“Why Are Catholics Better at Pilgrimage than Protestants?” by Ruth Everhart

Ruth Everhart
Ruth Everhart

Ruth Everhart is a Presbyterian minister and author of Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land. Beginning tomorrow, she’s teaming up with Monasteries of the Heart to offer a free ecourse entitled “A Lenten Pilgrimage.” Today, she shares the story behind this ecumenical partnership as she invites readers to join her on a virtual journey to the Holy Land in Lent.

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Why are Catholics better at pilgrimage than Protestants?

Crucifixes. Icons. Relics. Incense. Perhaps these holy objects are the reasons that Catholics are comfortable with Holy Land pilgrimage while Protestants shy away. After all, our iconoclast forebears dispatched with these during the Reformation.

Perhaps it’s the saints that cause us discomfort. A pilgrim encounters a saint around every corner in the Holy Land — especially St. Helena, who seems to have left her fingerprints at every sacred site. (I’ve noticed that we Protestant clergy are more comfortable using the word “Christendom” to describe its fall than its rise, which Helena represents.)

Perhaps it’s history itself that makes us squirm. A Holy Land pilgrim can’t help but encounter the lingering scars of the Medieval Crusades. Who wants to be reminded that European invaders once galloped across Israel and Palestine, leaving trails of blood in their wake? That history is an embarrassment to Christians of every stripe.

Or perhaps you’re protesting my opening question as unfair. Maybe you think Protestants are every bit as good at pilgrimage as Catholics.

I’d like to think you’re right. But I can’t help noticing that Protestants — especially progressive Protestants — simply don’t prioritize, or value, a trip to the Holy Land the way Catholics (or even Evangelical Christians) do, or have done historically.

Let me recount my evidence, which is entirely anecdotal.

In 2009, I was recruited to participate in a documentary-making pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The goal of the documentary was to explore whether pilgrimage could help unite an ecumenical group of clergy. Although our group included representatives from across the Protestant spectrum, there was no Catholic presence.

At the time, curious, I asked the filmmaker why this was so. He said that, although he tried hard, he wasn’t able to recruit a priest.

“Aren’t Catholic clergy interested in pilgrimage?” I asked.

“They sure are,” he said. “They’re so interested that every priest goes on an extensive pilgrimage as part of their spiritual formation. I couldn’t find a priest who had any need to go on a trip like this. They’ve already been to the Holy Land, funded by their diocese.”

I found that fact fascinating. Every one of us that chose to participate faced difficulty in procuring institutional support for our pilgrimages. We needed time and money, the two things that seem to be in short supply for every minister and every church. Sending a minister to the Holy Land was extremely low on the priority list.

During the pilgrimage, I took note of the Crusader fortresses and carved crosses, along with the prevalence of candles, incense and Masses. None of these were familiar to me. Raised in the Christian Reformed Church and now a proud Presbyterian, I am still a daughter of the Reformation. Among other things, the reformers did away with these unnecessary “trappings.”

Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land
Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land

After the pilgrimage I wrote a book about the experience. To my surprise, Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land found a ready audience among Catholic readers. They seemed more immediately receptive than Protestant audiences to the book’s premise, quicker to understand the reasons that people endure the dust and heat, and even the potential danger, of Holy Land pilgrimage. If they hadn’t been on pilgrimage themselves, they were at least well-acquainted with the practice, and aspired to go. It has been an incredible joy to meet so many of my Catholic readers.

Our common interest in pilgrimage, in fact, has led me into an uncommon project. I am now partnering with the Benedictine Sisters of Erie and their online community Monasteries of the Heart to offer a virtual Lenten retreat.

People who have joined Monasteries of the Heart (which, two years into its existence, already has over 6,000 members) can choose to participate in a number of virtual retreats. My offering is called “A Lenten Pilgrimage.” Retreat participants will receive a brief daily reflection written by me, along with a weekly video produced by the Sisters. The videos are meditative, and they feature a reading from a Psalm of Ascent accompanied by pictures from the Holy Land. In addition, retreat participants can go online to read and comment in a moderated forum whenever they like.

Membership in Monasteries of the Heart is free and open to all. Once inside MOH, participants have access to a host of material in addition to virtual retreats. Much of the content is written by the most well known of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Joan Chittister (who, incidentally, is also an Eerdmans author).

Do you have friends, family members, or parishioners for whom Monasteries of the Heart would be valuable?

Are you looking for a suitable spiritual discipline, one you can do daily and easily with an email reminder?

I hope you’ll join me on this Lenten pilgrimage!

Click to learn more about Ruth Everhart’s ecourse “A Lenten Pilgrimage,” to order Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land, to explore Monasteries of the Heart, or to browse Joan Chittister’s books with Eerdmans.