The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life

Lecture given by Jim Forest at Maryknoll 28 March 2007; the talk is mainly composed of passages from a forthcoming book of the same title

For a child growing up in America, the word “pilgrim” had no religious connotations. Mainly heard in the plural, “Pilgrims” referred to a community of storm-defying, black-clad English Puritans who crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower, founding the village of Plymouth on the edge of Massachusetts Bay in December 1620. It wasn’t the destination the Pilgrims intended — their goal had been in Virginia — but rather where a furious winter storm delivered them. Pilgrims that they were, they accepted this as God’s will. The following Fall, the Pilgrims, with the local Indians who had helped them survive, organized a feast to celebrate a successful harvest. It was the origin of America’s favorite annual holiday. Thanksgiving was a feast that turned “pilgrim” into a word a child could inhale, two syllables that smelled of stuffed turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, creamed onions and pumpkin pie.

It was in eighth grade that I discovered that, long before the Mayflower set sail, there was another sort of pilgrim. This news came from the World Book Encyclopedia, a handsomely-bound set of books a meter wide that some generous soul had donated to the school and which providentially had landed in my classroom. It seemed to me a gift that had fallen out of heaven. I read my way through it, beginning with the first volume on the left: Aardvark to Bermuda. In the second volume I discovered an illustration from an early copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: a medieval picture of a group of colorfully dressed men and women making their way on horseback from London to Canterbury Cathedral under a lapis lazuli sky. Inside the cathedral, the text explained, Archbishop Thomas Becket had been murdered by knights of King Henry II on December 29, 1170, the churchman’s skull split by a sword. In the same instant, Thomas Becket was made a holy martyr and blood-stained Canterbury turned into a magnet for anyone drawn to pilgrimage. It also was the beginning of an enduring delight in the writings of Chaucer, the 14th Century English poet whose unhurried pilgrims traded tales, creating a pathway of stories linking London to Canterbury.

Pilgrimage: almost the same as pilgrim, yet the added syllable created another word to ponder. It made my thoughts leap across the Atlantic to the Old World in medieval days. The idea of riding on a horse while sharing tales with fellow travelers made pilgrimage seem an appealing adventure. While I knew very little about bishops and kings and still less about King Henry’s motives in wanting an archbishop’s life cut short by the sword, it wasn’t necessary for anyone to explain to a thirteen-year-old boy why the blood-stained floor of a church might become a spot toward which people would be powerfully drawn.

My first full-scale pilgrimage book was Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s tale of a runaway boy and escaped slave traveling at night by raft down the Mississippi River. There were no holy martyr’s bones pulling them forward, just the river’s insistent flow, but these two travelers were on a kind of pilgrimage: a search for freedom. Floating on the nighttime currents of the Mississippi River, staring upward at diamond-bright stars, struck me as a much better way to begin a dialogue with the universe than in a classroom. Not that Mark Twain called their quest a pilgrimage. His book made no reference to Huck and Jim being on any sort of religious pursuit. Yet I sensed their journey, for all it hazards and despite the absence of shrines or relics, offered these two travelers occasional glimpses of heaven.

If I had been in school half a century earlier, John Bunyan’s book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, would surely have been assigned reading. In the English-speaking world, from the late seventeenth century until well into the twentieth, it was a book nearly as popular as the Bible. Indeed many homes had those two books and no others. But by the nineteen-fifties, I wonder if there was a single copy of Bunyan’s book in our school library? If there was, I never spotted it.

It wasn’t until I was taking a survey course in English Literature at Hunter College in Manhattan that I read John Bunyan’s book. The central figure, Christian, is an everyman character trying to find his way from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. It is no easy journey. The obstacles are many. He is directed to find the Wicket Gate, representing the entrance to the “narrow way” that Christ speaks of in the Gospel, but is led astray by Mr. Worldly Wiseman as well as Mr. Legality and his son Civility, inhabitants of the village of Morality. Yet at last Christian finds the Wicket Gate where he is granted a vision of Jesus himself.

