Lisa Deam on Our Pilgrimage Through Lent

Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: WikiMedia Commons / Justin Kauffman / Unsplash
Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: WikiMedia Commons / Justin Kauffman / Unsplash

Lisa Deam has a PhD in medieval art history from the University of Chicago. This article is adapted in part from her book 3000 Miles to Jesus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life for Spiritual Seekers (Broadleaf, 2021).

One of my pet peeves is receiving an email during the latter part of Lent with the sign-off “Happy Easter!” or “Jesus is risen!” I have to fight the temptation to reply, “Not just yet!” Such proclamations, although well meaning, rush me to a destination I’m not ready to reach. Before I experience the joy of Easter morning, a lengthy journey awaits.

Each year during Lent, I point my spiritual feet to Jerusalem, preparing to walk my way to the cross and the empty tomb. The path is difficult and long, leading through the hills and valleys of prayer, personal reckoning, and repentance. But it is necessary—each step I take readies my heart for resurrection.

As a historian, I find guides for Lent in Christians who, in ages past, matched their spiritual journeys with physical ones. In the medieval era, for example, pilgrims regularly traveled to Jerusalem to replicate the last earthly days of Jesus. Jerusalem pilgrimage became a tradition as early as the fourth century when Emperor Constantine (“the Great”) erected a basilica over what was reported to be the newly discovered site of the Crucifixion.

Completed in 335, this basilica, known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, soon drew the world’s faithful. In addition to Calvary Chapel, the church enclosed Christ’s sepulcher, or tomb. To worship at these sites from Jesus’ life, many Christians committed to a long and arduous journey to reach Jerusalem.

In the Middle Ages, pilgrims going to Jerusalem from northern Europe and England walked an astounding distance of 3,000 miles (on average). The most common route took pilgrims to the foot of the Alps, over the mountains, and then to Venice, where ships ferried them across the Mediterranean Sea. Arriving in Jaffa, a port city in the Holy Land, the pilgrims rode donkeys inland to Jerusalem. Each leg of the journey was its own adventure, and each brought them incrementally closer to their goal.

Pilgrim Journeying to the Holy Land
Image: WikiMedia Commons / Illustration by Mallory Rentsch Pilgrim Journeying to the Holy Land

These journeys had a Lenten character, scouring the pilgrims spiritually as they traveled their long and winding road. Pilgrims practiced renunciation as they left behind the comforts of their familiar, everyday life. They also engaged in a fair amount of soul-searching.

The 15th-century friar Felix Fabri experienced severe bouts of homesickness on his journey and struggled to balance his emotional anguish with his desire for Jerusalem. After deciding to stay on the road, he then had to face down one of his greatest fears—the sea. He got in a boat, trusting God to see him through. As winds and storms tossed the boat about, he and his traveling companions cried out for God’s mercy.

I think about these journeys as I begin my own slow pilgrimage through Lent. Endeavoring to stay with my practices of prayer and repentance is a bit like undertaking a long-distance journey. I’m in it for the long haul, although I often falter, especially when I see the mountain passes and stormy waters that lie ahead.

The temptation to bypass the challenging parts of this journey is ever with me. Yet I know that I won’t be prepared to enter Jerusalem without crossing the mountains and the sea. And I certainly won’t get there unless, like Fabri, I cry out to God. Realizing my desperate need for God—and receiving his mercy—is one of the gifts of Lent that I would not want to sacrifice by taking a shortcut through the season. So I put one foot in front of the other and continue walking.

Felix Fabri is not the only pilgrim to accompany me on my journey. I find another companion in the laywoman Margery Kempe, credited with writing the first autobiography in the English language. Kempe reports that God bid her go on pilgrimage to Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago de Compostela. She set out for Jerusalem first, in 1413, filled with a desire to “see those places where [Jesus] was born and where he suffered His Passion and where He died, along with other holy places where He was during His life and also after His Resurrection.”

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Source: Christianity Today