Saturday, April 9, 2016

For the Forgiveness of Sins

Our's is a gentle religion. One reads enough Western history to discover a cast of familiar characters: the Church, the Pope, the Saint, the Sinner. One reads what they read, parsing passages of Civitas Dei and Summa Theologiae, until one accepts or rejects their propositions. Provided one accepts them, one becomes a candidate for Baptism. After the regenerative waters one attempts to lead a life in accordance with these passed on virtues and according to the Commandments; if one fails, a five minute trip to the "box" is all that is necessary for another clean slate. It is that simple.

Or is it?

My friend's impending sojourn to the Camino de Santiago stirred a long dormant interest, sitting in the back of my mind for some time, in pursuing something worthwhile in life. The camino has become a tourist attraction in recent years, in part due to the film The Way and in part due to the Eat, Pray, Love/Oprah mentality of self-help seekers.

Yet it still recalls the medieval notion of the pilgrimage. One of the few extant pilgrimages of value is probably the trip the traditionalists make annually from Notre Dame in Paris to Notre Dames in Chartres. A long gone compatriot made the journey with the traditionalists in 2012, sixty miles by foot with three solemn Masses. The sequence of a pilgrimage imitates life itself, commencing with a departure from the known confines of one's birth and well integrated bad habits. What follows is a trip through unknown lands with little help and the risk of loose associations; the pilgrim knows where he wants to go and vaguely how to orient himself, but he is not truly prepared for a journey in a strange place with strange people; some will be friends, some enemies, some pointing the way and some dragging him back. The pilgrim at first utilizes his own devices and skill to survive until the isolation and boredom drive him mad; only when he realizes that he is far from home and turns to God, offering his difficulties and failures as penance, does he progress towards his goal, an earthly glimpse of the heavenly Jerusalem. Eventually prayer is as important as steps on a pilgrimage. The Way of a Pilgrim has inspired Slavic Christians for years, a slim volume about a boy who asks his mentor how to pray without ceasing; the father gives the pilgrim the Jesus prayer and sends him about the various churches and monasteries of Russia. The pilgrimage culminates at the gates of a representative Jerusalem, a foretaste of the eternal kingdom where the Ghost, Father, and Song through endless ages run.

Believers made their ways to holy places to pay homage to what happened there and to obtain the remission of sins, to find heartfelt forgiveness. Egyptians went to places where they believed the Holy Family stayed during the Flight, and they still frequent these places. The most obvious destination of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, built over the place of the Crucifixion and burial of Our Lord; pilgrims such as Egeria recounted the liturgical practices in Jerusalem to their home churches and popularized their imitation, giving rise to Holy Week ceremonies (interestingly, Egeria recounts three Eucharistic liturgies between Holy Saturday and Pascha). In the west, devotion to St. Peter flourished and popularized the Roman Office throughout Europe long before Charlemagne imposed the Roman Sacramentary on Frankish clergy.

Pilgrimage multiplied in the second millennium. St. Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury who held the Church above the state, represented everything noble about the medieval view of order; more pilgrims flocked to his grave than anywhere else in the Christian world until the Reformation, inspiring students from England, Italy and the University of Paris, like Lothar of Segni (Innocent III). Also popular was the Camino de Santiago, the road from the Pyrenees mountains to Compostela where the tomb of St. James resides. The most visible, and notorious, of the medieval pilgrimages was the Crusade. Aside from the disasters of pogroms and the raid of Constantinople, the idea of Crusading, of forfeiting one's self entirely to the will of God and His visible Church transformed Europe, nurtured chivalry, planted the seeds for the vigorous religious orders of the age—departing from the meditative and sedate Benedictines, and inspired the imagination. The Crusade also offered a hope of forgiveness; the Church, to which Christ gave the authority to bind and loose the sins of men, loosened the sins of those who went on Crusade to free the Holy Land from the Muhammadans. Modern historians find it scandalous, but the believer is in no way surprised that those who went on Crusade—criminals, thugs, and generally unsavory individuals—were those most in need of the forgiveness of sins.

Then came the Reformation and the smashing of Catholic culture. Old traditions die hard. In the 16th century St. Philip Neri traversed the seven great basilicas of Rome in a single day with his retinue, all the while singing the Divine Office in Italian and arousing the suspicion of the Inquisition.

There are still pilgrimages, although they can lose their point if done wrongly. A professor in a seminar on Frontier American History mused at the irony of driving to the Rockies or Yosemite. Is there not a similar irony in taking a taxi to St. Peter's Basilica? Aside from Chartres, the St. Peter Fraternity occasionally makes a foot visit to the North American Martyrs and the LMS in England has several day pilgrimages every year. I myself am attempting to convince my friends to adopt the idea of stational churches in our diocese, at least visiting a church named for the saint or mystery on the feast or vigil to say an hour of the Divine Office. But this is a compromise between a 1st century middle easterner religion and an automated 21st century world. True pilgrimage is a re-orientation to God, a change of life as startling as when one first came to believe. It is not "state of grace" religion, but "bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh" religion.

Quo vadam?


  1. My first visit to Rome was done with the intention of a pilgrimage. While the airplane was soaring over the alps, I looked down and realized that I was cheating horribly. However, the difficulty of navigating the Roman public transportation out to the catacombs largely made up for it.

  2. If ever your in Blighty, I'd be honoured to go on a pilgrimage with you.