Bunyan’s book helped me understand that the word “pilgrim” could be used in a metaphorical sense: every life without exception a non-stop pilgrimage from the womb to the grave, a successful pilgrimage if one made it to heaven, a tragic failure if one fell into hell.

I came to Hunter College as a part-time student in the fall of 1961, having a few months earlier been given an early discharge from the Navy on grounds of conscientious objection. At the time I was part of the Catholic Worker community on Chrystie Street in lower Manhattan, a place that gave yet another meaning to the word “pilgrimage.”

The founder of the community and its dominating presence was Dorothy Day. Her column in the monthly newspaper we published, The Catholic Worker, was called “On Pilgrimage.” This was an on-going diary — news of Dorothy’s travels but also accounts of visitors, books she was reading, talks she had attended, perhaps even the opera she had heard by radio the previous Sunday afternoon. Dorothy gave the word “pilgrimage” a meaning that was immediate rather than medieval. It was along John Bunyan lines: every day of one’s life and all that happened along the way, planned or unexpected, were segments of a heavenward pilgrimage so long as the guiding principle was to live the Gospel and to discover Christ in those whom one encountered. Pilgrimage for Dorothy was a way of life, a mode of listening, an attitude that motivated choices, a discipline of being.

I began to regard my own life in terms of pilgrimage.

One memorable experiment in pilgrimage was a late summer bicycle ride from lower Manhattan to St. Joseph’s Abbey, a Trappist monastery near Spencer in western Massachusetts. Traveling with less than $20 in my pocket, I slept in orchards along the way. Luckily the weather was hospitable. So were the monks. To make myself more presentable, I had first gone to a barber shop in the nearby town and gotten my first (and last) professional shave, a major but useful investment. Though I was entirely unexpected and probably the only guest in a long time to reach their monastery by bicycle, I was given use of a bed in the guest house attic, a job helping in the guest house kitchen, and was invited to attend talks being given by one of the monks to retreatants, mainly monsignors who had arrived on four wheels rather than two.

The next major pilgrimage came in the winter, this time hitch-hiking, starting from Spring Street in lower Manhattan with the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky as destination — a thousand miles of petitionary travel in weather that was not only cold but often wet and icy. I remember standing long, dark hours in sleet outside a truck stop in Pennsylvania waiting for a driver to pull over and offer a lift. Many plastic statues of Jesus and Mary sailed by in rain-spattered cars and trucks. Two and a half days later, in the late afternoon, my fellow hitch-hiker, Bob Kaye, and I stood at the monastery gate, exhausted but happy as children on Christmas morning.

This time at least I was expected. The visit had begun with an invitation from one of the monks, the writer Thomas Merton, but our date of arrival was approximate as was the length of our stay. This time I had failed to see a barber first. The abbot, Dom James, quickly passed the word via Merton that if this particular shaggy pilgrim was to stay more than one night, he must have a haircut. This occurred the next morning in a basement room where monastic haircuts were dispensed that put the recipient in a state of near baldness. Though in principal Trappist monks aim for silence and in those days did most of their communicating by sign language, the novices stood around me in a state of continuous laughter as my hair fell to the concrete floor. Merton told me I looked like a young Gandhi. All I needed was a loin cloth and walking stick.

There have been many pilgrimages since then, some on foot, some by bike, others by car and train and even airplane.

The jewel of them all was a three-month stay between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the spring of 1985. After all, for the Christian, Jerusalem — as the city of Christ’s Resurrection — will always be the center of the world. Bethlehem, the town of his birth, is nearby, less than a day’s walk away. In the course of twenty centuries, millions of Christian have made the Holy Land their goal, with Jerusalem being the most important single place to walk and pray, and Bethlehem a close second.

That spring I was teaching at the Ecumenical Institute, a graduate school with links to Notre Dame University. As we had children to care for, one still in diapers, Nancy and I generally took turns going into Jerusalem or Bethlehem for days of pilgrimage while the other stayed at Tantur taking care of the kids.

