A Packing List for Jerusalem
Lisa Deam

A few months ago, I met a real live pilgrim. He has walked over 2,700 miles in the past two years and helps other pilgrims walk too. He has a particular fondness for the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James. The Camino is a network of routes stretching across Europe and leading to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, said to house the remains of Saint James the Greater. Pilgrims have walked the Camino since the medieval era, and the route is experiencing a revival now.

My friend and I discussed the Camino’s rich history, and I thought we were finished. But then this pilgrim turned to me and asked, “So when are you going to walk the Camino?”

I was taken aback; I had never considered going on a physical pilgrimage. Spiritual pilgrimage, by contrast, is often on my mind. I frequently use the term and idea of pilgrimage to refer to my faith, and I see others doing so too. Nothing seems more natural than describing the Christian life as a journey. We’re walking with God. Staying on the straight and narrow path. Pressing forward to meet our goal. These images of movement give us hope. We embrace the fact that we are putting one foot in front of the other.

For all our celebration of movement, our spiritual language often bypasses the physical realities of pilgrimage. We speak of pathways, but not of one path in particular. What is our spiritual terrain like? Is it a rugged walk along the Camino or a procession through the streets of Jerusalem? We acknowledge the rich history of pilgrimage, but we do not anchor our journey in space and time. Are we Old Testament pilgrims, strangers to the world? Or do we feel closer to medieval pilgrims, who walked as a form of discipline? With some exceptions, our spiritual pilgrimage does not evoke a specific kind of journey.

Maybe it should. Maybe we should know exactly what we mean when we describe our faith as a pilgrimage. We should know where we’re going and what we’re getting into. Looking into the details of pilgrimage, its various manifestations in space and time, we might be surprised to learn what kind of journey we are on.

My pilgrim friend peaked my interest in the Camino, but I’m not likely to walk this route anytime soon. My children take me on all the epic journeys I can handle. I have, however, walked the Middle Ages, the era that gave the Camino its enduring popularity. History gives me what experience cannot. As an armchair traveler, I could do worse than to take medieval pilgrims as my guides. In this age above most others, Christians embraced pilgrimage as a physical discipline with the potential to shape one’s spiritual walk. Pilgrims went everywhere, and they went often. In their travels to Santiago and beyond, I find lessons for my own walk.

prayer book pageMy medieval mentors take me to unfamiliar territory, where the terrain is rough and faith is wild. Even geography is not what it seems. Take the Camino, for example. A glance at a map shows that Santiago is located at the northwestern tip of Spain. It looks remote, this city at land’s end. For medieval pilgrims, Santiago was even farther afield; it lay at the end of the very world. Maps of the era show this clearly. In the Middle Ages, walking the Camino meant journeying to the edge of what was known.

It also meant journeying to the edge of faith. Medieval pilgrims often traveled in difficult circumstances. Much is made of Chaucer’s travelers, who gossiped and gallivanted their way to Canterbury. The historical record, however, shows that many pilgrims set off in desperation. Some walked to Santiago in hopes of healing, for the relics of St. James were known to perform miracles. “The old pilgrimage roads must have been choked with the sick and dying,” notes historian and pilgrim Conrad Rudolph (2004, 5). Others journeyed as expiation for a sin or a crime. Penitents walked wearing a loincloth and probably thanking God for the sun; a murderer might walk with his weapon chained to his body as part of his sentence.

The criminals and the  desperate: are these my walking companions? Do these poor and needy pilgrims describe me? The Camino suggests that my journey of faith goes to wild places and involves unsavory characters, most of whom travel under my own name. If I’m going on pilgrimage, I have to take along those shady parts of myself that I would prefer to leave at home.

I take along even more when I consider where my pilgrimage leads. As much as the Camino has to teach me, my spiritual journey does not go to Santiago. It goes to Jerusalem, the city in which Jesus died and rose again. Isn’t this where we all are headed? Every time we pray, every time we heed the call of Jesus, we take a journey to the Holy Land of our faith. Because it leads to Jesus, the Jerusalem pilgrimage is a potent image of our spiritual walk.

