Deacon Rohrbacher

The path of pilgrimage

I returned home to Juneau on June 30th after two short but fruitful weeks away. I had gone on retreat at Mt. Angel Abbey in Oregon after traveling south for a meeting for diocesan directors of Catholic Relief Services and a short visit with my parents. 

I have a long association with the monastic community at Mt. Angel. For twelve years I taught the summer Icon Institute there and I’ve been a Benedictine oblate for this monastery for eighteen years. I had a chance to see old friends and make new ones. I’m grateful to the friend who made the retreat possible and to the monks who welcomed me with such generosity and warmth.

One of the things I learned during my time on retreat was that in a paradoxical way I needed to go away for a time in order to find my way home, that is, to return renewed in the life of faith and prayer. I know that this is the experience of many who go on retreat, which is why retreat time is so important for the spiritual life. But I realized that the spiritual renewal was to be found not only in the days that I spent on retreat but also in the journey, in the pilgrimage that I made to get there.

Yes, I understand that typically, a pilgrimage involves a lot more exertion, inconvenience and sacrifice than enduring the long line at the TSA checkpoint at the airport when departing or struggling to identify my bag as the luggage spins by on the baggage carousel upon arrival.

Nonetheless, my uneventful journey to Mt. Angel shared in the characteristics of a Christian pilgrimage. I left behind home, work, family, friends and the familiar routines of daily life, in the expectation that along the way and at my destination, God would reveal himself to me (and that, seeing God with new eyes, I would notice and appreciate his presence.) It resulted in conversion (mine).

In the arts, when planning a building, a sculpture or a mural, the artist or architect makes a little model called a maquette. It is a kind of rough scale model which both anticipates and guides the larger project. Oftentimes artists create a succession of maquettes both as practice pieces and as a way to think through and perfect the projected work of art.
I think of a pilgrimage as a sort of maquette for the spiritual life. The big project of our lives is our pilgrimage to heaven, the communion of love with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that is eternal life. When we are on pilgrimage, however long or short, we are practicing and preparing, in an intense and intentional way, for our daily participation in the unceasing pilgrimage of faith and discipleship that began at baptism. Like an artist using the maquette to refine and perfect the larger work of art, God uses the pilgrimage for our conversion and transformation.

The spiritual maquette of a pilgrimage can take a variety of different shapes. For over a thousand years, pilgrims have been walking the Camino (the road or the way) to the shrine of St. James the Apostle which tradition locates near the northwest corner of Spain at Santiago de Compostela. The most popular route is 370 miles long. It begins in the French Pyrenees and crosses northern Spain and may take months to walk, alone or with companions. From a trickle of pilgrims in the 1980’s, a flood of pilgrims (183,000 in 2011) now walk the Camino each year.

Reflecting the growing interest in the pilgrimage to Santiago, in 2010 a feature film on the Camino, called “The Way” opened in American theatres. Directed by Emilo Estevez and starring his father Ramon Estevez (aka Martin Sheen), the movie tells the story of a grieving father (a lapsed Catholic) and the renewal of his faith while walking the Camino.
A shorter, compressed pilgrimage of sorts can be found in the winding switchbacks of the 132 foot circle of the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral which requires at most an hour to complete. Some scholars believe that the medieval labyrinths at Chartres and other European cathedrals were intended as a pilgrimage “road to Jerusalem” that Christians unable to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land could walk.

In my opinion it is unfortunate that some who have promoted this prayer practice have tended to shift the focus away from our redemption in Christ’s saving death and resurrection in favor of an emphasis on personal self-fulfillment and the divine within each person.

But despite this, I think that this practice, when centered on Christ, can be a mode of Catholic prayer, that, much like the rosary, unites body, mind and spirit. Walking the labyrinth is an invitation to slowly and prayerfully negotiate, in a symbolic way, the twists and turns of our lifelong pilgrimage to our fulfillment in Christ and his Kingdom.
Short or long, a pilgrimage is an embodied prayer that requires us to move through space and time. It is an incarnated prayer that requires the pilgrim to undertake an actual physical as well as a spiritual journey from one place to another. Although by its nature metaphorical (every Christian pilgrimage recapitulates in this life our eternal journey to life in Christ), a pilgrimage is an embodied participation and reminder of the larger pilgrimage that we are a part of.

But the pilgrimage is the means, not the end. However beautifully rendered, the artist inevitably sets aside the rough sketch of the maquette as soon as he or she completes the full-size fresco or sculpture. In a similar way the pilgrimage is not the goal, only a way station on the journey to eternal communion with Christ and with our neighbor.

For more information about the Camino, see the websites of The Confraternity of St. James (; The Irish Society of the Friends of St. James (; and American Friends on the Camino ( There are any number of books and guides to the Camino. I recommend “Walk in a Relaxed Manner” by Sr. Joyce Rupp, published by Orbis Press.
Fr.Robert Barron, in Chapter 11 of his book, Heaven in Stone and Glass: Experiencing the Spirituality of the Great Cathedrals (Crossroads Books, 2000) has an excellent discussion on the spiritual meaning of the labyrinth at Chartres.
Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau.
Phone: 907-586-2227 ext. 23
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