I’m a pilgrim, I’m a stranger
Cast upon the rocky shore
Of a land where deathly danger
Surges with a sullen roar,
Oft despairing, oft despairing,
Lest I reach my home no more.
A pilgrimage is a journey, often a long one, to a sacred or holy place. Often the financial burden of a pilgrimage is great, or the journey itself is difficult, or the pilgrim chooses to abstain from food for a period of time…sacrifice is usually involved in one way or another. Generally speaking, the purpose of any pilgrimage is to demonstrate faith and religious devotion.
In the context of this hymn, mortal life is the pilgrimage that each of us must take. We left our premortal home with our Father in Heaven to come to earth where exist both temporally and spiritually “deathly danger”. Verse two is anxiety-ridden, for life is treacherous and too many of our brothers and sisters never find their way home.
Misty vapors rise before me.
Scarcely can I see the way.
Clouds of darkest hue hang o’er me,
And I’m apt to go astray
With the many, with the many
That are now the vulture’s prey.
But let us not forget that a pilgrimage is not just a miserable experience designed to frighten and discourage us. It is a journey to a holy place that results in spiritual growth and enlightenment. Is that not why we came to earth? To have our faith and obedience tested? To see if we would do all things whatsoever the Father commands? (see Abraham 3:25)
We journeyed here to mortality on an earth created specifically for us. It has its problems, yes, but God himself declared it to be good (see Genesis 1). Even when the world is at its worst, this “rocky shore” upon which we have been cast is full of sacred spaces. The Wikipedia entry on pilgrimages is (surprisingly) eloquent on this point:
“Such sites [i.e. those visited by pilgrims] may be commemorated with shrines or temples that devotees are encouraged to visit for their own spiritual benefit: to be healed or have questions answered or to achieve some other spiritual benefit.”
There are places and experiences like this for us throughout mortality. The baptismal font is a sacred place, as is the chapel where baptismal covenants are renewed each week. Temples are being built all over the world to provide refuge, revelation, and a source of spiritual strength. A father giving a priesthood blessing to a sick child, a young woman searching the scriptures for answers to a troubling question, any time the miracle of birth occurs…each of these are “shrines” of a sort that mark the path of our pilgrimage.
Every time we have a sacred experience, the place or moment where it occurs is sanctified, and the Holy Ghost reminds us that we are headed toward our heavenly home. When we go through stretches of life with few of these holy milestones, we can still draw strength from those we have passed and look forward with hope for the next one. And always, always, our Father is there to help us find the way.
O my Father, I entreat thee,
Let me see thy beck’ning hand;
And when straying, may I meet thee
Ere I join the silent band.
Guide me, Father, guide me, Father,
Safely to the promised land.
Eventually, if we continue in the strait and narrow way, each of us will complete our personal pilgrimage here and return to live with our Father in Heaven. We will make many sacrifices along the way, and we will face many hardships, it is true. But if we watch for them along the way, we will find many sacred reminders of where we are headed, and each holy encounter brings us ever closer to the promised land.