Pilgrim (noun) 1. a person who journeys, especially a long distance, to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion; a wanderer, especially in a foreign place.
Tourist (noun) 1.a person traveling, especially for pleasure.
--Random House Dictionary
Are you a tourist or a pilgrim?
First there’s the coffee here, so strong and black and thick it leaves a soupy residue of bitter grounds in the bottom of the cup. Then the language: I can’t understand one word even after ten days in this strange place. Not many churches here either. The country is 98 percent Muslim. There are 80,000 thousands mosques here and every day, five times a day, the call to prayer is blasted out from loudspeakers at each one, together creating an otherworldly cacophony which floats out over whatever city I’m in. It regularly jolts me awake at 4:00 am. Not a cheeseburger in sight either, nor a Wal-Mart or a Boston Globe. I’ve no idea how the Red Sox are doing.
Oh, and did I mention I’m absolutely loving it here in Turkey, this amazing and beautiful and foreign and haunting place, 4,836 miles from my front door? I write these words on a sultry and warm mid-June day, looking out on the Black Sea, on the far northeastern coast of Turkey, one of fifteen folks on a church sponsored trip to explore the holy and biblical sites of what once was Asia Minor. Right now all I pray is this: that I may be a pilgrim and not a tourist in the few days I have left here, and not just on this trip but also on the journey called human life.
A tourist. We know the familiar cliché image. Clunky oversized camera around the neck, floppy hat on the head. Furiously rushing on and off the tour bus at every sight for a few quick photo ops and then hurry back on the bus, on to the next spot on the itinerary. One more item checked off. No time to really get to know the locals or culture. Bags filled with souvenirs, sporting a locally purchased t-shirt: “I went to Istanbul and all I got was this T-shirt!” Complaining that there is no place to get a decent cup of coffee or adequate cell phone service.
Here in Turkey I’ve seen lots of these tourists: American, German, Japanese. I remember travel times when I’ve been touristy too. Traveling through life, rushing, but not really taking the time to explore a place more deeply. Staying on the surface of a destination and not digging in or worst of all viewing it through the safety of a bus window or a camera lens, keeping it all at arm’s length. Or perhaps viewing a foreign place, a foreign people through my own often narrow cultural biases, wondering “Why can’t ‘they’ be more like me?”
It would be easy to fall into that trap in a place like Turkey. Women in full length black burkas are a common sight here, one I’ve never encountered before, a bit jarring until you get used to it. The spires of minarets and their mosques are everywhere; not many of those at home. Most of the churches here are actually museums. Christianity hasn’t been a real presence here for almost a century. Judaism has a nominal presence. The food, the language, everything is strange.
Unless I see it all as a pilgrim, as one on a holy journey of life and in life. Long ago many folks of faith undertook pilgrimages as pilgrims to holy places like Turkey or Jerusalem or Mecca, where millions of faithful Muslims still trek today. The key to these trips is attitude: how as pilgrims we encounter the strange and different and peoples and lands and cultures we come in contact with as we travel in the world, and not just far away but every day at home too.
To be a pilgrim means to enter a place not with expectation but instead with curiosity. What can I learn here? What lessons does this ‘stranger’ have to teach me? To be a pilgrim means to take seriously our place as a guest in a new destination, to be civil, polite, humble even, at all times. How might our lives as humans in this often conflict ridden world improve if only more of us acted thus in any new situation? To be a pilgrim offers us the opportunity to see the holy and the sacred in every aspect of life, whether in the midst of a vacation to a far off place like Turkey or sharing space in line at Dunkin Donuts with someone we’ve yet to meet. Because when we are more pilgrim like and less tourist like, miracles happen. Sweet surprises come our way, like grace from heaven.
Yesterday our group visited a fifth century monastery, built on the side of a 4,000 foot mountain here, breathtaking enough in itself. One of our pilgrims stopped to help a person having great trouble making the trek up the winding and steep path, and found himself stranded at the entrance, separated from our group, with no money to buy a ticket to enter that holy place. Encountering the Turkish ticket taker, he explained his plight to her as best he could. Without hesitation and without being asked, the gracious and kind young woman took out her wallet and paid for his admission. That’s what happens when we live as pilgrims. When we are wide open to the big, bright world, the world opens itself up to us too.
So before you go away on vacation this summer, pack up the suitcase or the car, purchase a ticket for destinations unknown, or even before you go out the front door this morning, ask yourself. Will I be a tourist or a pilgrim today? How you answer just may change your life and this world in all your travels, around the corner and around the globe.
Let’s all be pilgrims.