It was in the course of one of these frequent visits to Jerusalem, while standing in line to enter the tomb where Christ’s body was laid after his crucifixion and in which he rose from the dead, that Nancy found herself standing behind a couple who weren’t quite sure where they were, while behind her was a group of Greek women in black, each of the holding as many candles as their hands could grasp. The couple in front of her were trying to decide where they were.

“Is this where he was born?” the wife asked. “No,” her husband answered, “that was yesterday — Bethlehem.” They went inside the small tomb, took photos, and left, still unclear where they had been. All the while the Greek women were quietly weeping. When it was their turn, one by one they knelt by the stone stab that for them marked the center of the cosmos, the exact spot where Christ, God incarnate, had risen from death. They lit their candles and then, leaving the tomb, blew them out. Now they had a precious gift for relatives and friends at home: candles which had been burned in the place of the Resurrection.

“Today I stood on the borderline between tourism and pilgrimage,” Nancy told me that evening.

For St. Paul, being a pilgrim was the calling of every Christian. We become strangers and pilgrims the moment we realize we are seeking the Kingdom of God. As he put it in his letter to the Hebrews:

These [our spiritual ancestors, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob] all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

It’s a question each of us might ask: What does it means to be a pilgrim? In what ways am I a pilgrim?

Clearly for St. Paul, one didn’t have to be a traveler to be a pilgrim. Pilgrimage is a way of living an ordinary Christian life, no matter where you happen to be. It’s only later on that pilgrimage began to mean traveling a great distance in order to reach one of God’s “thin places,” as the Celts called destinations where ordinary matter seems especially charged with God’s presence.

No matter how short the distances and familiar the route you travel on a given day, you can do it as a pilgrim — and no matter how long the journey or how sacred its destination, it’s possible to be nothing more than a tourist. Whether the journey is within your own back yard or takes you to the other side of the world, the potential is there for the greatest of adventures: a journey not only toward Christ but with him.

One of the primary metaphors of pilgrimage is the road to Emmaus. It’s the setting of a resurrection story told by Luke. We meet the risen Christ traveling unrecognized with two disciples as they make their way to Emmaus, a village described as being seven miles — less than a two-hour walk — from Jerusalem.

The two friends are escaping from a tragedy in Jerusalem and perhaps also running from possible personal danger. It wasn’t at all clear that Jesus’ disciples weren’t next in line for punishment. The two were not only mourners, but disillusioned mourners. Jesus had failed to meet their expectations. The person they fervently believed would become the new king of Israel, heir to David’s throne, not only isn’t ruling Israel but is in his grave. The candle of their messianic hopes has been snuffed out. His closest followers were in hiding. Their homeland was still ruled by Romans, undergirded by a second tier of well-rewarded Jewish collaborators. The kingdom of God that Jesus had said was already present now seemed infinitely distant.

Conversation would not have been easy. Deep grief is rarely a talkative condition. The words they hewed out of silence were confused, bitter, angry. Their beloved teacher was dead and buried. Everything that mattered had turned to dust. The world had no center. Life’s axis had crumbled. Death once again had proven itself life’s defining event. Existence had no meaning, no pattern. People of virtue perish while their persecutors feast. How could one speak of a merciful and all powerful God? Ruthless power, corruption, betrayal and the triumph of the grave — this was Good Friday’s bitter message.

