Leonard Biallas's new Pilgrim: A Spirituality of Travel offers a uniquely insightful perspective on how and why we travel, asserting that the Christian discipline of attentiveness can transform not only our experiences on the journey, but can also create meaningful change in the places we visit and the places we call home.
The book is divided into three parts, with the first, "Leaving Home," drawing distinctions between several terms that are foundational to Biallas's text. First, he defines people on a journey in three different ways, sorted by varying degrees of attention and intentionality in their travel. Tourists, for Biallas, are primarily concerned with getting away on an escape, pleasuring the senses, and can be characterized by the experience of release. Travelers, on the other hand, are characterized by an aware openness to new insights through adventure, unexpected occurrences, and foreign cultures. Pilgrims, finally, are those whose "motivation goes beyond that of tourists and travelers. We go not for recreation, but for 're-creation.' We go to make changes happen, rather than merely waiting for them to occur, to be transformed" (23).
Next, Biallas describes traditional pilgrims, such as Egeria and Malcolm X who leave home to visit a sacred center, and spiritual pilgrims, such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Dorothy Day, who seek "inward personal fulfillment" (35) with the divine prior to enacting some outward life change that attempt to continually reenact the encounter. But it is the travel pilgrim who, while not even necessarily leaving home, consciously attempts to transform the world around them on every journey, no matter how mundane. Travel pilgrims, as embodied for Biallas by the Peace Pilgrim and Thomas Merton, are characterized by an achievable attentiveness to the sacred in every step, that is only the result of prayer, hard work, grace.
Biallas peppers the second section of his text with personal insights, calling on anecdotes of his own travels and experiences over the following seven chapters, devoting one each to nature, cities, museums, monuments, cemeteries, sacred centers, and alternative travel, including study abroad programs, volunteer travel, and environmental study. Each destination type is described within the chapter from a tourist, traveler, and pilgrim approach, specifically noting the most popular sites across the world for each type.
Writing from a comparative religious perspective, Biallas reminds the reader that God is named, envisioned, and worshipped in a variety of colors, styles, and languages—and Christian pilgrims welcome this variety, even as it can push us beyond physical, intellectual, and spiritual comfort zones. Such pushings, though, are the growing pains of transformation. He also provides necessary notes on discreet dress, modes of greeting and public behavior, and ideas about personal space that, as anyone who regularly travels aboard knows too well, Americans cannot be reminded of enough.
Especially thought-provoking is "Homecoming," the third and final section of the book, where Biallas offers some moving reflections about how to approach home again after travel, how true transformation makes over the meaning of home, and how the stranger, food and hospitality, and the sacred are intimately linked—for those pilgrims who are paying attention.
Clearly useful to church groups, missionary groups, students, and young adult and adult individual travelers, Pilgrims would also serve as a thoughtful tool for sharing and discussion within growing families, providing the opportunity to foster Christian attentiveness, cultural sensitivity, and openness in the practical context of family vacations. Biallas closes the text with a useful nine-page reading list of books, should readers want to delve deeper into any of the destination types he explores within his own reflective and spiritual context.