It is also a disturbing one. In the Middle Ages, Jerusalem was the most revered pilgrimage destination. Yet its allure hid many dangers. If Santiago lay at the ends of the earth, Jerusalem was the city at its center. The way was longer; the road more difficult. Think about all those criminals and desperados on the Camino and picture them crammed into a sailing ship for six weeks or more. The journey must have taken guts and a good deal else. It fact, it took all the baggage that a pilgrim could carry. The fifteenth-century Italian pilgrim Pietro Casola devised this packing list for Jerusalem: “Each one who goes on the voyage to the Sepulchre of Our Lord has need of three sacks: a sack of patience, a sack of money and a sack of faith” (1494, 225).

Casola’s statement is not without humor, something else that all lengthy journeys need. But it has its serious side. It tells us that in the most iconic pilgrimage of all, the journey to Jerusalem, the physical and the spiritual are inextricably intertwined. Casola reports that pilgrims need faith for their physical journey to Jerusalem. We can look at the matter the other way around. How might this journey be necessary for understanding and even living our faith? To find out, we will have to unpack everything that Casola so carefully stowed away in those three sacks.


A Sack of Patience

The journey to Jerusalem had many legs; it was like a centipede except not as fast. It required travel by land and sea, by foot, boat, and sometimes mules or oxen. The pilgrim starting out in France began with an overland journey that proceeded by foot unless she had the wealth to own or buy a horse. I can guarantee that my medieval avatar was not one of the wealthy ones.

Walking doesn’t sound too bad until you realize that the most popular route to the Holy Land, which went by way of Venice, led over the Alps. Alpine passes had existed since Roman times or before, but they were known to be treacherous. Sometimes, one pass had to be abandoned for another mid-route due to political instability. The Spanish pilgrim Pero Tafur describes crossing the St. Gotthard Pass in 1437. He seems to have had a horse, but this prized possession did not make the road easier to travel:

It was now the end of August and the snow was melting in the heat, making the crossing extremely perilous. The people in those parts use oxen which are used to the track. One of these goes ahead dragging by a long rope a trailer which resembles a Castilian threshing machine. The passenger sits on this while his horse, held by a guiding rein, follows behind. If any accident happens, only the ox is involved. Before entering the narrow defiles firearms are discharged to bring down any loose snow from above, for such avalanches often bury travelers. (Rowling 1973, 95–96)

When pilgrims reached Venice, they could arrange for passage on a boat, but not necessarily right away. Margery of Kempe, a mystic and visionary, arrived in Venice in the winter of 1413 and waited for thirteen weeks for a ship to the Holy Land. Boarding a galley may or may not have been a relief. Sea voyages, like Alpine crossings, were uncertain, dependent upon good winds, a strong stomach, and the absence of pirates. Pilgrims slept with rats, ate spoiled food, and witnessed burials at sea.

Upon arrival in the port city of Jaffa, pilgrims did not disembark and hit the nearest holy site. They were kept on the ship or herded into holding cells while local officials checked their visas and papers. Then there ensued another land journey of about forty miles to Jerusalem.

At what point during this journey did the pilgrim’s patience run out? When rats crawled over her food? When the pack mule slipped for the third time on an ice-slicked Alpine path? When, tired and sick from the sea crossing, she waited in a dark cell to be admitted to the Holy Land? It is said that the hardships of pilgrimage were viewed as a kind of penance to prepare the soul for the Holy Land. If so, the medieval pilgrim must have been well prepared indeed by the time she reached Jerusalem. Let us hope she remembered to fill her sack with patience before the journey began.


A Sack of Money

Faith costs money. So did a journey to the center of the world. The Jerusalem pilgrim had to leave behind his livelihood and hope it would be there when he returned some months later. And he had to take enough gold and silver to pay for each leg of the journey. Casola of the three sacks reports that it was necessary, at one point in his journey, “to tie everything up in the sack of patience, as we did not want to loosen the sack of money” (225).