Walking side by side, breathing dust, the two friends are joined by a stranger who appears without a word of description. He doesn’t impress the two men as being somehow familiar. They fail to notice his wounds. Without apology he joins their conversation. He wonders why they are so downcast. They are amazed at the stranger’s ignorance. One of the men, Cleopas, asks the stranger how is it possible that he doesn’t know what has happened in Jerusalem in recent days. Could anyone share in this particular Passover and be unaware of what happened to Jesus of Nazareth? Only a week ago Jesus had entered the city in triumph, joyful crowds putting palms in his path and shouting hosannas. And now the man who should have redeemed Israel had been condemned by the high priests, renounced by the very crowds that had cheered him, and sentenced to public execution under the authority of Rome’s agent, Pontius Pilate. Finally he had been ritually murdered while soldiers threw dice for his clothing. Jesus’ followers had dared to hope for a miracle even when Jesus was taken away to Golgotha — after all, he had raised Lazarus from death — but the man who had been able to bring others back to life proved powerless to save himself. Yes, the two men had heard the wild tale told earlier in the day by a few grief-stricken women — angels, an empty tomb, Jesus alive again — but truly it was an unbelievably tale.

The stranger listened patiently. At last he responded, “O foolish men, so slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then, starting with Moses and going on to all the prophets, he explained all the scriptural texts concerning the Messiah.

By this time they had reached the outskirts of Emmaus, apparently the place where the two friends planned to end their journey or at least spend the night. The stranger appeared to be going further, but they were so taken with his authoritative explanations of the prophecies of scripture that they appealed to him to join them for a meal in the local inn. “Stay with us,” they said, “for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.”

Even when they sat down to eat, the stranger was still nameless and unrecognized, yet it was he who presided at the table, taking bread, blessing it, breaking it and giving it to them. It’s at this point in Luke’s Gospel that we get one of the most breathtaking sentences in the New Testament: “And their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”(Luke 24:31)

Perhaps they recognized him because, at last, they noticed his wounds as he blessed and broke the bread.

What happened on the road to Emmaus, and finally in Emmaus itself, was the first Christian pilgrimage. Every pilgrimage, whether to a local park or to some distant place at the end of a well-trodden pilgrim road thick with miracles, is in its roots a journey to Emmaus, and every pilgrimage is animated with a similar hope: to meet the risen Christ along the way.

As I said, you don’t have to travel far to walk the road to Emmaus. One of the shortest pilgrim routes is to your own front door.

Over breakfast one morning, Nancy asked me, “What is the most important thing in the house?” I thought first of our icons, then certain treasured books, then works of art that hang on our walls. “That’s not it,” Nancy said. “The most important thing is the front door. The front door is the place where whoever knocks is made welcome or kept distant. The front door is directly connected to the Last Judgment.”

There is no pilgrim who wouldn’t agree. Just as important as setting out on a journey is finding open doors and welcoming faces along the way. For the traditional hotel-avoiding pilgrim following the route to Santiago de Compostela, without the many hospices along the way, few would be able walk those paths, least of all those with little money. Thousands of people, mainly volunteers, staff the hospices, provide meals, bandage blisters, give advice, tell stories and listen to them.

But dependence on hospitality doesn’t only apply to pilgrims far from home. Each of us depends on the care of others, especially care that is given freely — care that expresses love. Where would I be in life had it not been for the care of others: parents, teachers, friends, co-workers, clergy, and strangers?

The pilgrim, in the sense of a traveler far from home, is by definition an outsider, a stranger. It is no bad thing to be an outsider. The Greek word is xenos, which is part of the Greek word for hospitality — filoxenia, literally love of the outsider.

Hospitality is not only a duty but a blessing, and a shared blessing at that. One can speak of the sacrament, or mystery (from the Greek word mysterion, the Orthodox term for a sacrament), of hospitality. For those with eyes to see, the guest is an angel in disguise, like those heaven-sent angelic guests who were welcomed by Abraham and Sarah under the oak of Mamre.

There are still societies in which one can experience filoxenia. In such cultures, there is little need for hotels.

In a memoir, Tatiana Goricheva, then a university student living in what was still called Leningrad, recalls going to the village of Pechory adjacent to one of the few monasteries still surviving in the final years of the Soviet Union. She discovered that all she needed to do to find shelter in this community without hotels was to knock on any door and say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The response from the person answering the door was, “Amen!” She was immediately a well cared for guest. [Tatiana Goricheva, Talking About God is Dangerous (New York: Crossroad, 1987), p 70.]

