But as a Pilgrim resolute, I took
Even with the chance equipment of that hour,
The road that pointed toward the chosen Vale.
(William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book First)
What does it mean to be a Pilgrim?
John Bunyan knew.
In 1677, Bunyan, a tinker, author, and preacher affiliated with one of the many “Non-Conformist” Christian groups then on the wrong side of the English law, was thrown into prison for a second time. His first sojourn behind bars had dragged on for twelve years (1660–1672). This subsequent incarceration was to last a mere six months – brief by comparison, but long enough for the prisoner to put the final touches on a bit of writing he’d begun while out on parole.
It was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who said, “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!” John Bunyan could have seconded the motion. Outside the prison walls, he may never have found time to complete his little book. Apart from the gross injustices that landed him in jail in the first place, he may never have stumbled upon the Pilgrim Path at all. Indeed, had Bunyan been spared persecution at the hands of the governing authorities and the religious establishment of his day, the rest of us might easily have been deprived of one of the greatest spiritual classics of all time: The Pilgrim’s Progress.
The Pilgrim’s Progress begins with a dramatic scene: Christian, a burden on his back, his nose in a book, his eye on the Wicket Gate, fleeing from the City of Destruction. “Life! Life!” he cries as family, friends, and neighbors hurl abuses after him: “Brain-sick fool! Fantastical fellow! Crazy-headed coxcomb!” But Christian presses on – across the plain, through the Slough of Despond, and straight on to the entrance of the Narrow Way.
No reader can easily forget the picture Bunyan paints in this scene. It’s a picture of a desperate man on a desperate journey: a man with his face set like flint towards one thing and his back turned resolutely to another; a man caught between two poles, two opposites, two alternatives; two choices, two visions, two roads.
Our English word pilgrim is derived from the Latin peregrinus: “stranger, wanderer, sojourner.” A pilgrim in this sense is not a person with a big white collar, a floppy, broad-brimmed hat, or a pair of gold-buckled shoes. Nor is he a patriotic mascot or a nationalistic symbol. This pilgrim is an alien. He’s a foreigner, a migrant, a transient. He possesses neither an earthly country nor any of the rights, privileges, protections, and perquisites appertaining thereto. Like the peregrine falcon, he ranges far and wide over the face of creation with no place to lay his head. He has no home in this world, because this world is not his home. He doesn’t fit because he doesn’t belong.
The early Irish saints – Fursey, for instance, apostle to East Anglia, or Aidan, abbot of Lindisfarne, or Columba, the one-time aristocrat who left his home in Donegal to found the monastery of Iona – used a Latin phrase to describe this way of life: peregrinare pro Christo. They saw themselves as men on a “journey” or a “peregrination” through this world. They acted out of a deep conviction: “No man can serve two masters.” They understood that this type of pilgrimage is like a marriage: it always involves leaving and cleaving. It’s about shaking off one thing in order to lay hold of another.
That’s what it means to be a Pilgrim.