Pilgrims can have fun too

Pilgrimage is serious stuff. Many medieval people went on pilgrimage to make penance for their sins. In his seventh-century book The Spiritual Meadow, John Moschos relates how a mule driver in Rome had been so stricken with guilt, after his mules trampled a small child to death, that he undertook a penitential pilgrim to the Hold Land. In a state of utter misery, he ventured into the desert in an attempt to kill himself to expiate the death of the child. But before he had succeeded in doing so, he encountered a lion. To his surprise, the lion declined to eat him, and the muleteer saw this as evidence of God’s forgiveness. In other cases, the pilgrimages were involuntary. Courts imposed them as an alternative to execution or a long prison sentence. Sometimes pilgrims undertook their journeys wearing a belt made from the sword or dagger with which they had committed their crime.

Christian, John Bunyan’s hero in The Pilgrim’s Progress, was not a criminal trying to expatiate sins, but he nonetheless pursued a sober-minded spiritual quest. Perhaps the purest pilgrim of all, he did not pursue conquest, tourism or literary ambition. Nor did St. Augustin in the sixth century. He denounced curiosity for its own sake as “worthless stock . . an interruption and distraction from our prayers.” In the fifteenth century Thomas a Kempis too deplored curiosity and sightseeing in pilgrims because “one seldom hears that any amendment of life results. . . their conversation is trivial and lacks contrition.”

Nevertheless, surprising levels of non-purity pervade the medieval texts of many pilgrims. As John Ure writes, to go on pilgrimage was surely meant to assuage the consequences of sin, but it also involved “spectacular sights. And “above all, to undertake an adventure.” Wealthy pilgrims—princes and prelates and knights and merchants—often traveled in style and comfort, sometimes even with silken tents and silver plates. Even Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, though they never left their own country, each rode their own horses, assembled at inns, and they entertained each other with ribald stories.

One text in particular—the fourteenth-century Voiage of Sir John Madevile—encouraged touristic content in pilgrimages. It purported to be an account of a journey to the Holy Land. It was actually a concoction of invention and plagiarism. There were fountains of eternal youth and anthills of gold dust.

So pilgrims weren’t always pious and ascetic. They also had a little fun. That’s exactly what we’ll do for a week before our pilgrimage proper begins. We just arrived in Venice, and then we head to the Pompeii and Sorrento area. Perhaps Neapolitan pizza and gelato and hiking a volcano will sustain us through the serious stuff to follow.

Advice from the sixteenth century on what to bring on a pilgrimage

In 1481 the Cavalier Santo Brasca had just returned home in Milan from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Like most travelers, he liked to give advice to those embarking on their journeys. Here’s what he suggested that future pilgrims take:

  • The right attitude: He wrote that the sole purpose should be “contemplating and adoring the Holy Mysteries . . . and not with the intention of seeing the world and being able to boast ‘I have been there.’” What did we bring? A little bit of both! We hope to contemplate spiritual truths and see the world all in one journey.
  • Two bags: One should be full of patience. The other should contain 200 Venetian ducats, which might sustain the habits of those accustomed “to living delicately at home.” What did we bring? A lot of patience (hopefully enough for three–almost four–teenagers). Brought a lot less cash than 220 x $149.31, the modern-day value of a Venetian gold ducat, but we did bring a credit card and a debit card.
  • An overcoat reaching down to the ground to wear when sleeping in the open air. What did we bring? We hope not to sleep in the open air, but we did pack light jackets. The weather forecast looks absolutely delightful—highs mostly in the mid-70s.
  • Two barrels (one for water and one for wine). What did we bring? No barrels and no wine. Just six plastic water bottles.
  • A night-stool or covered pail. What did we bring? Bladders strong enough to get us back to our Airbnb each night.
  • Provisions: “a great deal of fruit syrup, because that is what keeps a man alive in the great heat, and also syrup of ginger to settle his stomach.” What did we bring? Three boxes of granola bars and six bags of almonds from the Aldi in Lexington, Kentucky.
  • “Be humble in behaviour and in dress” and avoid arguing about the faith with Saracens “because it is a waste of time and productive of trouble.” What did we bring? Hopefully we embody a faith that is invitational, not coercive.

Oberammergau, the Holy Lands, and a Missing Piece of our Pilgrimage

As we passed through Munich this morning, it felt geographically fitting to read a Religion News piece about the revival of the Obergammau passion play. Typically held every ten years by the villagers of this small village in Bavaria not far from Munich, it was scheduled to run in the summer of 2020. Turns out that the dramatic production restarted just last Saturday after a two-year Covid hiatus.

