By Erin Jean Warde
If you looked at my iCal right now you would see a regular date, time, and an alert set for “Pilgrimage Meeting.” In mid-May, I’ll travel to St. George’s College, Jerusalem, with a group of pilgrims from my church, and then in July I will be the clergy chaperone for a youth pilgrimage to Edinburgh and Iona, Scotland. I’ve done some traveling before, but this seems different. While in seminary, I participated in the Canterbury Scholars program, which was transformative, but I will admit I did not give it the prep work I should have, in every sort of way. (This was made clear by what I packed, and the bulk of luggage I carried in a country with very few elevators.)
At the turn of the year, it hit me that I was only months away from the first of these two pilgrimages, which might as well be back to back. (Read: based on my laundry practices, I will just be getting the clothes out of the dryer from the Holy Land when it’s time to put them back in my pack for Scotland.) I decided, with all the zeal of a “new year” attitude, that I would take these pilgrimages more seriously.
I had attended the first few youth pilgrimage meetings, and was up to speed with the required reading for the journey to Iona. Our youth minister had sent me the packing list, which I had already begun obsessively reading — while huffing lavender oil. It is the most intense packing list I have ever received. Most trips I took in youth group simply stressed that you could not attend if you didn’t have a devotional Bible. I’m pretty sure a toothbrush was optional, but the sword-like Word of God was your only ticket for admittance.
In contrast, the readings and conversation for the youth trip were about preparation — equal parts spiritual and practical. We were given a packing list, but we were also asked to wonder why each item we packed was important to us. We were asked to think and pray about needs vs. wants. We reflected together on each act of preparation as a prayerful step on the road, not just to a physical destination, but to a destination of divine meeting.
What are you taking with you? What are you leaving behind?
I distinctly remember the moment in our meeting when I got that excited-but-scared feeling in my stomach. The destinations are beautiful and holy places, but they require me to enter and then leave their sacred ground as a different person. And I am doing this twice in one summer. Do you think they will cancel out?
Even before our pilgrimage meetings, I had made an executive decision to simplify some things in my life, specifically my wardrobe. I got rid of 216 items from my closet, including clothing, accessories, shoes, etc. It felt like a relief. The packing list for the pilgrimage, then, felt like another step in a greater desire I’ve been cultivating: to focus my life around my true values. The epiphanic moment was my realization that self and soul would inevitably be changed by these trips — into what, I am still unsure.
As quick as the moment met me, it was ushered away by the great and almighty packing list. I decided to go through it one day — five times over; I am nothing if not thorough — so that I could begin seeing what items I already had, and what I needed to purchase. I wanted to put a budget together so that each month I checked more items off my list, but without wrecking my monthly budget, or waiting until the very end and not showing up with what I needed due to cash flow. Imagine the conversation: My apologies for not having any wool socks; I went out to dinner in April.
I have never really had easy-to-carry luggage, or myriad other travel items. It was high time to make a list of things that I would spend some money on for this trip. Bug spray, pack towels, sunscreen: these were not investments; I could get them at Target.
However, I also learned that everything can be an investment if you want it to be, which became part of the problem. I chose investment items based on their importance to both pilgrimages, and their utility for journeys in the future. My investment list: SLR camera, backpack with daypack, quality rain jacket, quality regular jacket, and waterproof footwear. Given the breadth of the full list, these felt like good and important purchases that were worth the investment, and worth becoming a member of the REI Co-op.
As I walked into REI, I was completely overwhelmed. It was akin to walking into a seventh-grade dance. What if someone else has the same Marmot jacket? Does one of us have to leave the island?
What I eventually bought was only the Co-op membership. My prayerful journey of self-reflection and piety resulted in the following theological questions:
WWJD: checked baggage or carry on?
Do you think people need kayaks in the Holy Land? This one is 30 percent off, just saying.
Do these duo-dry pants make my butt look big?
If Jesus spent most of his time on the road, don’t you think he would have used a Yeti tumbler, had they been around?
As I enter the real land of Jesus, where he walked, preached, healed, do you think Oboz will offer sufficient arch support?
It seems that the act of pilgrimage takes on the characteristics of a walk into the wilderness. A pilgrimage differentiates itself from a vacation, because it is not a trip to see the sights, but a journey wherein we try to see the heart of God so deeply that we must also then see ourselves.
The Gospel of Matthew says that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted (Matt. 4:1). My journey into the wilderness, into pilgrimage, has been rife with temptation, even though I haven’t boarded the plane yet.
In a capitalistic society with brand-name water, I am forced to reckon first with the reality that I could spend thousands of dollars and never say a single prayer. I won’t lie to you: I am still researching the best waterproof footwear, best pack for my travels, and what kind of jackets I think work best for me. But I’m not going to walk in and buy the most expensive of any of my items. I’m choosing quality plus affordability, because the point is to be prepared, not to be selfish. In case you’re wondering, I’m dedicating more time to prayer than to the REI website.
The act of pilgrimage is not one of gathering tools for myself, but instead of self-emptying so that my soul is ready to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Inevitably, that voice will lead me into the wilderness to be tempted, and it will not be a pack full of name-brand gear that will see me to the end of my temptation. I’m still figuring out, with the help of God and a spiritual director, what work I have before me to make my soul ready to take my first step into the coarse soil of the wilderness. But what I know, even now as I still prepare, is this: What will guide me to the end of my journey is prayer, immersion in prayerful community, study of Scripture as a lamp unto my feet, and trust that God will help me see the road before me through the eyes of faith.
The Rev. Erin Jean Warde is associate rector for Christian formation at Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Dallas. Erin is a native Alabamian who loves Texas. Her MDiv is from Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, and her undergraduate degree in English and creative writing was earned at Troy University in Alabama. She enjoys writing, reading, learning how to cook, and all things comedic.