It is doubtful that he and his party succeeded. Pilgrimage involved changing currency. Haggling. Bribery. And, as on any lengthy trip since, apparently, the beginning of time, it involved tolls. There were tolls to pay upon arrival in the Holy Land, at the port city of Jaffa. Tolls at the checkpoint in Ramle. Tolls to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and other sites in Jerusalem. And tolls to enter the sacred city itself. In the eleventh century, pilgrims were charged one gold piece each to pass through the gates of Jerusalem.

By the time they reached this point and reached into their sack, some pilgrims could not come up with the money. When Robert, Duke of Normandy, arrived in Jerusalem in 1036, he found several hundred pilgrims begging at the gates. In the fourteenth century, penniless pilgrims could be threatened with flogging and imprisonment. As the medieval era gave way to the modern, little changed. An eyewitness from the seventeenth century describes pilgrims who could not afford to enter the Holy Sepulcher, the goal of their journey:

The poor who remain outside weep bitter tears as they beg to be permitted inside. The guards standing at the door are ready to compromise for three gold pieces, and if they do not have that much, even for two. The paupers turn their pockets inside out, as if to say that even this they are unable to pay. (Peri 2001, 171)

I’m pretty certain there’s a lesson here. No one gets into Jerusalem without paying a price. Yet I can’t get those weeping and begging pilgrims out of my mind. Charitable travelers perhaps helped them. But after how much time? How long did the needy have to beg before earning enough to enter the Sepulcher or the city itself?

And if a pilgrim didn’t have the money to get in, how would she come up with the funds to make her way home again?


A Sack of Faith

Once a pilgrim paid the toll to enter Jerusalem, her troubles did not end. For the later medieval pilgrim, they were just beginning. From 1291, when the city of Acre fell to the Mamluk army, the Christian West no longer controlled the Holy Land. Jerusalem itself had been conquered in 1244 and remained under Mamluk control until its capture by the Ottoman Turks in 1517.

The Mamluk sultans tolerated Western pilgrims, sometimes grudgingly. Their rule meant that following Jesus in Jerusalem was not a particularly serene or worshipful experience. It was not the grateful release that travel-worn pilgrims perhaps hoped for. At its best, it would have involved a constant negotiation of the holy places that travelers had journeyed so far to see. Some sites, such as the chapel of the Pentecost, had been destroyed. Others, like Saint Anne’s house, were turned into mosques. Imagination was required to transform the political and physical landscape of Jerusalem into a site resembling the Christian faith.

Sometimes, pilgrims used a bit of daring to accomplish this transformation. Friar Felix Fabri, a fifteenth-century pilgrim, wrote a book about his travels to Jerusalem in which he describes his efforts to gain access to the city’s forbidden sites. In several instances, he managed to shake off his official guides and create his own tour. He repeatedly sneaked into the mosque covering the burial places of David and Solomon. On another occasion, a Muslim official chased him out of the Fountain of the Virgin, located at the foot of Mt. Sion, and then fought with a member of his traveling party. The judicious application of a tip produced an immediate change of heart in the official.

Fabri describes these incidents with relish. His written account transforms the holy journey into more of a swashbuckling adventure. He is a pilgrim on the cusp of tourism. But his travel guide signals the reality that pilgrims had to enter the land of another faith fully to experience their own.

Attaining the Holy Land, the very heart of Christianity, guaranteed neither safety nor ease. It ensured only that a sackful of faith would be needed. The pilgrim had to have faith that Jesus was there, in the heart of enemy territory. She had to have faith to see him, despite the infidels that blocked her path. She had to have faith that he would send her home again, even if her money had run out. She had to have faith that the journey was worth it.


Is It Worth It?

Is the journey worth it? I hope so, because it is the journey required of every pilgrim who would travel to the Jerusalem of her heart—the interior Jerusalem, as Saint Bonaventure called it. Medieval religious leaders recognized that spiritual travelers had lessons to learn from those who walked and rode and sailed their way to the Holy Land. When these leaders talk about a journey of faith, they have a specific route in mind, the route to Jerusalem. Walter Hilton, a ­fourteenth-century Augustinian mystic, makes the connection clear:

Just as a true pilgrim going to Jerusalem leaves behind him house and land, wife and children, and makes himself poor and bare of all that he has in order to travel light and without hindrance, so if you want to be a spiritual pilgrim you are to make yourself naked of all that you have... (1991, 229)

Those taking the heart’s journey to Jesus are no different than “true” pilgrims, Hilton says. They have a costly voyage ahead.

