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Spiritual journey

Inward journey and outward pilgrimage

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postedDecember 8, 2021
Dr. Alan Kolp
Dr. Alan Kolp

It was a privilege recently to speak to some folks attending the National Tour Association’s convention in Cleveland. Our focus was leading tours around the theme of religion. The United States and, indeed, the world, offer magnificent opportunities for both traditional trips as well as innovative journeys designed to take advantage of recent COVID experiences, new demographic markets, and creative approaches to spirituality. I offer one way to think about planning for the future.

There are so many different ways to think about a spiritual life. And, of course, in the U.S., there are many variations of religious experiences. There are liberals and conservatives. There are fundamentalists and Pentecostals. Besides the dizzying variety of Christian practices, there are many different non-Christian traditions. There are the major religions, such as Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. There are other traditions, such as Sikhism and Jainism, that are not as widely practiced in the U.S. And then there are fringe groups and even pseudo-religions.

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There are defining doctrines and religious practices. Some of these are specific to a particular tradition or a few traditions, such as the koan, which is used in Zen Buddhism, for example. Other defining doctrines or practices are common across the religious board. Something like meditation is a good example. Christians meditate, Buddhists meditate. Other groups practice this spiritual discipline, too.

A favorite way to think about my own Quaker tradition that has some currency among other traditions is with the distinction between the inward journey and the outward pilgrimage. This is certainly not unique to Quakers. Quite a number of the different Christian traditions have their own version of being spiritual this way. It is also not uncommon in other religious traditions.

Since I believe the focus of the inward journey/outward pilgrimage is a good way to understand the spiritual life, let’s take some time to detail what this dual focus means. One direction of the focus is inward. Personally this is the arena of my experience, as my Quaker tradition always starts with personal experience. The inward journey is the effort I put out in order to “meet” God somewhere in the internal spaces of my life. For me, this usually is felt in my midsection—in my belly. Maybe it is because I live so much of my normal life in my head; I need spiritually to drop from my head to my heart in order to experience the Holy One.

Deeper within my heart is the core place where I encounter the Other, whom I call God.  Thomas Kelly, perhaps my favorite Quaker writer, opens his wonderful book, A Testament of Devotion, with words to this effect: “Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul.” My inward journey is the quest to discover this amazing inner sanctuary of the soul. And when I have discovered it, then I want to connect with the One who gave me life and breathes the Spirit into my life.

Even if I am graced with this inward experience, I cannot hold it or capture it. Even if it feels like communion with the Living One, at some point, the experience begins to recede and my normal life resumes. Life cannot be lived inside at the altar—or on top of the mountain. However, life can be lived “from” that altar. And this anticipates the outward pilgrimage. It also implicates what folks can take away from their religious trip or spiritual pilgrimage organized by those affiliated with the National Tour Association.



Personally, I like the language of pilgrimage for this outward focus. Pilgrimage is more religiously specific than simply a journey or a trip. I can take a trip to New York or to Tokyo, but it is not a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage typically has a religious intent and, ultimately, religious content. A pilgrimage is purposeful. The destination normally is a religious destination. But this does not mean the course of the pilgrimage is uneventful.

Indeed, for my Quaker tradition, the outward pilgrimage is usually portrayed with an emphasis on religious action and service. If the inward journey is about experience, then the outward pilgrimage is about expression—expression of that inward spiritual experience. The outward pilgrimage is the outward living from the spiritual center. The pilgrimage is not just about destination; it is about day to day.

Although we have talked first about the inward journey and, then, the outward pilgrimage, they are not sequential. Rather, they are circular and sometimes simultaneous. Experience is simultaneously expressed in the pilgrimage. And the spiritual expression fuels more encounters at the amazing inner sanctuary of the soul. Both exist in tension and intentionally. They are the two halves of the spiritual whole person.

It is well periodically to ask about our spiritual growth and development. There may be seasons in which our growth and development hit rough spots or even go stagnate. Quakers call these “dry periods,” which are the times in our spiritual lives when nothing seems to be happening—in which we can never find ourselves at the amazing inner sanctuary.  These are perfect times for a pilgrimage or a spiritual journey.

For many of us living “normal” lives in our little world, the outward part might be more often the focus. We are trying to live a good life. We are caring, fair, reasonable people. We want to live a life helping others, avoiding as much sin as possible. But we can be unaware or forgetful of how important the inward journey is. If we travel that inward journey road, our outward expression will become easier, deeper, and more consistent. There are many ways to restart the inward spiritual journey, and one sure way is to travel—literally to go on pilgrimage.

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Pilgrimage is also beneficial for those who have a rich inner experience. Some are really adept at prayer and meditation. They may have a full inner life. But they may see no carry-over—no engagement in serving or saving our world in any way. They are too content to see spirituality as an inner dynamic between ourselves and God. This is insufficient.

The true spiritual life is a dual trip: an inward journey and an outward pilgrimage. We can do both. Let’s go …  

A graduate of Guilford College, Harvard University, and Harvard Divinity School, Dr. Alan Kolp is faith and life chair and professor of religion at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio. He is also an author and co-author of several books, including the recent “Igniting Innovation With Integrity: Following the B.R.I.C. Road.”

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