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March 5, 2022

On two occasions, I visited the old city of Jerusalem.  Our son Kris and I were the only Christians in an otherwise all-Jewish tour group the first time I was there.  Our guide was a Jewish man who grew up in a Kibbutz.  I was one of two pastors leading an all-Christian group on my second trip.  Our tour guide was a Palestinian Christian who grew up in Jerusalem and was a member of St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Church in the old city.

While the itinerary for each trip was different, each included a visit to the Temple Mount.  I visited the original site of the temple built by King Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians, and rebuilt by King Herod.  It is a holy site for three of the world’s religions.  Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all view the Temple Mount as a sacred pilgrimage destination.  Since the fifth century in the common era, the place where the temple stood has been the site of the Islamic Mosque of Omar, also known as the Dome of the Rock.

Many of the world’s faiths include the practice of a spiritual pilgrimage.  Indigenous religions worldwide have long encouraged adherents to travel to sacred mountains or other revered sites as an act of devotion.  Vision quest among Native Americans, the Trail to Machu Picchu among the Incas, the mysterious treks of ancient Celtics to Stonehenge and the Glastonbury Tor, in Australia the Aboriginal people revere Uluru, and in Kenya and Tanzania indigenous people regard Kilimanjaro as a sacred peak, are all examples of religious sentiments.  Daoism in China and Shintoism in Japan also have the concept of holy pilgrimage.

Mount Kailash is one of the most sacred spots on earth, a holy pilgrimage site for people of the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist faiths.  For over 15,000 years, the trek around Mount Kailash reportedly can “erase the sins of a lifetime.” Char Dham refers to four pilgrimage sites that are important to Hindus.  According to Buddhist tradition, 2,600 years ago, Gautama Buddha sat beneath a bodhi tree in what is now Bodh Gaya, India, and attained enlightenment.  Many Buddhists from around the world flock to this legendary site.

The hajj, Arabic for pilgrimage, is a five-day religious pilgrimage to Mecca and nearby holy sites in Saudi Arabia.  It is one of the five pillars of Islam carried out during the holy month of Ramadan.  All physically and financially able Muslims must make the pilgrimage at least once in their lives.

The Three Pilgrimage Festivals in Judaism are Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), and Sukkot (Tabernacles), when all ancient Israelites who were able would journey to the Temple in Jerusalem, as commanded by the Torah.  The actual pilgrimages are no longer obligatory for Jews.  The Romans destroyed the temple in 70 C.E.  While Jews who are in Jerusalem during these holy times still go to the Western Wall, observance by Jewish people around the world has become a spiritual rather than a physical journey.  During these sacred seasons, synagogue services include the reading aloud from the Torah Scroll the passages appropriate to the holiday being observed, accompanied by prayers and music.

Some Christians, too, make spiritual pilgrimages.  One student I knew at Harvard Divinity School was an avid hiker.  Upon graduation, he planned to walk through ten places.

  1. Jerusalem, Israel
  2. Rome, Italy
  3. Way of Saint James, France, Spain, Portugal
  4. Lourdes, France
  5. Fátima, Portugal
  6. Seven Churches of the Revelation, Turkey
  7. Canterbury, England
  8. Assisi, Italy
  9. Altötting, Germany
  10. San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy

Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys.  In her book Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God, she suggests fourteen destinations that can nurture the Christian faith:

  1. Chimayo, New Mexico
  2. Abbey of Gethsemane, Kentucky
  3. St. Paul‘s Chapel, New York City
  4. Basilica de Guadalupe, Mexico City
  5. Santiago de Compostela, Spain
  6. Zaragoza, Spain
  7. Lisieux, France
  8. Iona, Scotland
  9. Croagh Patrick, Ireland 
  10. Vatican City, Rome
  11. Assisi, Italy
  12. Ephesus, Turkey
  13. Mt. Sinai and St. Catherine’s Monastery, Egypt
  14. Jerusalem, Israel

There is, however, another way to take a spiritual pilgrimage.  The Christian observance of Lent can be a sacred journey.  This year, Ash Wednesday was March 2 and marked the beginning of the season of Lent.