Hilton’s travel advice is far from comforting, especially to we who walk the world today. We may wish our spiritual journey to be scenic and uneventful. We picture a straight line from point A to point B. Maybe we imagine a jetliner, something that will help us to attain our goal with the minimum of fuss and bother. Yet to lay claim to the riches of our interior Jerusalem, we have to forego our customary amenities. We have to travel like it’s 1399.

prayer book pageI have found this to be true in my own journey. Setting out for Jerusalem, I am a medieval pilgrim in the most desolate sense of the term. The call of Jesus requires that I leave behind everything I know, even everything I am. I say farewell to my habits and inclinations, and hopefully to my sin, which is sorry to see me go. Then I heft my three sacks and join the other criminals who are headed my way. I am en route to the center of the world.

 No sooner do I set out than a thousand roadblocks bar my path. The Alps rear up. The seas swell. The rats swarm. Everyone seems to have a horse but me. I reach into my sacks, but my faith is running low. As are my funds. And it turns out that I didn’t pack enough patience to see this journey through.

As I get closer to Jerusalem, I enter enemy territory. Here, the real battle begins. I am accosted by the infidels of my heart, who would do anything to keep me from my goal. They don’t want me to pray. They don’t want me to pick up my Bible. They don’t want me to confess my sins or sing songs of praise. So my enemies shout at me and tell me to turn back. They persuade me, almost, that I’ll never be able to pay the price to enter the sacred city of Jerusalem. They are right about that. Someone else had to pay for me.

Finally, I enter the city, and I kneel—or rather collapse—before the cross. My daily pilgrimage has taught me why Christians speak so frequently of kneeling at the foot of the cross. It is because, exhausted by the journey to Jerusalem, we can no longer stand.

And then something wonderful happens. Jesus picks me up. He clothes my nakedness; pays the toll; refills my sacks. He sends me out with more than I packed in the first place. At his feet, I learn the lesson that Casola, the physical pilgrim, and Hilton, the spiritual one, teach those who wend their way to the center of the world: pack your sacks and be prepared to spend everything in them. Arrive with nothing so that Jesus can give you everything.

In this lesson lies the truth about my spiritual journey. When I use the language of pilgrimage, I do so in full awareness of the road I travel. It is no ordinary road; it is not even a sunny path in Spain. My route crosses the Alps, sails the sea, and battles the infidel within. Sometimes, it reduces me to crawling. You have probably seen me struggling along this road, because you, Christian, are on your way to Jerusalem, too.

Is the journey worth it? Yes. How could it not be, leading as it does to the very center of our faith? When we set off, we can be certain of our destination, assured of our reception. We know what glories await. But this does not make the path easier. We depart in hope but also in some fear, knowing even as we pack our sacks that the journey will take everything in them.

This is surely the way it should be. For if we do not arrive empty, how can Jesus fill us up? If the journey does not cost everything, is it really a pilgrimage?


Lisa Deam writes and speaks on medieval art, maps, and spirituality. This article is based on a chapter from her book, A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps, forthcoming in 2015 from Cascade Books.


Works Cited

Casola, Pietro. Canon Pietro Casola’s Pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the Year 1494. M. Margaret Newett, trans. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1907.

Hilton, Walter. The Scale of Perfection. John P. H. Clark and Rosemary Dorward, trans. New York: Paulist Press, 1991.

Peri, Obed. Christianity Under Islam in Jerusalem: The Question of the Holy Sites in Early Ottoman Times. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

Rowling, Marjorie. Life in Medieval Times. New York: Perigee, 1973.

Rudolph, Conrad. Pilgrimage to the End of the World: The Road to Santiago de Compostela. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Sumption, Jonathan. Pilgrimage: An Image of Mediaeval Religion. Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1976.

Copyright © 2019 | Valparaiso University | Privacy Policy