You should read the article for yourself. It’s mostly a fascinating discussion about how the play has evolved in a less antisemitic direction over the decades. The reason I bring it up, though, is that it occurred to me that we’ve lopped off a really important part of our spiritual heritage. If we really did this pilgrimage right, we would start our narrative in the Holy Lands, not Rome. In fact, that was the top destination for the earliest European pilgrims, who went to visit Golgotha, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, bones of the saints, and the Holy Lance, the Roman weapon that had pierced the side of Christ on the cross.

An unplanned layover in the Cologne train station from midnight to 3 a.m.

In the eighth and ninth centuries, the Holy Lands were a relatively hospitable place for pilgrims to visit. Palestine was ruled by Muslim rulers by this point, but enmity had not built up between the two great monotheistic religions. That changed for a variety of reasons in the eleventh century, especially due to Pope Urban II’s effort to recapture Jerusalem for Christendom. This military invasion—usually called the First Crusade—marked a fundamentally different approach. Prior to this point, the minority Christians had inhabited Jerusalem with a posture of peace and humility. But the invasion, especially when it culminated in atrocities during and after the Christian conquest, resulted in reprisals and bitterness.

As historian John Ure notes, this reshaped the entire concept of pilgrimage. While the Knights Hospitaller operated hospitals and hostelries, the more militant arm of the Knights Templar earned a terrible reputation for arrogance and intolerance. Muslim hostility and Christian violence sent pilgrimage to Palestine into free fall in the first centuries of the second millennium.

Pilgrims didn’t stop pilgriming though. They just went to different places. One of the most important was Santiago de Compostela, where St. James was said to be buried. Also Mount Athos in Greece, St. Catherine’s monastery in Sinai, the great abbey of Glastonbury in Somerset in England, and the island of Iona near Scotland.

And, of course, Rome. But we’ll discuss this in more depth next week when we’re actually get there ourselves.

Where we are and where we’re going

We’re in the middle of a rough couple of travel days. Here’s our itinerary so far:

  • A six-hour drive that successfully got us from central Kentucky to Chicago. Our old minivan has been in the shop twice in the last couple of weeks with a major repair scheduled for when we return home, so we’re thrilled we didn’t break down along the way.
  • A six-hour flight from Chicago to Reykjavik that was delayed 90 minutes due to a medical emergency by a passenger. We just barely made our connecting flight.
  • A three-hour flight from Reykjavik to Amsterdam.

After half a day wandering the city, we’re currently on a train ride (all four kids fell asleep within five minutes of boarding) from Amsterdam to Düsseldorf, with hopes of making a midnight train that will take us overnight from Düsseldorf to Munich. But since our train out of Amsterdam was twenty minutes late, that may create a cascade of modifications to our itinerary, which takes us through Germany, Austria, and Italy on Tuesday. Our hope is to stay at a monastery in Venice tomorrow night. All told, we’ll not enjoy a bed between Sunday morning and Tuesday night.

Still, this is nothing compared to the inconveniences, dangers, and outright hostility encountered by pilgrims a millennium ago. According John Ure in his fascinating book Pilgrimages: The Great Adventure of the Middle Ages, highway robbers haunted the thick forests of Europe to victimize pilgrims. Bogus pilgrims struck up acquaintances with real pilgrims, only to lead them into ambushes. Rapacious innkeepers fleeced pilgrims. Leaky boats crewed by irresponsible sailors jeopardized the lives of hundreds of pilgrims bound for the Holy Land from European ports.

Sometimes it was just merely uncomfortable. Hans Von Mergenthal reported in 1476 that “the sleeping space allotted to each pilgrim was so narrow, that the passengers almost lay one on the other, tormented by the great heat, by swarms of insects, and even by great rats that raced over their bodies in the dark.” This despite the fact that Venetian regulations required a berth a foot and a half wide per passenger.

Making everything more difficult was how hard it was to plan. It is difficult now to comprehend the degree of insularity of medieval life. Lords and peasants alike lived in tight communities and will little aware of outside activities and cultures. Maps were almost non-existent or deeply misleading. To go on a long journey was almost like staggering out into the night.

