This article, originally a talk given by the author at the Skete of St. Seraphim of Sarov in Moss Beach, California some twenty years ago, breathes the fragrance of the Thebaid, and movingly conveys the Orthodox ‘phronema’, the Mind of the Church, which reminds us that,
“The whole aim of our life is to become holy, that is to become saints, to achieve union with God…”
Somehow, the process of pilgrimage is key to the success of that effort.
In this life-long effort,
“a holy pilgrimage is something which is ‘set apart’ and different from our normal day-to-day activities; it is supposed to be something ‘other-worldly’…”
“Therefore”, Fr. Ambrose urges us, “we must have an understanding of the ‘inner’ pilgrimage, the pilgrimage within our hearts,” the pilgrimage which leads to repentance and conversion.
The Church provides us with the “map” for this journey, this life-long, life-changing pilgrimage, which can lead us, as he says, “from this life to the next, from earthly life to eternal life.”
Venturing on holy pilgrimages to the sacred monasteries across North America can help transfigure and change our hearts, so that we, in truth, may begin to live our entire life as pilgrims sojourning towards our heavenly homeland.
by Schemahieromonk Ambrose (Young), of the Entrance of the Theotokos Skete, Hayesville OH.
In October of 1888 the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, not yet an Orthodox Christian but still a Lutheran, went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land with her Russian Orthodox husband, the Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovitch. From Jerusalem she wrote the following to her grandmother, Queen Victoria of Britain:
“My very dear Grandmama,
“All our journey we have had very little time for writing letters, but having a quiet morning I use the opportunity of sending you a few lines from this Holy Town. It is such an intense joy being here and nay thoughts constantly fly to you all, praying God to bless you with every possible blessing…. It is such a dream to see all these places where Our Lord suffered for us and such an intense comfort to have been able to come to Jerusalem …. one can quietly pray and recall all that, as a little child, one already heard with such religious awe.” (Quoted in Lubov Millar, Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia: New Martyr of the Communist Yoke)
In today’s world, especially in Europe and America where there is a certain amount of affluence, individuals and families do not go “on pilgrimage”; they “take vacations.” They go skiing, or they go to Disneyland, or they travel as tourists to see some interesting — but usually non-Orthodox, non-religious — places and sites.
Our forefathers in the old countries, however, knew nothing about such things as vacations; they only knew about pilgrimages. They lived longing for the day when they could go on a pilgrimage to the shrine of some wonderworking icon or a saint. This was their concept of a vacation — something that would nourish the soul rather than give rest to the body, for the body, they knew, would soon disappear into the grave, when the soul would go on into eternity and there find its reward or punishment, according to the way of life it had led with the body on this earth.
The title of this article is “What is a Holy Pilgrimage?” Such a title suggests that there is such a thing as a “holy” pilgrimage as opposed to an “unholy,” profane, or secular journey.
The English word “holy” comes from the Middle English, halig, which is derived from the Old English, hal (hail), which means “whole” or complete, not divided or broken up. This seems to reflect the Savior’s own command to us, that we be perfect, even as your Father Who is in Heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:48). He could as well have said, “Be ye holy, even as your Father Who is in Heaven is holy.” Or “Be ye whole…” (Our English word “heal”–as when the Lord healed the paralytic–comes from exactly the same Old English term for “whole” and “holy.”) So, by “holy” we commonly mean something or someone that is exalted or worthy because it is perfectly good and righteous or filled with virtue. We also use the word “holy” interchangeably with “divine” or “heavenly”; thus, we say “Holy God,” or “the Most Holy Mother of God.” A less common but very useful word is “hallow,” which also comes from the same root as holy and whole, but means something that has been made holy or is set apart for holy use. Thus, we sometimes speak of a shrine as a “hallowed place.”
All of these words –whole, heal, hallow–are therefore closely related in English to our word “holy.”