Making Our Way Home: Spiritual Journey as Pilgrimage

It’s the Fourth of July, 2002. I’m in lower Manhattan, walking south. It is hot, even though it is still morning. The air around me is tight, the light a brilliant white bleaching out the colour from buildings, trees, sidewalks. The streets are deserted, most shops shuttered against the heat. The financial district of this city built on commerce pauses to mark Independence Day, and the empty streets—usually so filled with bustling hurrying crowds—seem strange and haunted.

I’m not entirely sure why I’m here. I had been visiting with family and, with some time on my hands before my train, I knew, somehow, there was something I needed to do.

I pass a closed off subway station exit and the acrid smell of burned metal, sharp and insistent, emerges from within its barricaded tunnels.

Ground Zero. Like thousands around the world, I had seen live video of the events of that terrible day some ten months earlier, stared in mesmerized horror at the destruction wrought on hundreds and hundreds of innocent people.

Why have I come here?

Even as I approach the site, I am asking myself this. There isn’t much to do except look through a chain link fence at where rubble has been cleared, at a cross made from steel beams pulled from the wreckage, to walk along a sidewalk memorial outside a church remarkably untouched by the destruction visited upon its neighbour, and marvel in silence at the photographs, T-shirts, flowers, drawings, candles lining the iron fence, to read silently the names of the dead.

The sign by the place where pedestrians can look out onto Ground Zero reads: NO VENDORS. But on every other street, here they are: hawking calendars of firefighters and police officers, NY Police Department memorabilia, framed photographs of the twin towers at night, US flags—lots of American flags.

More vendors are arriving as I continue to walk, setting up their stands in the growing July heat, selling lemonade and hot dogs, and T-shirts, post cards, bumper stickers emblazoned with UNITED WE STAND, emblazoned with GOD BLESS AMERICA, emblazoned with stars and stripes and bald eagles, a display of kitsch memorabilia, the tourist trinkets you can take home with you to say to the world: I was there. I went there.

Because the tacky tourists who—like me—come to this place will need something to remember it by. And there will be somebody here to sell it to you—there will always be someone to sell here in this very place of world trade.

I find myself tangled momentarily in a gawking gaggle of tourists, snapping photographs, talking loudly, pointing. Annoyed, I try to untie myself from them, walk out ahead of them, get around them, away from them. Then I realize I am one of them.

Come to gawk, to take pictures, to collect trinkets, to say a prayer, to feel something real, to listen for the echoes—death, pain, grief, disaster—reverberating in widening circles out from this very place, this very site, into an increasingly complex twenty-first century world.

Come for first hand experience, to see first hand the devastation, and not the record of the devastation. Come to see for myself, to experience for myself what depraved injury had been visited upon this place. Come to see it with my own eyes, the place and not the record of the place, the place and not its sign.

Come to mourn, to feel deeply, to untie the terrible knots my soul had been twisted into since the events of September 11, 2001. I’m here to be a witness. And take back whatever I experience here into my daily life and be illuminated by its insights. I’ve come here to be changed.


There are places in our world that seem to contain the powers of renewal, places to which people flock seeking healing, enlightenment, inspiration. There are places in the world toward which we are drawn, places of power that seem to offer transformation and wholeness. The spirit longs for what might make us whole again, bends toward powers of regeneration.

People throughout time and across many cultures have travelled to such places, made pilgrimages to such holy sites. Perhaps, filled with hopes and wounds, something within them is drawn to certain mountains and springs, temples and cathedrals, rocks and rivers, just that way that I, with my hopes and wounds, was drawn toward Ground Zero.

I had felt a need to go there, in my own pilgrimage of struggling to understand. I had felt drawn there, a gravitational pull I can only describe in terms of a journey toward insight, witness, transformation. Essentially, spiritual terms. Even as I questioned my travelling to that site, I felt compelled.

Pilgrimage is an ancient spiritual practice of leaving what is comfortable and familiar to journey across the terrain of the unknown to a significant place, the vision of which drives us on, the arrival at which powers us forward. To be present where it all happened, physically present. To experience, if only by proxy and approximation, what took place there, what was revealed there.

Pilgrimage is a practice that gives us our most enduring metaphors for spirituality, for the inner life. We speak often of being on a journey, of our spiritual journey, being on a path, of walking together.

In his book The Orthodox Way, Kallistos Ware tells the story of Sarapion the Sidionite, one of the desert fathers, that group of fourth century women and men who fled to wild and abandoned places to live ascetic, monastic lives. Sarapion was a great traveller before becoming a monk and once made a pilgrimage to Rome. There, he was told of a famous recluse, a woman who prayed and meditated all day, never leaving her room. Sarapion visited her and sceptically asked, “Why are you just sitting there?” To which she replied, “I am not sitting. I am on a journey.”