By contrast, we’ve googled the heck out of this trip to make things as smooth and efficient as possible. I’m so tired right now I can barely type out this post, but the insane logistical issues and unpredictabilities of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages swamp anything we’re dealing with.

Help along the way

As we fly out tonight, we’re so grateful for so many people. For the many scholars, dead and alive, whose work we’re reading. For John Sharp and others, who told us what Anabaptist sites to visit. For a multitude of experienced travelers who gave us advice.

For Asbury colleagues and administrators, who have been supportive of our idiosyncratic interests.

For Grandpa Carl for sending a letter this week that got the kids really, really excited (it involved some leftover Euros).

For the Reimers and my Swartz parents, traveling companions who are joining us for sections of the trip.

And most immediately, to my Uncle Doug and Aunt Pam, who fed us a wonderful departing meal and took us to O’Hare this afternoon.

Like all pilgrims, we’re dependent upon others along the way.

Finding Our Roots: Fan Charts and DNA Tests

There are some obvious places—Rome, Bern, Zurich, Rotterdam—to visit on this pilgrimage. But there are some less obvious places too. Most of our ancestors were farmers in small villages in Switzerland and Germany. Figuring out where those villages are takes some specialized research.

Thankfully, my grandfather, David I. Miller, has been coaching me to do this research my entire life. When I was a child, he helped me fill out my family tree in the form of a fan chart. This past week after turning in grades, I pulled out it out. I was amazed all over again by just how many ancestors we all have. If you look carefully, I have 512 great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmothers and grandfathers.

Me and my Great Grandpa Ivan J. Miller
Me, Grandma Erma, Grandpa David, and my sister

I know who many of them are because Grandpa Miller has given me many genealogy books over the years at Christmastime. I also pulled those out to prepare for the trip. Here are some of the titles:

  • The Daniel Bender Family History (1985)
  • Descendants of Jacob Hochstetler, Immigrant of 1736 (1912)
  • Joel B. Miller History (1960)
  • Anniversary History of the Family of John “Hannes” Miller (1997)
  • The Swiss-German Forebears of the American Swartzentrubers (1985)
  • Weber-Weaver Family History
  • The Descendants of Lydia Zook and Abiah Byler

Not the most scintillating reading (I prefer stories), but necessary for the task. I took many photos of relevant pages and will be combing through them on European trains over the next three weeks. This will determine which villages we visit in the Emmental region of Switzerland and the Hesse region of Germany.

Of course, fan charts and genealogical books don’t always reflect real life. That’s where DNA testing comes in. As the great observer of the human condition Shania Twain once asked, “Whose lips have you been kissin’? Whose ear did you make a wish in? Whose bed have your boots been under?” Do 100 percent of my ancestors come from the Black Forest region located at the intersection of Germany, France, and Switzerland, as the books say? I suppose it’s possible, since they tended to marry within their own ethnicity and religion and tended not to travel far from home. But it’s also possible that some eyes wandered and boots strayed. Perhaps we’ll be surprised by the results.

We’ll find out soon enough, hopefully while we’re still on our trip. Our son Jonathan took a DNA test this morning. He spit into a vial, mixed it with stabilizing fluid, and packed it into a small box. Then I took it to the Nicholasville Post Office. At the processing facility lab, technicians will filter out the proteins, fats, and carbohydrates from his saliva and then isolate the DNA by binding it to glass and magnetic beads. Then during the genotyping phase, a microarray will detect around 700,000 DNA markers, which will identify his ethnic origins, ancestors’ migration paths, and living relatives. In a few weeks, we’ll get an email. Finding your roots has gotten more scientific.

Preparing to leave

It has been a whirlwind of a week as we prepare to leave. Just a sampling of what we’ve been up to in the last couple of days: Mowing lawns (David and Jon). Orthodontist appointments (Andrew and Jon). Last-minute repairs in the hopes of our old van making it to O’Hare (David). Track practices and turning in his jersey (Ben). Orchestra recital (Anna, Andrew, and Jon). Track practice and meet at Transylvania (Anna). Ultimate frisbee practices and end-of-year cookout. Youth group (Ben). Coffee and walks and disc golf with friends (everyone). Turning in grades (David and Lisa). Fielding grade complaints (David). Submitting an academic article (Lisa). Copyediting manuscript proofs (Lisa). Finishing a book proposal (David). Setting up an online course that begins on Monday as we land in Amsterdam (David). Department meetings and half a dozen other faculty meetings (Lisa and David). Downloading books to read along the way (everyone). Six final exams, essay, and social studies project (Andrew and Jon). Wrapping up fifth grade (Anna), eighth grade (Ben), and two ninth grades (Andrew and Jon). Securing passports, vaccination cards, and certificates of recovery (David). Packing (Lisa). Stopping the mail (Lisa). Eating every last scrap from the refrigerator (all of us).