When I was a boy, and a member of a Baptist church, the observance of Ash Wednesday was a strange custom to me.  I thought it must be the day to clean out the fireplace after the winter.  When friends came to school with a cross of ashes on their foreheads, I was curious but thought asking would be rude.

The season of Lent was also an unknown concept to me.  Because I was unfamiliar with the word, I thought it was the season of lint, maybe a time to clean out the vent on the clothes dryer, or perhaps it was a time for my friends from the cotton mill to comb their hair.  Most of them did a better job than I did with the sawdust in my hair.   I heard other friends talking about giving up something for Lent.  Boy, was I confused!

In our sophomore year of college, Clare and I started dating each other.  She was a Methodist.  I had a lot to learn, and she had a lot to teach me.  Clare tried to teach me how to dance, but, alas, I was dancing impaired.  She did teach me about Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent.  I warmed to these ancient Christian practices that were so new to me.

Eventually, I joined other Christians at the altar on Ash Wednesday for the imposition of ashes.  I began to see Lent as a time for spiritual renewal.  The practice of giving something up for Lent was a challenging concept.  It is based on the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness following his baptism, a time of prayer and fasting.

One year I gave up nothing at all for Lent.  Then, almost as an afterthought, I decided that I needed a post-Lenten fast.  I went on a media fast – – no television, no radio, no newspapers, no magazines.  This occurred before the introduction of cell phones and home computers.  Clare would want me to add that this was not only after Lent but also after the NCAA basketball tournament.

When the media fast was over, and I turned the television and radio back on and started reading the news again, almost nothing had changed in the world.  I had missed very little besides the Stanley Cup champions of the National Hockey League, a few robberies, and traffic problems.  I had gained immensely from my reading classics of Christian devotion.

Several years ago, I decided to give up Facebook for Lent.  Good decision!  Though I enjoy hearing news about friends, I really don’t care what you had for breakfast.  I realized what a poor substitute for actual human interaction Facebook has become.

Over the years, I have often heard the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?”   The answers are sometimes astounding.  I have known people who gave up chocolate, coffee, desserts, and other good things to eat.  One man even said he had decided to give up watermelon for Lent.  We all know how good watermelon is in March!

By observing Lent, the individual imitates Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness for forty days at the beginning of His ministry.  It is a time of spiritual discipline. 

The idea of giving up something for Lent is derived from the customary practice of abstaining from meat.  It is not a time of physical starvation or dehydration.  It is instead a time of self-denial and self-emptying. 

Giving up something for Lent has sometimes been trivialized.  Is deciding not to eat calves’ liver or Brussel sprouts really a sacrifice?  Will giving up coffee or chocolate help you become a better person?

Lent seems to always come just in the nick of time to restore hope to a world in despair, restore peace to the turbulent earth, restore saneness to the madness of March, and bring healing to the fevered, frantic pace of spring.  For Christians, Lent can become a spiritual pilgrimage with the hope and joy of Easter as our destination.

I have thought about the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?”

I have a suggestion that is not original.  It comes straight from the writing of the Apostle Paul.  In this year of terrible pandemic and raging war, all Christians need to relinquish these things as instructed by scripture.      

 “Give up all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice.” (Ephesians 4:31)

My journey through Lent begins with a sincere attempt to give up these vices for Lent.  I hope you will consider joining me.  Even if you do not observe Lent, even if you are not a Christian, we all will do well to give up bitterness, hate, anger, wrangling, slander, and malice.  As Paul points out, these must be replaced by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  (Galatians 5:22-23)   If we can be disciplined enough to make that change for forty days, we might do it longer, even for a lifetime.  And if we do that, the world will certainly be a better place for all of God’s children.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

He can be reached at

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies.  Thank you for all you have done.  I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that they are quickly forgotten unless these nonprofit organizations are called to mind.  Please know that I respect your freedom to choose those that are meaningful to you.  One way to measure the strength of our community is to observe how we respond to those in greatest need.  Please continue with your kindness and generosity.  This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to TOTAL Ministries, 976 S Pine Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302, (864) 585-9167.

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