In the medieval Christian tradition, one form of travel—pilgrimage—functioned as a spiritual discipline in which the act of walking prefigured the soul’s movement from spiritual death to life with God. Indeed, at the roots of Christian story is the pilgrimage of Abraham, who leaves his country to wander in search of another. Today, pilgrimage functions primarily as a metaphor, reminding us that we are incomplete, that our homes and our selves are, in their fullest form, still to be found. As St. Augustine contends, the true pilgrimage is one of inner transformation: “[we do] not approach God by moving across intervals of place, but by likeness or similarity, and [we move] away from him by dissimilarity or unlikeness.” If, therefore, our goal is inner transformation, we are as likely to reach it by remaining physically in place as by moving about.
Outward movement may even thwart interior growth–when we seek to change our circumstances rather than adjust ourselves to the realities set before us. Early Christian monks known as the Desert Fathers counseled their spiritual followers to remain in their specific monastic communities, even in their own small cells, insisting that “A tree cannot bear fruit if it is often transplanted. So it is with the monk.”
Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gilead is the story of a man whose faith trains him to love both a place and its people. He is a man whose pilgrimage–an inner journey–takes place almost entirely within the confines of Gilead, Iowa, a small town on the American prairie. Precisely because his life develops within narrow geographic boundaries, he achieves growth by attentiveness: to books, scripture, self, place, and people–who reveal themselves to be not thin but deep, rooted in a spiritual reality that causes the world to flash with light and beauty.
Our world does not usually know itself to be threadbare and pierced by divine light. And a life of frenetic movement is unlikely to see this light. So the Christian faith trains us to stillness, allowing us to see who and what stands before us–each person one of the great, good glimpses of God given to this world.
This Postmodern Realities episode is a conversation with Journal author Stephen Mitchell about his article, “Moving by Staying Put: Christian Pilgrimage in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead” in the 45:2-3 (Fall 2022) edition of the Christian Research Journal.
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