One hundred years ago, the Scottish poet Edwin Muir mourned that Christianity had apostatized by abandoning its incarnate, embodied grounding. In his poem “The Incarnate One,” he laments that “The Word-made-flesh here is made word again.”[1] In our generation, Charles Taylor coined the problem even more succinctly: excarnation. This inclination to strip Christianity of its more fleshly elements for an exalted spirituality of the mind has dogged Christianity from the start, with the most persistent challenge coming from the Enlightenment. Embarrassed by its more incarnate aspects, Christians living in the Enlightenment sought to become philosophers, “disintricating the issue of religious truth from participation in a certain community of practice of religious life, into which facets of prayer, faith, and hope are woven.”[2] The new apologetic quest became to present Christianity as a coherent philosophical system of ideas extracted from the body, whether that be one’s own body, Christ’s sacramental body, or the communal body of believers. To have a voice in the public square, one had to drink its rarified air.

We are perhaps closer to the Enlightenment and the consciousness of Taylor’s “secular age” than we care to admit. We are born into an intellectually touristic culture. We observe, we think, and we sample, but we do not commit. Our churches tend to encourage ex– rather than incarnate ways of being with God, with a host of Bible studies and sermons to listen to online. The Lord’s Supper is offered as an afterthought in many worship services, as a condiment rather than as the central meal. We seem to prefer what the obscure Victorian pastor M. F. Sadler termed “mischievous theology.” In pushing his Enlightenment-addled congregation toward embodied practices, Sadler said that an idea, no matter how Christian, “is only part of the truth and when held alone, it is held wrongly and therefore mischievously.”[3] For Sadler, the sacraments resist intellectualization; they put flesh back into a worship service.

I did not realize how excarnate my own Christian life was until I innocently joined an Orthodox pilgrimage to certain holy sites in England and Wales. Pilgrimage has long been one of those more or less opaque areas of praxis to those of us post-Enlightenment Christians who have inherited a disembodied Christianity. Pilgrimage only makes sense in the context of a certain theological-anthropological understanding that the body is as much a participant in our worship as our mind. For me, lured by the presence of my favorite theologian, I envisioned a pilgrimage as a series of historical talks and theological devotions with ample time for reading and reflection. I had nothing in my thirty-three years of Protestant experience to make me expect that I could receive something from a pilgrimage that I couldn’t otherwise receive from a book. Pilgrimage, I thought, wasn’t that a metaphor for spiritual growth?[4]

But metaphorical this pilgrimage was not. The minute we arrived, while I waited for a lecture, the portable icons were whisked out, the candles were lit, the incense began smoking, and we were off, plunging headlong into an hour-long service of the Divine Liturgy on our feet. The site was the devotion—participating in the Eucharist in this particular place, in this particular time was itself the point. The divine Eucharistic liturgy was the theological lesson.

By day five, I began to feel bored and malnourished. But no one else seemed to be missing the historical lessons, the theological insights, the devotional pep talks. And so I attempted to turn the tables on myself, to ask myself whether I might be missing something. Perhaps this spiritual food is too rich, I thought. Perhaps I had cultivated the spiritual equivalent of gluten intolerance—an inability to process and receive nourishment from certain spiritual foods.

Indeed, my spiritual diet consisted of books, ideas, doctrine, and all things excarnate. I had pulled the meat off the bones, and now I didn’t know what to do with the meaty morsels. I was a fat-free girl. Yet I prayed, I sang the liturgy, I pressed my forehead against the cold stones of Durham Cathedral. I told my Protestant self that this was part of the package deal of a pilgrimage. When we reached the resting place of saint Cuthbert’s relics, I knew I had to deal with the man and his holiness, and I wanted to honor the Spirit’s work in a human like me—according to Orthodox theology, we are to marvel that a human had allowed God to come close, so close that even his knucklebone was a marvelous, concrete fact of the miracle of holiness. But when that knucklebone was brought out to be kissed, encased in gold and jewels, I knew I had yet to shake my Protestant inhibitions.

For those of us with mischievous Enlightenment inclinations, this is where it gets tricky: we must learn that we have no other way to experience this personal, Trinitarian God than through our very earthy existence. For Paul, the Spirit’s work is with whole, embodied persons. We don’t have a special organ for sensing God; we have a unity of body, soul, and spirit.[5] Our bodies are where we experience God, others, and ourselves. We do not have a body; we are body. And the gift of our body is its capacity for personal relationships and communication. I have marveled at the way some people meet one another over the Internet and then take it to the next level with an in-person meeting or at how Facebook marketed their social media platform to Brits with photos of people laughing together, eating together, and walking on the beach holding hands. Here we see that virtual meetings find their fulfillment in the flesh. That is just how we are made. For St Paul, our bodies are the spheres in which God wills our total integration. Embodied existence is “our spiritual act of worship” (Rom. 12:1 NIV). Pilgrimages only make sense, then, if we understand that our bodies contribute to every part of our lives and that, therefore, worshipping isn’t something we only do with our minds but also with our bodies and their affections in physical places and in particular cultural contexts.