Not everyone can practice the same degree of hospitality. One has to know one’s limits and to practice discernment. One’s vocation, other obligations and the condition of the family are among the factors that have to be taken into account. Hospitality cannot be forced. Yet what a gift it is has been for our children, in the years they were growing up, to share our table with so many people from so many countries, from Nobel laureates to backpacking kids, from the sensitive and helpful to the socially clueless and energy-consuming.

I recall our daughter Cait being disappointed that we were without a guest that particular evening and asking, “Isn’t there anyone we could invite?”

While the children were still living with us, when there was a guest we would place a world globe on the table so the guest could point out where he or she lived. Our kids learned geography via hospitality. Just as often we would dig up an old issue of National Geographic magazine and ask the guest to tell us about photos taken in his or her homeland.

One can see practically everything that matters in life in terms of hospitality. Marriage is a pilgrimage of hospitality: a man and a woman each making space in their life for the other. It’s an ongoing crash course in self-giving love versus selfishness. Parenthood too is a journey of hospitality. It’s hard to think of a more demanding hospitality than bearing children and then, once they are born, adjusting one’s life to these amazing, unfamiliar guests with their infinity of needs. Perhaps it’s in the crucible of family life that we gradually become more capable of welcoming strangers.

When asked about my education, occasionally I say I am a graduate of “Dorothy Day University,” then correct myself to say I am still attending classes while working on a degree in hospitality. It’s a university which many attend and from which no one ever graduates. Learning hospitality is a lifetime project, an endless pilgrimage.

Despite her death in 1980, Dorothy Day is one of the people who helps my wife ane me open the front door. It’s no wonder so many places of welcome bear her name. She has inspired many to practice hospitality, was herself among the founders of several houses of hospitality, and lived in various houses of hospitality from 1933 until she died. Now she seems to be on her way to being formally recognized as a saint. Her writings continue to influence many people.

Her basic message — borrowed from the Gospel– was stunningly simple: we are called by God to love one another as God loves us.

Again and again Dorothy repeated a simple instruction from the early Church, “Every home should have a Christ room in it, so that hospitality may be practiced.” Hospitality, she explained, is simply practicing God’s mercy with those around us. Christ is in the stranger, in the person who has nowhere to go and no one to welcome him. “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed,” she often said.

Keep in mind that there is not only hospitality of the door but, even more important, hospitality of the face. Dorothy had a face of welcome.

Dorothy was one of the freest persons alive, yet also one of the most disciplined. This was most notable in her religious life. The sacraments were the bedrock of her existence. Whether traveling or home, it was a rare day when Dorothy didn’t go to Mass, while on Saturday evenings she went to confession. What could she possibly have to confess, I once asked her. “My awful temper,” she replied, “and my impatience.”

She never obliged anyone to follow her example, but God knows she gave an example. When I think of her, the first image that comes to mind is Dorothy on her knees praying before the Blessed Sacrament either in the chapel at the Catholic Worker farm or in one of several urban parish churches near the Catholic Worker. One day, looking into the Bible and Missal she had left behind when summoned for an urgent phone call, I found long lists of people, living and dead, whom she prayed for daily. There was a special list for those who had committed suicide.

Occasionally she spoke of her “prayings”: “We feed the hungry, yes,” she told her friend Bob Coles. “We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes, but there is strong faith at work; we pray. If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn’t pay attention to our prayings and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.” [Robert Coles, Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1987).]

As tends to be the case with pilgrims, she was attentive to fast days and fast seasons. It was in that connection she told me a story about prayer and fasting. For many years, she said, she had been a heavy smoker. Her day began with lighting up a cigarette. Her main sacrifice every Lent was giving up smoking, but having to get by without a cigarette made her increasingly irritable as the days passed, until the rest of the Catholic Worker was praying she would light up a smoke. One year, as Lent approached, the priest who ordinarily heard her confessions urged her not to give up cigarettes that year but instead to pray daily, “Dear God, help me stop smoking.” She used that prayer for several years without it having any impact on her addiction. Then one morning she woke up, reached for a cigarette, and realized she didn’t want it. She never smoked again.