Last day of school!

Why pilgrimage?

This pilgrimage has several aims. First, it seeks to interrogate the moral judgments of our ecclesial tradition. Perhaps, after reading Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine and Brad Gregory’s Salvation at Stake (which I’ve already done as a Mennonite in a Reformation history course taught by Gregory at the Catholic University of Notre Dame), we will remain unrepentant critics of Reformation violence and Constantinian Catholicism. Nevertheless, we maintain the importance of trying to comprehend seemingly unintelligible contexts. What compelled Calvinists to slaughter Catholics, Catholics to burn Calvinists at the stake—and everyone to kill Anabaptists? Answering this fraught question requires us, says Miroslav Volf, to maintain—or, indeed, to recover—the integrity of the imago dei by acknowledging that each person has a social location and history that exhibits their very humanity. “God sees each human being concretely,” he writes. “God notes not only their common humanity, but also their specific histories, their particular psychological, social, and embodied selves with their specific needs.” Attending to Volf’s call means taking seriously human complexity, even Judas in Palestine and Catholic persecutors in the Swiss and German Reformations. Anglican bishop Rowan Williams even advises a “pastoral imagination which mimics God’s own charitable knowing of us.” Against modernist conceits of a single story, historical empathy concedes other perspectives.

We will also turn the gaze back on ourselves. Interrogation of the past should extend beyond moral judgment to moral reflection, a move that considers the ways that we—and our traditions—are complicit. How do we explain the violence of radical Anabaptists at Münster? What were the ways in which our own ancestors, who were victims of European empire, went on to buttress American empire through settler colonialism? In what ways do we still serve Pax Americana? These can be difficult to discern because, as diarist Anais Nin contends, “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” Peter Berger suggests that sociology can help. He writes, “The perspective of sociology, particularly of the sociology of knowledge, can have a definitively liberating effect. While other analytic disciplines free us from the dead weight of the past, sociology frees us from the tyranny of the present.” Moral reflection can help remove our own cataracts, and it can make us more circumspect about moral judging others. As George Marsden writes, we should “avoid explicit moralizing because we, like the historical actors we write and teach about, are flawed humans. … We can point out that we ourselves probably have similar blind spots and that, even though our mistreatment or neglect of our neighbors may not be as notorious or spectacular, we share a common humanity with those whose action we deplore.” We all embody a beautiful and terrible inheritance.

Second, Lisa and I are teachers, and this pilgrimage will explore a more expansive pedagogy. James K. A. Smith, a critic of the intellectualist faith-learning paradigm, suggests that humans are imaginative, desiring, loving, affective creatures more than automatons driven by cognitive, intellectual perceptions. He writes, “We feel our way around our world more than we think our way through it.” As such, our imaginations need to be converted and enacted through “intentional practices that are tactile, bodily, repetitive, and narratival.” He juxtaposes this very human anthropology with the modern bureaucratic university’s emphasis on efficiency, regimentation, dispassionate instrumentalism, and building educational “superhighways” instead of undertaking educational “journeys.”

The concept of pilgrimage offers an ideal way of exploring Smith’s pedagogical vision. It can be contrasted with tourism, which, according to Ashley Woodiwiss, is “detached, disengaged, and disconnected from the object of their gaze.” Tourism, says David I. Smith and Susan Felch, tilts “the image of travel toward comfort, efficiency, and consumption”—not unlike superficial learning that skims texts and metabolizes ideas toward instrumental ends more than personal transformation. By contrast, pilgrims connect the personal to the public, their own stories to others’ stories. They linger amidst the exotic smells (of Neopolitan pizza), sights (of ancestral homes), tastes (of Roman gelato), and sounds (of Gregorian chants). They seek to suffuse travel with all manner of sustenance and connection. But travel can also be fraught. Like Adam and Eve, Abraham, and the Hebrews in Egypt and Babylon who pilgrimed on dusty roads through the precarious landscape of the ancient near east, we do not know what we will encounter. Certainly, we will experience fatigue, discomfort, and tedium. We will wish for familiar food. We will want to be there already. Will there also be logistical nightmares caused by Covid testing? Closed borders because of a new variant? Ukrainian refugees? Russian troops? Always, as they say, there is the vulnerability of the road. In its promise and limits, pilgrimage engages our affections.

