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The Accidental Pilgrim

New book examines contemporary understanding of pilgrimages

By Ross Lockhart

The Accidental Pilgrim: Modern Journeys on Ancient Pathways
By Maggi Dawn
(Hodder & Stoughton) $32.99


“We’re standing on holy ground,” the woman said to her friend in a reverent tone. “I feel like I’m on a pilgrimage,” she whispered, rubbing her debit card as if praying the rosary.

I eavesdropped on this peculiar confession of faith during a recent day trip to Seattle. I was across the street from the Pike Place Market, picking up a coffee in a place that is, for some, a modern-day pilgrimage site: the first Starbucks coffee shop.

“Pilgrimage” is one of those curious words in our Christian lexicon that is part mysterious, part fussy, like “fellowship” or “narthex” or “tithing.” However, in a time when western churches are desperately recovering Christian practices in a quest to make post-modern disciples for Jesus, “pilgrimage” feels like a much-needed prodigal child coming home.

In her new book The Accidental Pilgrim, Maggi Dawn explores our contemporary understanding of pilgrimage. Dawn, a Cambridge-trained theologian, is the new dean of the chapel at Yale Divinity School and writes in a beautiful style that feels like a warm knife through butter. She launches right into a reflection on her first visit to the Holy Land, a trip she made reluctantly, with a suitcase full of skepticism. While Dawn’s visit to the divided region was part of an academic tour, she couldn’t help but notice the mixed motives and actions of pilgrims and tourists alike. Over time, she was transformed by the experience of pilgrimage, describing it as “a physical journey with a spiritual purpose.”

Returning home, Dawn continued to explore pilgrimage from Holy Island in the United Kingdom to the Black Madonna at Rocamadour in France. Her scholarly appetite led her through the Celtic tradition and left her wrestling with our Reformed tradition’s critique of religious journeying, recalling Martin Luther’s firm stand in 1520: “All pilgrimages should be stopped. . . . These
pilgrimages give countless occasions to commit sin and to despise God’s commandments.”

Dawn’s appreciation for pilgrimage grows through the blessing and challenge of motherhood, and her discovery that “pilgrimage occurs despite imperfect circumstances and inconvenient timing.”

At the end of her enjoyable book, Dawn stretches our understanding of pilgrimage, asking us to imagine a journey, not to a distant land, but within ourselves. Confined to home for a summer by painful autoimmune arthritis, Dawn accepted the challenge to be an “armchair pilgrim” and to tend the soul through a journey of study and spirit. Her varied practices led her to an epiphany that “in the end, whether by accident or on purpose, it’s not where you go but who you become that makes you a pilgrim.”

Rev. Ross Lockhart is a minister at West Vancouver United and leads pilgrimages to Ireland and Israel.


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