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