Third, this experience will take seriously the notion of pilgrim as Christian identity. Leaving the comforts of ritual and home for foreign spaces helps us remember that this world is not our home. It is a ritual of kenotic embodiment. Self-emptying with the intent to inhabit strange worlds of the past could even provoke a kind of identity crisis as we realize that we have been picking and choosing facts of the past, interpreting in them in light of our own assumptions. Richard White, in a narrative of an early twentieth-century Irish immigrant to Chicago, writes, “Any good history begins in strangeness. The past should not be comfortable. The past should not be a familiar echo of the present, for if it is familiar, why revisit it? The past should be so strange that you wonder how you and people you know and love could come from such a time.” Or as historian John Fea puts it, “The more we discover about these people’s mental universes, the more we should be shocked by the cultural distance that separates us from them.” We will need to be open to the strangeness of our ancestors and, consequently, open to the strangeness of our own narratives. Our attempt at identification might, in fact, decenter our narratives and remind us that we are pilgrims in a land that is not our own.

In the end, pilgrimage may serve to reinforce Christian humility by reminding us that our Anabaptist story is one among many. Our journey represents just one strand of the Reformation, which itself represents one strand of Roman Catholicism, which itself represents just one of the five patriarchates—Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Jerusalem—recognized by the Council of Ephesus in 431. Even by 500 there really wasn’t a “Christian Europe”; Syria was the center of the Christian world.

Nevertheless, the journey from Rome to Rotterdam is our story. And we hope that tracing a journey that took place centuries ago is renewing and transforming. Perhaps we will even, as T. S. Eliot puts it, “arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

Rome to Rotterdam

We grew up in close—and relatively closed—communities. As culturally and theologically conservative Mennonites with Swiss-German ethnicity raised in the American Midwest (Lisa in Kansas and David in Ohio), the European Anabaptist narrative loomed large in our imaginations. We sang “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” at Christmastime, read gruesome stories of persecution in The Martyrs Mirror (and even acted them out in a capture-the-flag-style simulation game called “Persecution”), ate verenike at mission fundraisers, and imagined the long trans-Atlantic voyage from Europe to the New World. Our families and church communities taught us to understand our spiritual progenitors, those true Anabaptists who followed Jesus’s way of peace, as heroes. These brave men and women, as William Estep put it in The Anabaptist Story (1963), “shone like so many meteors against the night”—the night, of course, referring to the spiritually benighted medieval Catholics who could not see clearly through their Constantinian cataracts. Such imagery formed us deeply as children.

As adults, the Anabaptist mythology we inherited has experienced some damaging blows. Close community has not always felt so peaceful, and our historical and sociological training generated discomfiting questions: Is this narrative interpretively legitimate? How might this mythology reduce or distort “the other”? Does it reduce human reality, as French historian Marc Bloch warns, “to a picture in black and white”? How should we narrate religious tradition to ourselves and to our children?

We will engage these questions by retracing our spiritual heritage from Rome to Rotterdam. This pilgrimage will begin in Rome, where the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Altar of Peace, the Appian Way, and Aqueduct Park represent the heart of a vast empire. The city of Rome also hosted some of the earliest Christians, including St. Paul and St. Peter, who traveled there to preach a savior other than Caesar, who, in turn, persecuted them and forced their followers to the catacombs. Later, at the Milvian Bridge, a new iteration of empire coopted Christian resistance. The Arch of Constantine stands as a symbol of Christian assent to empire. From Rome, our journey proceeds north to Switzerland, where reformers opposed Catholic empire. From there, we travel west to Bern and Zurich, where the Anabaptists opposed Protestant empire. These dissenters, according to Estep’s narrative, emerged as meteors against a dark sky that Luther and Calvin and Zwingli had not illuminated quite brightly enough. We then proceed to the Black Forest and Hesse regions of Germany, where better prospects among the Pietists promised our Müller, Weaver, and Schwartzendruber ancestors a better, freer life. Finally, the pilgrimage heads to the Netherlands, where our forebears fled after persecution followed them even to Germany. It ends at the Port of Rotterdam, where they boarded ships like The Phoenix and Charming Nancy on their journey to America.

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