From Your Fellow Pilgrim


Procession of Christ of the Angels Toledo Spain 2010I have a confession to make:

Even though I know that at my age (54), I’m likely on the downhill side of life’s mountain … Even though I have seen numerous people pass away at ages much younger than me the last several years … Even though I have visited only 38 of the 50 states and only two foreign countries (as well as one British Crown Colony) … Even though there are many, many things I haven’t seen or experienced or done …

Despite all of that, I don’t have a bucket list.

Nope. Nothing. Not formal, not informal. Not even ideas for one rolling around my brain. Several years ago, I mentioned to daughter Erin and my wife that once upon a time I had wanted to go sky-diving before I turned 50. They took me seriously and, yes, even though I was 51 by the time it happened, all three of us jumped out of an airplane and landed safely in a Napa Valley field.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and would do it again. But my life won’t suffer if I don’t.

Just for grins, I googled “bucket list ideas” to see what other people might want to do before they “kick the bucket.” There actually is a website called And I can check off a few from the list as “accomplished.” I’ve been to Rome. I’ve learned how to ride a bike. (Really? On someone’s bucket list?) I’ve gone on an impromptu road trip with buddies. I graduated from college. I have gone snorkeling with sharks. I’ve seen a ballet. I have sung on a stage in front of a large crowd, seen several World Series and All-Star Games. (Never a Super Bowl. No desire at all.)

I haven’t done most things on the list of ideas, such as: Scuba diving in Tonga. Climb Mount Everest or an active volcano. Go ghost hunting. Whale watching. Have a picnic in Central Park. Have an all-nighter in Vegas or celebrate Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Stand in a red phone box in London.

My joy in life doesn’t feel at all diminished because I have none of those memories.

There has been enough travel in my life, I think. I have enjoyed plenty of sight-seeing vacations in my lifetime – Washington, D.C.; the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone Park; historical tours in Philadelphia and Boston; Graceland in Memphis. (Hey, don’t laugh at that last one. I thought it was cool.)

But my life isn’t about seeing the sights. For me, life isn’t about connecting a series of memorable and famous people, places and things. It’s not about seeking the next adrenaline rush or filling my scrapbook with really cool pictures that only served to intensify the next mountain to conquer.

No, for me, life is a pilgrimage. And whether you realize it or not, your life is similar. Indeed, that’s how I usually sign emails I send to people:

Your fellow pilgrim, Mike Eisenbath

I’ve been pondering that recently because Donna and I have been talking for some time about taking a European vacation in 2016 or 2017, depending upon how much money we can save quickly enough. We’re not really sure about our itinerary. She has some places she would like to see in Spain: art museums in Madrid as well as Toledo and a couple of other spots visited some years ago by friends of ours.

After immersing myself in Carmelite history and spirituality the last couple of years, I would like to see the Spanish towns of Avila and Toledo. I’d also like to return to Rome, then check out the history and scenery in Venice, Tuscany and a few other Italian places.

But in addition to deciding where to go, I’d like for us to consider how to visit. Do we want to be regular tourists, seeing historic places and experiencing beautiful artwork and dining on the finest local cuisine?

Or do we want to travel on a pilgrimage?

What’s the difference? Consider this detailed explanation:

A pilgrimage is a ritual journey with a hallowed purpose. Every step along the way has meaning. The pilgrim knows that life-giving challenges will emerge. A pilgrimage is not a vacation; it is a transformational journey during which significant change takes place. New insights are given. Deeper understanding is attained. New and old places in the heart are visited. Blessings are received and healing takes place. On return from the pilgrimage, life is seen with different eyes. Nothing will ever be quite the same again.

That is the way I’m trying to live my life. Granted, many of the things on a person’s “bucket list” could have a hallowed purpose, present great meaning, pose life-giving challenges, provide new insights and deeper understanding. I think that’s one reason many people pursue those experiences before they die: To find some meaning for their time here.

For me, there is a slight twist in the motivation. When many people make a list of all the things to do before they die, they think that means they won’t leave this life with regrets. But I want my entire life to have a hallowed purpose, to have great meaning, to help me find new insights and deeper understanding on a daily basis.

A “vacation journey,” motivated by checking things off a to-do list, involves packing experiences into a suitcase. Bucket-list experiences, like vacations, generally are planned. Usually the planning is with the expectation of a thrill, exhilaration, accomplishment.

A pilgrimage, generally motivated by a more meaningful purpose, involves encounters. That implies something more personal and unpredictable. By definition, an encounter is something upon which we come face-to-face and experience unexpectedly. We might put ourselves in a position to possibly encounter something, but what that something is and how it affects us simply can’t be forecast.

To live as a pilgrim means living as though this isn’t the place we ultimately will spend our lives because we don’t want to spend our entire existence here. We are visitors, aliens on earth, with heaven as our anticipated goal.

A pilgrim doesn’t take a bunch of suitcases for the journey and won’t plan on buying a slew of souvenirs. Rather, a pilgrim “travels light” and doesn’t plan on staying long enough to put down roots. They sample the sights but don’t become part of them.

The experiences of a pilgrimage can be life-changing, insightful, inspiring … but not necessarily all pleasant. A pilgrimage can involve many trials and is meant to challenge and teach.

For me, though, one of the most impressive differences between living in a way to achieve a long, completed bucket list and living as a pilgrim is found in that pilgrims don’t journey alone. Every bucket list is unique to each person, tailored to taste and ability and style. Pilgrims share purpose and goal and desire; they go nowhere alone.

In the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews, the writer discusses such spiritual characters as Abel and Abraham, Enoch and Noah, Isaac and Jacob – and he could have mentioned Jesus – as people who spent their lives journeying with a great purpose:

All these died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar and acknowledged themselves to be strangers and aliens on earth, for those who speak thus show that they are seeking a homeland (Hebrew 11:13-14).

The purpose for a Christian who lives as a pilgrim is to encounter God. The motivation is to love God. The hope is to return to our true homeland and live eternally in union with God.

And so I seek to be your fellow pilgrim.


About Author

Mike Eisenbath has been married to Donna for 30 years; they have four adult children and two grandsons. He was an award-winning sportswriter for 23 years, including 18 at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch with duties that included covering the St. Louis Cardinals and Major League Baseball. Severe depression forced him out of that career. He continues to write, with a monthly column in the St. Louis Review and his website featuring reflections on topics such as his Catholic faith and mental illness. Mike is a frequent speaker and radio guest involving those subjects. Among his three books is Hence My Eyes Are Turned Toward You: Confronting Depression With Faith and the Prayer of Jehoshaphat.