Being a pilgrim is not easy, as Dorothy Day shows

3 mins read
Adobe Stock

We once had a pastor who often, almost in every homily, described the Christian life as a “journey.” The word’s a good go-to image for the Christian life, but it’s not the best one.

The Christian life isn’t just a journey, though, it’s a particular type of journey. By itself, the image says that you’re moving but not where you’re going and why, or how well you’re getting there. Christianity has a more precise and specific word, a word with rich meaning that illuminates who we are better than “journey.”

“Pilgrim” is the better word. As Christians, we live in the world as pilgrims, or should: people who are not at home anywhere, and who are always on the way to a far away city where we’ll settle for good, that we know as home even though we’ve never been there.

The New Testament continually tells us that we do not belong here in this world, that we live as aliens, as strangers in a strange land. We don’t fit. We can’t settle down and settle in as if we had no other place to be.

Are we too comfortable in the world?

This doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the good things of this world, which God created for us. It just means we take things as they come, the good and the bad also. We enjoy the good things as blessings and gifts, accepting that we might have to give them up at any time.

Someday, when we reach the city, we’ll finally become citizens, people who belong, people who can abide there. But for now we stay on the move, always trying to be the best residents we can be wherever we are, but never giving any place our complete loyalty. We put up with the abuse and neglect that often come with being a stranger, especially one who refuses to completely fit in.

It’s not easy being a pilgrim. The Church gives us thousands of instructions on what living as a pilgrim means, like the oft-memed saying of Flannery O’Connor’s: “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”

Pilgrims lead a hard life. Tired of living in a tent on the outskirts of town, pilgrims may feel tempted to buy a house in a nice neighborhood with good schools and all the amenities within a short drive, and settle down.

I speak of myself, but I think, just from what Christian friends have said in conversation, for many others also. We’re much too attached to the world and much too comfortable in it. We put on the name “pilgrim” the way we put on our exercise clothes, go to the gym, hit the machines but never work up a sweat.

The example of Dorothy Day

Looking at someone who really did live like a pilgrim helps. Dorothy Day lived a life of astonishing sacrifice for others, giving up everything that might hold her down, every worldly security most of us think of as necessities.

She didn’t own a home or have health insurance or a pension or a reliable income because she chose to follow Jesus serving the very poor personally, by sharing their life. She could describe it lightly. “When things get tough,” she wrote, “I like to recall St. Teresa’s ‘Life is a night spent in an uncomfortable inn.'”

Dorothy Day
Dorothy Day (OSV News photo/courtesy Journey Films, CNS)

She makes the pilgrim’s calling especially stark because of the political obligations she believed it included, especially her pacifism and the conflicts with the state that it required, which put her in jail many times. Those who don’t share her politics can still see in her a deeply faithful pilgrim.

In her diary, she wrote a prayer about this: “Help me, St. Benedict Joseph, to walk a pilgrim in the world, as far as I can, and do all in Jesus’ name, bringing Him on to picket lines, meetings, encounters, confrontations. May He increase and I decrease.”

“I am an occupied person, and my life is full indeed,” she wrote during one of her battles with the IRS, which didn’t recognize a pilgrim when it saw one. “I am a pilgrim in this world and a stranger. I hate the world and I love it, because God made it and found it good, and He so loved it He gave His only begotten son. And I love people because they are His and there is some reflection of Him in all of them.”

But there’s a twist to being a pilgrim, which Day knew. Even on the way, we’re already home. St. Catherine of Siena wrote cheerfully of her “adventures,” which Day took as confirmation of the truth of her saying that “All the way to Heaven is Heaven, because He said ‘I am the way.” 

David Mills

David Mills writes from Pennsylvania.