It is perhaps no coincidence that pilgrimage emerged as a widespread practice in the fourth century, when all theological eyes were on the incarnation. Barbershops were full of ditties and bawdy tunes on the subject of the incarnation, women were having forthright debates on the matter in their salons, and many theologians spent years in exile for their views on Christ’s incarnate nature, depending on which view was favored by the imperial palace at the time. The upshot of it all was that the humanity of Christ was being deeply contemplated by far more people. Now that Constantine had legitimized Christianity, the entire population was forced to grapple with the idea that God himself took on a certain body, in a certain town, of a certain ethnicity, and in a certain decade. This dawning realization began to encourage people that the physical world was indeed good and could indeed hold God (without, of course, exhausting him). Christ was not just divine; he was human. This meant that there was nothing secular that could not now be sacred, that the very physical world could be a place where we meet God.

In the New Testament, there are clearly no holy sites: God’s presence has been thrown open to everyone in Christ Jesus. The curtain has been torn and, as Peter Walker puts it, “Jesus is the true holy site.”[6] Yet Christ, fourth-century Christians realized, was a particular human with a particular body, and he had appointed physical things as our new holy places to meet him, namely bread and wine. And so people began to go back to the very ordinary places that had held God—Bethlehem, Nazareth, a tomb—and worship there, praising the God who offered himself to us not by leaving the world but by becoming part of it.[7] And churches began to be built upon these spots to accommodate the vast numbers of pilgrims seeking to worship their Lord together, with common rituals, bread, and wine.

These pilgrims expected something to happen on these journeys because they believed not just in the random omnipotence of God (who can overcome creation) but because they believed God is in a special kind of relationship with creation. They had an implicit faith that an undertaking in the physical realm can and will have spiritual consequences. In this, they were not dissimilar from the Apostle Paul who believed this about many things—feasting, food, and sex to name a few.[8]

The Orthodox, it seems to me, have long had this right: they are famous for fasting but also for feasting. Their church services are filled with delights for the eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. They take both spirit and body seriously. Leading up to Lent, they have cheese feasts, meat feasts, and just about any possible imaginable feast to celebrate the goodness of what they are about to give up for a time. After these feasts they fast, quite strictly and as a community—this is no personal holiness stunt—for the entire length of Lent. Then, just after Easter has dawned, in the middle of the night, they all break out their favorite foods and beverages in their church hall because they are so excited the fast is over. To be frank, this is the proper way to incorporate our bodies (and our eating) into our spiritual life. Both fasting and feasting are essential for spiritual wholeness, and they are far better for us than the modern binge-diet cycle.

In this way, the Orthodox Church recognizes that God has appointed physical means to be with us and to nourish us. Martin Luther, one of the Reformers who championed the importance of the material realm for our spiritual formation, wrote, “The Spirit cannot be with us except in material and physical things such as the Word, water and Christ’s body and in his saints on earth.”[9] In my own post-Enlightenment Protestant spirituality, I once emphasized interiority, but as much as we need a deep interiority, we also need exteriority. We need those things, straightforward physical things, that we do with our bodies which put us in touch with our incarnate Lord who himself mediated all of creation and (lest we be tempted to forget) has a body right now.[10] And so if I am to grow, it needs to be in ways that are connected to his physical, ascended body. And if I am to find unity with people, it needs to be in ways that plug into Christ’s physicality—not only shared ideology.

And this is the scandal of the incarnation. We want a spiritual mountaintop experience, and God instead appoints us with a flawed pastor who hands us our food in the midst of a backward, unstimulating worship service. We want rich Bible word studies with like-minded intellectuals, and God instead appoints us to commune with our neighbor who has a clogged drain, broken marriage, or messed up sense of normal. This is our incarnation.

The Cautions

The original purpose of pilgrimage, as it developed very quickly after Christ, was empathetic: to be able to enter into the life and sufferings of Christ more deeply. And one of the most common and least celebrated functions of pilgrimage in the medieval church was pastoral. There are hundreds of accounts of bereaved women who were directed by compassionate priests to go on pilgrimage to literally walk off their grief.[11] To clear their heads. To move out of obsessive thinking and into the healing rhythms of physical exercise. I call these Prozac pilgrimages.

