A Review of
3000 Miles to Jesus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life for Spiritual Seekers Lisa Deam
Reviewed by Laura M. Fabrycky
Having lived years not far from pilgrimage sights in the historic Holy Land, and years in western Europe, I have met my fair share of pilgrims and made pilgrimages of my own. Pilgrimage was not part of my American faith tradition growing up — more literary device than living practice. But, from dozens of treks to Jerusalem from our home in Amman, Jordan, hiking the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum in the Galilee region, or listening to the testimonies of friends after walking the Camino de Santiago, I am acquainted with the slow, strange, and powerful formation that happens on pilgrimage to specific places, in the footsteps of historic others and in the company of contemporary ones. This ancient discipline comes alive in beautifully evocative ways in Lisa Deam’s recently published 3000 Miles to Jesus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life for Spiritual Seekers, a reading journey I continue to recommend as I did in my endorsement to the book (full disclosure). Be sure to tuck this book in your pilgrim pack.
A medieval art historian whose first book, A World Transformed, explored spirituality through medieval maps, in 3000 Miles to Jesus, Deam introduces us to a cast of fascinating figures from fifteenth century Europe and beyond to reacquaint us with pilgrimage as a practice of faith. Bridging that world with our own, she distills their wisdom into devotional instruction for us that stand up to the real demands of pilgrimage no matter where we stand on earth or in history.
Deam draws our attention to the form of pilgrimage – not pilgrimage as inspirational road-trip or a journey of mere self-discovery. She is keenly aware of that we, her modern readers, prefer to elide pilgrimage’s demanding form, and thus miss out on its living-giving end. We know how to wrench spiritual meaning from paths, nevermind their destinations. Deam’s skill as a spiritual retreat leader emerges in how she anticipates our resistance to the form itself. She knows we are skilled spiritual tourists.
Fortunately, Deam shows us, we have pilgrims with archives to instruct us. She weaves a narrative in which we accompany key late medieval pilgrims on their paths from various places in Europe to the Holy Land, chiefly the English mystic Margery Kempe, the Swiss Dominican Felix Fabri, and the Italian canon Pietro Casola. Deam guides us through their tasks of preparation, their beginnings (as varied and significant as the pilgrims themselves), their journeys and challenges, and what faithful arrival to the Holy City of Jerusalem looked like. With chapter titles like, “Write Your Will,” “Hurry Up and Wait,” “Arrive Naked,” and “Worship with the Enemy,” these pregnant proverbs indicate just how personally costly these journeys were at every stage. Deam plunges us into the tactile actualities of a distant world – including the travails of long, stomach-churning sea voyages, the necessity of lidded chamber pots, the humiliations of begging for funds – which are absolutely alien to ours where we can book flights, demand service, and move through life, as Deam puts it, always clutching tightly to “the twin sacks of comfort and control.” Their time was not simpler than ours; their temptations are as common as our own.
Then and now, the frictions prove crucibles of formation. Reliably, stories of pilgrimage find their common narrative arc in how pilgrims patiently and faithfully navigate the inevitable dashing of their expectations against the rocky roads of reality, including the persistent possibility of death. Annoying or poorly prepared traveling companions, the challenges of cross-cultural negotiations (including corrupt border guards), the limits of bodies on long roads, the terrors of fearful minds and hearts, even the vicissitudes of the weather and sailing schedules – all these test a pilgrim’s spiritual mettle. But mettle does not make a pilgrim. With sacks of patience, money, and faith, pilgrims point their feet towards the Holy City of Jerusalem, prepare for the journey with the end in mind, and then, come what may, are willing to let go of everything except Christ alone.
With disarming vulnerability Deam shows how much these wise saints have mattered to her own pilgrim faith. Clearly, she knows and loves these idiosyncratic others as true spiritual friends. Moreover, she seasons her instructions to us with the wisdom of many others – figures great and known, or small and less known, including fourteenth century mystic Walter Hilton from his Scale of Perfection, thirteenth century Franciscan St. Bonaventure, among many others. Deam adeptly enlists these historical friends for her readers today, acknowledging too how the archives delimit the available wisdom from history. On the reading journey she proves herself a trustworthy guide indeed, lifting up choice prayers and phrases for us on our difficult paths.
The pairing of pictures and prose add to the book’s overall beauty. Gracing the chapter heads, Paul Soupiset’s illuminating illustrations are another delight of Deam’s book. These illustrations, akin to woodcut relief prints, offer artful meditations on pilgrimage themselves, pictorial handholds that convey the urgencies and exigencies of the path.
What stands out for me is how densely populated the long road of faith is, a serious cultural corrective to those of us accustomed to more singularly framed tales. Ensuring a strong bridge between then and now, Deam weaves wisdom from contemporary spiritual teachers and guides, including, among many others, ERB editor C. Christopher Smith. For those of us who are tempted to imagine ourselves as spiritual orphans in a secular age, Deam shows us just how accompanied we are.
A reader-pilgrim doesn’t have to travel a great distance to famous pilgrimage stops to grow in pilgrimage as living practice, which is why 3000 Miles to Jesus is so sublimely suitable in these days when travel remains constrained. Tourism and travel may be upended but pilgrimage is assuredly not: “For those on the spiritual journey,” Deam reminds, “it is a comfort to ponder the mystery that the God to whom we travel is in the boat with us – perhaps is even the boat itself.” Let us embrace this gentle invitation, and set out on the path marked for us in faith.