I’m not sitting, I’m on a journey. This summarizes nicely my own experience of my daily meditation practice. Outwardly, of course, I am just sitting but in truth I have been on a journey. I’m not the same man I was when I began years ago, and the discipline of contemplative prayer and meditation are what I attribute much of my own spiritual and personal growth to. Transformation, in my experience, is rarely dramatic and overnight but is rather a cumulative process of trials and errors, of intentional cultivation and slow, patient growth.

For me, being a person of faith is only partly about beliefs, religious philosophies, and theological ideas. Being a person of faith, for me, is a way of life. It’s a way of conducting myself in the world, toward others, and with communities of accountability.

Ideas, scriptures, creeds, philosophies, and theology are important, the way a map is an important tool for finding your way. They can be the map – the description of the territory – but they are not the territory.

They can be means by which we discern the path, but they are not the path.

Living one’s faith is a matter of daily actions that embody one’s aspirations – daily acts of compassion and care, of study and celebration, solidarity and service. It’s a matter of walking the talk. It’s a way of experience, of seeing for ourselves. The map is necessary for the journey but is no substitute for practice, for actually hitting the road.

Such maps orient our religious lives, providing a sense of direction toward where our hearts yearn to go. They provide a true north toward which bends the individual needle of our personal compass.

The pilgrimage to Mecca, for a Muslim, is a central tenet in the practice of Islam; pilgrimage (the hajj) is one of the five pillars of Islam. And just as pilgrims walk around the holy places in Mecca, rotating or circumambulating around the Kaaba, like planets orbiting a sun, so Muslims around the world are oriented toward Mecca in prayer. When praying, Muslims face toward the holy city.

What direction are you pointed in? What orients your spiritual and ethical life?

Such a cartography keeps us from being bandied about by spiritual fads, spiritual-but-not-religious fads. There’s always room for course corrections, to be sure. Yet remaining constant to essentials, to the very values and virtues that command our loyalty, is the surest compass we can have as we make our way.

As we make our way slowly, deliberately, trusting in the outcome that may yet be beyond the horizon.

Ours is a culture that assumes anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. If something is to be done, we assume it can be done quickly and efficiently. Why walk hundreds of miles through the mountains of France and Spain when you can fly to Santiago de Compostela?

Our attention spans are shortened, truncated by television’s and the Internet’s immediacy. We get abridged versions of the story. An authentic religious life is difficult to cultivate in this context because it implies a discipline and staying power that goes against the grain of a culture marked by the immediate and the casual.

In our religious lives, contemporary people expect the abridged version of the story, the record of the place and not the place itself. We are all too willing to collect the tourist trinkets of a holy place and move on to the next spiritual trend.

“The essential thing is that there should be long obedience in the same direction. There thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.” Friedrich Nietzsche

A long obedience in the same direction results in something which makes life worth living. The fruits of a spiritual practice – and I include involvement in a faith community among those spiritual practices – don’t come instantly. Any more than running a marathon comes instantly after one’s first run. We live in a culture that instils in us a desire for instant results and impatience when these aren’t delivered immediately.

Staying on the path, even when the way gets difficult or the weather rough, is the mark of an authentic spiritual seeker. The one bound to find something, to touch the powers of regeneration and healing, is the one dedicated to walking the walk, to a long obedience in the same direction, to staying true to one’s intention. It’s the difference between being a seeker and a dilettante, between experiencing the holy and merely collecting the kitschy trinkets.

It’s the difference between being a pilgrim and being a tourist.

Being on the journey, walking the path of liberal religion, walking the way of compassion and peace and solidarity, deserves our attention and commitment. Being sufficiently committed to our congregations, to our meditation practice, to our prayer life, to whatever our daily spiritual disciplines include, is important and necessary. Having moments of clarity and insight, moments of transcendence and joy, are important milestones, meaningful experiences along the way.

Are those moments the point of spirituality? Do we wander aimlessly, accumulating them willy-nilly? What is the point of spiritual practice? If the spiritual life, the cultivation of our inner life, is a journey, then what’s the destination?

So here’s the thing. Here’s the difficulty I have with the metaphor of spiritual journey. We have a tendency to think that the destination of the journey is the holy city, the sacred site, the mountaintop experience. But then what? What happens when we get there?

Staying there is not the point of making a pilgrimage. That’s not pilgrimage—that’s exile.

The point of the sacred journey is to go home.