In those days, the body and soul were tacitly assumed to be very much linked in one’s spiritual life. For these women who could not shake the disorientation and depression of miscarriage, infant death, and widowhood, their priests encouraged them to begin by placing one foot in front of the other. Their immediate goal was not spiritual merit but the surrender to the present moment as a way of moving them out of their current paralysis. And what awaited them at the end of the pilgrimage? The reminder that in this life there can be transformation. They often walked to the shrines of female saints, women whose lives were hard but blessed with the presence and peace of God. Like reading the story of Mother Teresa or seeing a film about Bonhoeffer, the shrine at the end of the walk featuring a real person who lived and suffered as they did was their reminder that that the divine life wants to break in on our ordinary lives.

But when we think of historical pilgrimages perhaps we think of the abuses, of the judicial pilgrimages that were imposed as disciplines upon sinners to help them meditate upon their ways or of the vicarious pilgrimages that were meant to curry favor in heaven and for which the wealthy could hire someone else to go as their proxy. Perhaps we are most familiar with pilgrimage as what it came to be toward the end of the decadent High Middle Ages: walking barefoot, obtaining merits for salvation, and taking in plenty of flagellation along the way. Or perhaps we think of Geoffrey Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales, which is set entirely in the context of a pilgrimage and which features saucy wives, religious frauds, thieving merchants, philanderers, and a few honest pilgrims here and there. Of course, Chaucer was only satirizing the obvious: pilgrimage doth not a pilgrim make.

Luther ranted against the abuses of pilgrimage, but he believed that any pilgrimage—any physical act, for that matter—taken with the desire to glorify God rather than to gain merit would be honored and used by God in the life of the pilgrim. That said, he also urged Christians to stay home, forego the exotic, and practice physical acts of worship within their local communities. “Let every man stay in his own parish,” he said, “there he will find more than in all the shrines. In your own parish you will find baptism, the sacraments, preaching, and your neighbor.”[12] John Calvin, ever anxious that the physical realm would distract the heart from God, was more cautious about pilgrimage and even (in some cases) the sacraments.[13] For the most part, he saw pilgrimage as part and parcel of a superstitious commercialization of devotion.[14] Whereas Luther believed that the potential sin of pilgrimage was a failure to trust God’s work in one’s local church, Calvin seemed to believe that the temptation for pilgrims was idolatry—the base fusing of the physical with the spiritual.

Calvin came on the scene at a time when God’s relation to creation was crassly, even magically conceived, and so his reactionary theology, though apt for the time, has left much ambivalence in its wake. But his theological instinct was sound. He believed our physicality, the sacraments, and all embodiment hinged on the embodiment of Jesus, both in first-century Jerusalem and today at the right hand of the Father. For Calvin, there were two bad options: the fusing of the physical and spiritual (such that there was a magical connection between the two) and their total separation.[15] Calvin intuited that there had to be a Trinitarian third way, a dynamic relation between the physical and spiritual such that both met and were affirmed in the divine-human person of Christ (in whom, as the creed goes, the natures are indivise, inseperabiliter). This is no Anglican via media (middle way) between two extremes but the person of Christ standing between us and creation, mediating to us spiritual blessing and grace through all of these things.

Calvin’s theological instinct provides us with a helpful tool for moving forward. All physicality has been blessed in the incarnation, redeemed at the cross, and can be a door to God’s presence due to the ascension. There is no one-to-one relation between creation and myself. It is mediated in Christ. And this is great news. If I take the sacrament, it is not in itself magical. But it is mediated by Christ himself, and therefore it brings me all the benefits of his presence and person. It is not magical, but it is certainly personal in all of the ontological depth and fullness of that term. I can trust my taking the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, even if I do not feel anything, because Christ is in a special relationship with creation. He is the one through whom it all came to be, and—in a body—he is now at the right hand of the Father, bringing our humanity and physicality into the divine presence. Physical helps to our devotional life can and must be acknowledged, as long as they are squarely founded on Christ who both is their reality and, as Calvin reminds us, also the great iconoclast.

Our spiritual position may well be en Christo, but this isn’t to be spiritualized. Jesus did not leave us with ideas alone but gave us bread and wine and one another, saying, “Whoever eats this bread” (John 6:51) and “Wherever two or more are gathered” (Matt. 18:20). These are physical things we do. Other embodied devotional practices too have their validity in Christ. And in them (not just by or through them) he can be found. If I go on a pilgrimage, undertaking the trip is not in itself magical, but because Christ mediates all things to me, and through all creation, I can trust that Christ is at its center. Pilgrimage and other such medieval practices might just help us move out of our heads and into our lives and onto our feet.

