Since Monday I’ve been focusing on the lessons we might learn from the Pilgrim story. I thought it fitting to save the most important one—or what I think is the most important—for Thanksgiving Day itself. It’s so obvious that we are prone to overlook it. The Pilgrims “knew that they were pilgrims.” I’ve alluded to this before, but I think it bears repeating this holiday morning.
So why is this a big deal? What does it even mean? It means that the Pilgrims knew who they were. They were travelers, aliens, sojourners. And because of this self-awareness, they had an advantage over many of us with regard to a struggle that every Christian faces: the struggle to maintain a clear sense of our identity in Christ.
“Pilgrims” is one of those words that we have used so much that it has lost much of the power of its literal meaning. Today we typically use the word as a proper noun. It’s the name we reserve for the specific group of individuals who came to New England on the Mayflower in 1620. When William Bradford used the word in describing that group nearly four centuries ago, however, he used it to convey the Leiden Separatists’ understanding that they were merely strangers passing through this world en route to another destination.
We read this in one of the most often quoted passages in Of Plymouth Plantation. In book I, Bradford recounted the emigrants’ departure from Holland and their heart-wrenching parting from those in their congregation who would not be making the journey. Writing a decade later, he recalled the “abundance of tears” that was shed as the group said their goodbyes and “left that goodly and pleasant city [Leiden, Holland] which had been their resting place near twelve years.” They could find the resolve to press on, Bradford explained, drawing from the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews, because “they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”
I am convinced that if we shared this sense of pilgrimage it would shape not only how we celebrate Thanksgiving, but also the way that we think about God’s blessings throughout the year. Although he didn’t speak specifically of the relation between pilgrimage and gratitude, C. S. Lewis wonderfully captured what I have in mind in my favorite passage from The Problem of Pain. Lewis observed that
The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.
I think the Pilgrims, or most of them, understood this. I hope we can, too. When we know that we are pilgrims, it changes how we approach the Thanksgiving table. The feast that awaits us is a “pleasant inn,” and we are right to delight in it, but we must not let it tempt us to “rest our hearts in this world.” The food we enjoy and the fellowship that warms us are mere glimpses and shadows—a taste of things to come. It is good if they nourish and encourage us, but it is better still when they increase our hunger for a different feast, the banquet that God is preparing for those who “desire a better, that is, a heavenly country” (Hebrews 11:16).