One of the miracles of Dorothy’s life is that she remained part of a conflict-torn community for nearly half a century. Still more remarkable, she remained a person of hope and gratitude to the end. She occasionally spoke of “the duty of hope.” Even in her final years, when hardly able to leave her room, she never ceased being a pilgrim.

Even though many have come to regard her as a saint, Dorothy was and remains a controversial lady. There was hardly anything she did which didn’t attract criticism.

Even hospitality scandalizes some people. We were blamed for making people worse, not better, because we were doing nothing to “reform them.” A social worker once asked Dorothy how long the down-and-out were permitted to stay. “We let them stay forever,” Dorothy answered brusquely. “They live with us, they die with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after they are dead. Once they are taken in, they become members of the family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.”

What got her in the most hot water were her sharp social criticisms and her rejection of war. She pointed out that patriotism was a far more powerful force in the lives of most Christians than the Gospel. While she hated every form of tyranny and never ceased to be thankful for America having taken in so many people fleeing poverty and repression, she was fierce in her criticism of capitalism and consumerism. She said America had a tendency “to treat people like Kleenex — use them, and throw them away.”

Dorothy was sometimes criticized for being too orthodox in her religious convictions. How could she be so radical about social matters and so conservative in her theology? While she occasionally deplored statements or actions by members of the hierarchy, she was by no means an opponent of the bishops or someone furiously campaigning for structural changes in the Church. What was needed, she said, wasn’t new doctrine but our living the existing doctrine. True, some pastors seemed barely Christian, but one had to aim for their conversion, an event that would not be hastened by berating them but rather by helping them see what their vocation required. The way to do that was to set an example.

Pleased as she was when the Liturgy could be celebrated in English as well as Latin, she didn’t take kindly to smudging the border between the sacred and mundane. When a radical priest used a coffee cup for a chalice at a Mass celebrated in the Catholic Worker house on First Street in Manhattan, she afterward took the cup, kissed it, and buried it in the back yard. It was no longer suited for coffee, she said, for it had held the Blood of Christ. I learned more about the Eucharist that day than I had from any book or sermon.

I’m sometimes told, “Dorothy Day gives a fine example for people who don’t have a family to take care of and mortgages to pay, but what about the rest of us?”

The rest of us includes my wife and me. I don’t have enough fingers on one hand to count our children, and I know all about paying a mortgage. But every time we open the door to guests, it’s partly thanks to Dorothy Day. Every time I think about things in the bright light of the Gospel rather than in the grey light of money or the dim light of politics, her example has had its influence. Every time I try to overcome meanness or selfishness rising up in myself, it is partly thanks to the example of Dorothy Day. Every time I defeat the impulse to buy something I can get along without, Dorothy Day’s example of voluntary poverty has had renewed impact. Every time I try to see Christ’s presence in the face of a stranger, there again I owe a debt to Dorothy Day. No one else has made me think so much about the words we will hear at the Last Judgment: “What you did to the least person, you did to me.” What I know of Christ, the Church, sacramental life, the Bible, and truth-telling, I know in large measure thanks to her, while whatever I have done that was cowardly, opportunistic or cruel, is despite her. She has even influenced my reading life — it was Dorothy who steered me to Dostoevsky’s novels. Indeed, it was a command.

It isn’t that Dorothy Day is the point of reference. Christ is. But I can’t think of anyone I’ve known whose Christ-centered life did so much to help make me a more Christ-centered person. No one has given me a more vivid idea of what it means to be a pilgrim.

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Jim and Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands
phone number: 072-515-4180 (outside Holland: 00-31-72-515-4180)
Mobile: 06-510-11-250 (outside Holland: 00-31-6-510-11-250)
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