What we do with our body matters. We don’t have to live in our minds alone to commune with God. We can be nourished spiritually by this good earth, by physical things we do within it because creation is in the sphere of Christ. This is why it is important that we spend time with Christians in the past who have radically different expectations—not only of church but of the physical world itself—for their spiritual life. Many contemporary churchgoers are tourists, not pilgrims, and this may be through no fault of their own. We live in a desacralized time. Our world is mediated by technology, built on the foundation of reductionist scientific skepticism. We have few, if any, expectations that the physical (often humdrum) practice of being in community, attending church, partaking in the sacraments, or engaging in corporate prayer can shape and profoundly change us. Our theology has taken a distinctly mischievous turn, and we don’t even know it.

So to return to the beginning: when the poet Muir wrote that “the Word made flesh is here made word again,” he was not complaining that Christians had adopted heresy. Rather, he was protesting the way we have replaced an embodied faith with an ideological belief system that lacks the messy bits which contextualize our belief, the messy bits which are located in space and time and which must be absorbed by both our mind and our senses. Furthermore, these messy bits form the basis for communal practices such as attending church and partaking of the uniting loaf, whereas distilled belief has the potential to isolate and individualize. Perhaps most offensive to our modern selves is the fact that these things take time. We cannot find someone to take our place getting messy. We cannot become incarnational virtually or over the web. And we cannot do it without relationships.

As I learned while traveling across England and Wales, pilgrimage, by its very nature, takes time and place. Pilgrimage honors the fact that our bodies participate in our redemption. Pilgrimage is not magic; it will not in of itself draw us into Christ. But embarked upon rightly, with the faith and hope that our bodies matter to the Lord, it is a defiant theological act in this excarnate age. It may not require kissing a saint’s knucklebone at the end, but we won’t be far off if we pause for a minute and kiss our neighbor’s.


[1] Even more to the point, Muir blames “King Calvin with his Iron Pen” in the following line of the poem, pointing a finger not just at Christianity but specifically at Protestant Christianity as he knew it in chilly Scotland.

[2] Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 771 and 293; originally an anthropological term referring to burial practices that deflesh the corpse, reducing it to bones, Taylor redefines excarnation as a historical process, “the steady disembodying of spiritual life, so that it is less and less carried in deeply meaningful bodily forms, and lies more and more ‘in the head’” (771).

[3] Sadler, The Second Adam, and the New Birth (London, UK: Bell & Sons, 1876), 217. My italics.

[4] It has been noted that even pilgrimage as a metaphor exists only in sectors of the church that value and uphold nurture piety, a piety that sees the Christian journey in the context of slow growth and formation over the years, whereas churches that encourage conversionist piety tend toward metaphors of sudden transformation and change. It is no wonder that many children brought up by converted parents find their own parents’ piety to leave them undernourished, with little metaphor or praxis to guide their way. See the article by William Borden Evans, “A Tale of Two Pieties: Nurture and Conversion in American Christianity,” Reformation and Revival 13, no. 3 (2004): 62–82.

[5] 1 Thessalonians 5:23 (NIV) “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

[6] Peter Walker, “Pilgrimage in the Early Church,” in Explorations in a Christian Theology of Pilgrimage (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004), 84.

[7] Cyril of Alexandria developed a whole theology around “sacred places.” Could this have put the church on a course that would lead directly to the Crusades—ridding holy places of unholy elements?

[8] Not to mention that Paul’s own handkerchief and Peter’s shadow seem to be vested with special properties, according to New Testament reports.

[9] Luther’s Works (LW), American Edition, 55 vols., ed. J. Pelikan and H. T. Lehmann (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress,, 1955–86), 37.95.

[10] For a full-orbed account of the ascension and its ramifications on life and theology, see Douglas Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999).

[11] Women had a harder time going on pilgrimage, as they were thought to belong at home and not on spiritual quests. See Leigh Ann Craig, Wandering Women and Holy Matrons: Women as Pilgrims in the Later Middle Ages (Boston, MA: Brill, 2009).

[12] LW, 44.187.

[13] It has been recorded that while Calvin, in principle, believed the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated weekly (as opposed to the Catholic Church, which at that time offered it annually), he also did not trust the people to take it rightly, so he amended his recommendation to once a month.

[14] If the “form” did not match the “inward sentiment of devotion,” then the undertaking—regardless of its worth—“is branded a sacrilege” (Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms 50:16 [Calvin Translation Society; Reprint: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979]).

[15] In paganism, the spiritual and the material world are completely fused. This could be, but does not have to be, the temptation of Catholicism. In Gnosticism, there is a total separation of the physical from the spiritual—its own brand of mischievous theology where the life of the mind is extracted from the physical and material context in which faith must grow. This could be, but does not have to be, the temptation of Protestantism.