Bicycle Pilgrimage

A contemplative journey in the land of Abe Lincoln, Robert Owen, and Paul Tillich

America’s greatest president—Abraham Lincoln, one of the twentieth century’s premier theologians—Paul Tillich, and a social reformer in the early 1800s—Robert Owen, all have strong connections with Southern Indiana. With this fact in mind, I used to conduct “religious pilgrimages on bicycles” for youth and adults through this fascinating section of the country. While other parts of the world may have more notoriety, there are few places so well suited for contemplative travel on bicycles.             

One of these pilgrimages took place June 17-23, 1979. Nine adults and a thirteen-month-old baby gathered on a summer Sunday afternoon at the Bedford Christian Camp in the hill country of southern Indiana. During the next six days, we rode bicycles over a 250-mile course of country roads and state highways, through covered bridges, past cemeteries and churches, penetrating ever more deeply the rural fastness near the place where the Wabash River flows into the Ohio.

We found lodging night by night in the churches of small towns along the way (Washington, Princeton, Poseyville, Dale, and French Lick), cleaning up in their bathrooms, cooking in their kitchens, sleeping on their floors, and praying in their sanctuaries. We took time to stop at sites that radiate religious and cultural power. This journey became a religious quest on bicycles, a spiritual pilgrimage for contemporary Christians.

The character of the week had been set in the brochure announcing the journey: “Pilgrimage travel, journeys in search of meaning!” How can we, the brochure continued, find this kind of religious life, with automobiles, motels, and franchised food outlets all around? How can we make a pilgrimage, which requires that we be cut loose from normal life patterns, exposed to the elements, subdued by deep fatigue, and invited to contemplate the centers of religion’s power?

The answer promised by the brochure was to travel by bicycle, with others in the same search, following a regimen of disciplines appropriate to the venture. On bicycles, travelers are forced to deal with terrain, weather, danger, and the frailties of flesh and spirit. They travel slowly, in a way that isolates them from motorized reality and intensifies their relations with others on the spiritual journey. Among the disciplines that the pilgrims were told to expect were daily services of worship, reflective writing, sharing in group tasks, and the daily ride of 40 to 50 miles.

The key to the pilgrimage’s success, however, was the character of the places that would be visited. From ancient times, pilgrimages have functioned this way. They have been occasions when people have traveled to places that are significantly related to the origins of their faith and culture. Visiting these sites, pilgrims experience the reviving of faith and passion for what they believe. Their personal powers are reorganized to be more consistent with the principles and disciplines of their communities of faith. Their sense of who they are as a people is renewed. Read more. . . Bicycle Pilgrimage

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