The true destination of any pilgrimage isn’t the holy place; the destination of every pilgrimage is home.

After the journey there must come the journey back.

Which is why, rather than simply journey, I prefer the metaphor of pilgrimage for the spiritual life. Because going to the mountaintop, and being with the teacher, and drawing near to the places containing the seeds of our own healing, is merely act one. Act two is coming down from the mountain, putting the teaching into practice, cultivating the seeds of our wellbeing. Act two is taking off the white clothing of the hajj upon returning from Mecca to begin again the daily round of one’s life. The second act of the pilgrim’s drama is coming home, retracing the steps that brought us to that place and arriving again at the place we began, our point of departure.

I prefer the metaphor of pilgrimage because the real test of whatever truth we learn, or insights we have, on our spiritual quest is what we do with it at home. The true test of any spiritual practice is whether it makes us better people, more loving and understanding and patient and curious.

Does your religion make you more compassionate? Does your religion compel you to live justly, creating and sustaining moral and truthful relationships? Or have you simply come back from the holy places with a handful of trinkets?

The true test of any religious experience is what difference it makes in our home, in our workplace, with our families and friends, with strangers and enemies. The true test of the mountaintop experience isn’t its intensity or brilliance but what light it casts on our daily life. Mountaintop experiences are not tested by their sanctity or how good they make us feel, but rather how they inform how we live our life down here in the ordinary world.

The pilgrim, the hajji, comes back to the village in Indonesia or Morocco or Pakistan, dressed in white. And a kind of aura surrounds them, an honour is paid to them as they recount stories of their journey there and back. And then they get back into their ordinary clothes to re-enter daily life. As the title of one popular book on spiritual practice puts it: After the ecstasy, the laundry. 

Communities of faith, spiritual practice, religious experience – these can be ways of opening to new life-changing truth and insight, to the divine, to others in more authentic ways. These can also be ways of making ourselves feel good or self-satisfied and have no bearing whatsoever on our relationships and commitments.

It is completely possible to bliss out on chanting or singing or doing yoga and still be mean to people! You can go to workshops at the Omega Institute or Kripalu or go on retreat to a monastery, you can read every spiritual book that Oprah recommends and still be petty, lack generosity and compassion, and not become a better person if you are unable or unwilling to put any of the wisdom you have encountered into practice every day.

Have you ever felt a deep call within to experience a place or person or practice? How might you answer such a call? What is it that sustains you as you strive to live a good life, to be a better person? What can you do to maintain what sustains you?

We are all longing to come home to our best and most authentic selves. Finding our way as pilgrims we are gifted with inspiration and longing and adventurousness, direction and orientation, pathways and routes to walk to which we are committed. We are gifted with travel companions, who lift you up when you fall, who egg you on when you falter, and to whom you can be a companion, offering your guidance and help along the way. Our faith communities, at their best, provide us with a context in which we are challenged, edified, encouraged and in which we challenge, edify, and encourage others.


If you go to lower Manhattan today, you can visit the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum in the space once occupied by the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. The memorial features two reflecting pools, each perfectly square, in what are described as footprints of the two towers. Waterfalls line the parameter of each square, living water feeding each reflecting pool, describing in their open shape an absence. Inscribed in bronze parapets bordering each pool are the names of those killed.

Mediating the space between these pools of water and the hustle and bustle of the busy city is a grove of oak trees. One tree that survived the destruction of the towers remains rooted in place there, surrounded now by a small forest of living trees offering up their sweet green leaves each spring, fading into amber colours each fall. You can walk among the trees, reminded of the powers of regeneration and growth, of cycles of life, death, and new life.

I’ve never been. I haven’t yet visited the memorial or the museum, put perhaps the next time I’m in New York City and have the time to go, I’ll visit.







2 thoughts on “Making Our Way Home: Spiritual Journey as Pilgrimage

  1. Dear Rev. Boullata,
    I am a UU/UCC layperson in Dayton, OH and have just discovered your essays after one was posted along with information about the 360 Project of the Tulsa, OK UU Church. Your writing is the most inspiring I have read by a UU minister since that of the late Rev. Forrest Church and I just want to wish you well as you obtain your Phd. A few moments ago I read your essay on clergy burnout which helped my understand this stressful situation for the first time. Since a Phd program has its own stresses & pressures I can only hope that you will find a local faith community in which you can receive the refreshment that brings without being in the pulpit.

    Sincere best wishes, John Bierman
    Miami Valley UU Fellowship, Dayton, OH

    • Thank you, John! Feel free to share those posts you think others would benefit from. True, the PhD has its own pressures, but like parish ministry, its excitement and joys, too!

Comments are closed.