Apart from excursions into novelties, movement from one place to another often signals that a change has happened or is happening within us. This is one of the less obvious reasons why pilgrimages continue to be a popular and meaningful exercise. Even beyond religious practice, people will take up some kind of pilgrimage—a walk across part of the world, for instance—that has been triggered by a beginning of change and leads to immense inner growth. The demands such a journey places on us can actively push us to the point where an unperceived change bursts into conscious reality.
This inner growth is a corollary and yet at the same time the most difficult and powerful part and in a way the essence of the journey. Thomas Merton wrote that “Our real journey in life is interior: it is a matter of growth, deepening, and of an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts.” Jean-Marie Howe, another Trappist author, concurs: “All spiritual life is a journey based on our innate capacity for God … which can ultimately lead to a transformation of being.” And she writes “The monastic life is pure journey … a transforming journey.”
Essentially, the monastic life is a pilgrimage in place. Just as on pilgrimage, those who set out on this journey are prompted by a change that is happening within, and those who commit to it have the inner resources and emotional health to meet all the challenges that will come. Because just as on a physical journey, the challenges we meet will find all our hidden cracks and weaknesses and expose them. We are pruned, and we are urged to grow through our circumstances. There are very few hopelessly sweaty days along hot trails and there are no nights in hostels, but there is more than enough of work, beauty, solitude, and company. The monastic life is a journey and a pilgrimage in place, making ourselves available to the change that God’s work will effect in us, and supporting each other on the way.
The Desert Elder Serapion once went to visit a celebrated anchoress; himself a great traveller, he asked her what she was doing, “sitting” all day in one place. She answered, “I am not sitting, I am on a journey.”