Sacred Travels: Recovering the Ancient Practice of Pilgrimage
By Christian George
Review by Landrum P. Leavell III, Th.D.
For those who have had the opportunity to travel parts of the world, particularly on Christian pilgrimages to places like Greece, Italy, and Israel, they will always encourage others to do the same if they ever have the chance. The hard reality is that most Christ-followers will never have that opportunity. Yet, though not the same, neither will we ever get to go to the moon. But that doesn’t stop us from following every detail of those astronauts who have made those epic voyages.
Christian George has given us an account of travels he was privileged to take over a number of years with his father, Dr. Timothy George, founding dean at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University. I can relate, for my first few forays overseas were with my father and groups he would take to Europe and the Holy Land. This book was published while Christian was working on his M.Div. at Beeson in 2006. He states in the introduction that these are his “most memorable pilgrimages—memories that have defined and refined me, sacred travels that have opened my eyes to a global Christianity and a global God. I invite you to walk with me through Europe, Asia and Great Britain, through Protestant, Catholic, and Celtic traditions.” (17) George has provided a detailed, inspiring, vicarious journey of stories and saints for those who will never leave their homeland. He writes of historic places where the Christian faith shaped entire civilizations.
From the back cover: “In engaging narratives of his worldwide voyages, George follows in the footsteps of spiritual pilgrims from across the centuries, from Luther at Wartburg to Spurgeon in England. His travels to landmark places from Iona to Assisi give him not only a better understanding of his Christian heritage, but also of God’s inner work in pilgrims throughout history and today…. Come with George as he breaks bread with Benedictines in Ireland and worships with the Taize community in France. Experience the transforming power of spiritual pilgrimage.”
Of the thirteen places cited in the book, I’ll give snippets of several: George traveled to Canterbury, England, where Augustine visited in A.D. 597 to convert the Anglo-Saxons and established a monastery. “After becoming the first archbishop of England, Saint Augustine built a Cathedral in Canterbury that has stood the test of time, remaining the primary ecclesiastical administrative center of England, the mother church of the Diocese of Canterbury, and a place of international interest.”(21)
Wartburg Castle in Germany was where Martin Luther was taken, after being kidnapped by his friend Frederick III of Saxony, for protection. Excommunicated by the pope and outlawed by the emperor, a lot of people wanted to see him burn. In his lonely study there, Luther translated the Bible. “The year was 1522. Luther dipped his pen into the ink. Eleven weeks had passed since he began translating the Bible, and the project was almost complete. Although his work would enrage the papacy and infuriate the devil, at least the peasant would be able to read the Scriptures like the priest.” (48)
The chapter on John Newton in England was pregnant with details I had never understood. Newton was only twenty-two when he began work in the slave trade. An English translation of Thomas a Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, written for monks in the fifteenth century about the teachings of Christ, caused him to ask himself, “What if all these things are true?” Later disapproving of the inhumane practice of slavery, he convinced William Wilberforce to join his cause, and the abolitionist movement was born.
The visit to Buchenwald, Germany was part of a three-week pilgrimage, showing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s legacy. The tragic details beg you to remember. This pilgrimage taught George that being a Christian pilgrim is about ministering to those who are walking beside us. “I do have the opportunity to fight against genocide in Sudan, sex trafficking in Southeast Asia and child slavery throughout the world. These are the holocausts and persecutions of my time, and if I do not fight against them as Jesus would have me do, I am just as guilty as those who are committing these evil acts of hatred.” As Bonhoeffer once wrote to Reinhold Neibuhr, “I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of the Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.” (85)
The Isle of Iona, Scotland is where Columba introduced Christianity to Scotland and northern England in the Middle Ages. Ironically, a dispute over a copy of a Psalter led to a battle in 561, where three thousand people were killed. Columba’s conscience was so heavy that he set out on a journey to save as many people as he had murdered. On this island, he spent his time preaching, teaching, praying, and copying Scripture manuscripts.
Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan—in 1945 seventy-five million people were killed, with ninety-five percent of the casualties being civilians. Many still suffer from radiation exposure today. “If C. S. Lewis was right and ‘God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain,’ God must have become hoarse in this part of the world over the last five hundred years.” (110)
Breaking bread with Benedictine monks at Glenstal Abbey in Limerick, Ireland showed George heavenly hospitality. The view from the abbey was quite different and more of a stretch for George than much of the hospitality books currently coming out, i.e. The Gospel Comes With a House Key. Mealtimes back home in Alabama were talk times, while the Rule of Saint Benedict dictated mandatory mealtime silence. The monks were friends with the silence, and George knew that he was experiencing something ancient. Monks passed bread with gracious smiles.
“The moment was made for silence. So there I sat, breaking bread with the Benedictines, learning the art of silence and quietly fellowshipping with a table of my fellow Christians. The silence became sacred to me until I realized that gravy had been on my chin the whole time.” (139)
The fifty monks of the Glenstal Abbey gave themselves to prayer and work—praying five times a day in addition to managing a boarding school for boys, a farm, guest services, as well as pastoral and scholarly activities. Glenstal houses a theological library of fifty-eight thousand books, Irish manuscripts and archived items. They also conduct distance learning and adult education courses.
Palm Beach, Ecuador is where Jim Elliot, pilot Nate Saint, and three other American missionaries were murdered by Waodani Indians in 1956. Motivated by fear, curiosity, and warfare, killing had become a sport for them—a way of life both within and without the boundaries of the tribe. Around the time of World War II, 60 percent of the tribe had been murdered as a result of revenge and interclan hostilities.
“For the five missionaries, the Curaray River became the Jordan, and the martyrs courageously journeyed to the other side.” (147) The widows did not believe their husbands had died in vain. They continued their missionary work with the Waodani, and many have embraced Christianity.
In Amsterdam at a Billy Graham conference in 2000, George saw a man with tribal clothes, leathered arms covered with tattoos, ears pierced with large circles, and a spear. His interpreter turned out to be Steve Saint, the son of Nate Saint. “The man beside me is the Indian who killed [my father]. Mincaye became a Christian and has come to Amsterdam to tell the global church that he is sorry for his crime.” (150)
Sacred Travels is George’s first book. I’ve read three of his this year. He has also written extensively on Spurgeon. He shares a number of personal discoveries, epiphanies, and lessons learned from these pilgrimages, as well as looking at pilgrimage throughout history. You’ll be glad you made the journeys with him as your guide.