Three Keys to Living as ‘Pilgrims’ in This World
- Colleen Carroll Campbell Author
- 2019 17 Jun
Summertime is moving time for millions of Americans, and as a dyed-in-the-wool nomad, I can relate. My family and I made half a dozen interstate moves before I turned 15, and at least twice as many between neighborhoods and schools. Each time I return to one of my childhood haunts, I’m struck by how much smaller they seem, how foreign they feel and how few people in them remember I even existed.
The contingent nature of any earthly home is a lived reality for those who moved as often as I did. But it’s a truth intended for everyone. Scripture overflows with warnings that the homes, riches and reputations we cherish on aren’t nearly as enduring or important as we think.
“Every man is but a breath,” the Psalmist says.
Jesus urges us not to waste our lives chasing the world’s wealth and approval but to “store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal” (Matt 6: 20). “For here we have no lasting city,” Saint Paul says, “but we seek the one that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).
That eternal perspective isn’t easy to maintain amid the daily grind, particularly for approval-junkie perfectionists used to measuring our worth by the world’s tokens of success.
One thing that can help is to meditate on the biblical image of the pilgrim.
Repeatedly in Scripture, we are reminded that “we are strangers and travelers, like all our ancestors” (1 Chron 29:15); “aliens and sojourners” (1 Peter 2:11); and “exiles” (Heb 11:13) whose “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20).
When a perfectionist takes that pilgrim image seriously, amazing things can happen. Consider the case of Francis of Assisi, a 13th-century playboy-turned-preacher who traded a life of leisure and perfectionist people-pleasing for an itinerant existence spent preaching the Gospel barefoot and penniless across the Italian countryside.
Francis’ single-minded focus on and imitation of Christ made him a laughingstock to some.
It also spawned a Church-wide renewal movement that inspired countless conversions from his day to our own.
Most of us are not called to witness to Christ through voluntary homelessness as Francis did. Yet each of us is called to follow in the footsteps of the poor man of Nazareth who “has nowhere to lay His head” (Luke 9:58).
That means traveling light through this life, and shedding any standards, status, or stuff that would slow us on our journey to heaven—our only true home.
So how do we do that? We can begin with three key takeaways from the pilgrim life of Francis:
1. Listen to the restlessness.
We’ve all felt it: That vague dissatisfaction that signals God has something more for us to do or be. Often, we tune it out, afraid of where it will lead. Francis listened.
He listened from his first sense of divine calling in a Perugian prison cell to the emptiness he felt on the heels of a serious illness right through the dramatic confrontation with his father that sent him marching off, stark naked, into a life of evangelical poverty.
Francis felt the same fears we feel but listened anyway. If we want our lives to bear fruit as his did, we must do the same.
2. Forget comparisons.
Francis is remembered as a radical who cared nothing for human respect, but he didn’t get that way overnight. He spent years living as a vain playboy and battling what today’s researchers call “social perfectionism.”
After he won that battle, he cautioned his friars frequently against fixating on or comparing themselves to other people, habits that he saw as dangerous distractions from discerning God’s will. As for envy, Francis considered it a flirtation with blasphemy, since God is the Author of all good and envying another person the good in his life is tantamount to envying God. Forgoing envy and comparison in our social media age is tough, but Francis saw it as a sure sign of a pilgrim’s progress.
3. Look forward.
When Francis began following Christ in earnest, he lost his family, friends, riches and reputation. He persevered anyway, knowing that he couldn’t fulfill God’s plan for his life if he spent his days looking back at what he had left behind or navel-gazing at his own spiritual progress.
For Francis, the only direction to look was forward, at Jesus and what Jesus was asking of him next. As he told his friars shortly before he died, “Let us begin again, for up to now, we have done nothing.” Where we came from matters, but Francis knew that for a pilgrim, where we’re headed matters more.
The poverty of spirit for which Francis is famous wasn’t that of a world-hating stoic or a spacy ascetic lost in a trance. It was the poverty of a pilgrim, a man who knew he couldn’t get where he wanted to go unless he traveled light.
In a culture always telling us to rack up more status and stuff, to spend our days building up our homes and résumés and followings, a pilgrim mentality is radical, indeed—and a crucial help on the road to heaven, our only true home.
Colleen Carroll Campbell is an award-winning author, print and broadcast journalist, and former presidential speechwriter. Her latest book is The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s. Her books include her critically acclaimed journalistic study, The New Faithful, and spiritual memoir, My Sisters the Saints, which won two national awards and has been published in five languages. Colleen has written for The New York Times, Washington Post, Christianity Today, America, and National Review, and she has appeared on CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, ABC News, PBS, NPR, and EWTN, where she hosted her own television and radio shows for eight years. A former editorial writer and op-ed columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Colleen is the recipient of two honorary doctorates and numerous other awards and fellowships for her work. She speaks to audiences across North America and Europe when she’s not home enjoying her husband and their four children, whom she homeschools. Her website is www.colleen-campbell.com.
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