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We’re all pilgrims—explorers in a place we’re destined to leave. Everyone, the Baha’i teachings say, makes “a pilgrimage through the human world.”
If you’ve studied American or European history, you probably understand the word pilgrim as the modern label for the Puritans who sailed westward on a ship called the Mayflower in 1620, escaping religious persecution in the Kingdom of England. Called English Separatists at the time, they fled the old country because King James—yes, that King James, the one whose name appears on the popular King James version of the Bible—refused to make the reforms the Puritans demanded in the Church of England, and then basically made Puritanism illegal.
The Puritans wanted the Anglican Church of England, known at the time to be corrupted by political influences, to renounce its episcopal system of governance by bishops—which the Puritans regarded as hierarchical and authoritarian, making them much more akin to Catholic practices than the more representative ones the Protestants advocated. King James refused, famously saying that if bishops lost their power, “I know what would become of my supremacy. No bishop, no King.”
As a result of that religious conflict, the United States of America eventually came into being, along with its groundbreaking governmental system that purposely separates church and state.
If you look a little deeper at the word pilgrim, though, you’ll understand that it has a much broader definition than just those Puritan separatists:
pil-grim (pil´grǝm) n. [Latin, peregrinus: foreigner] 1. a wanderer 2. one who travels to a shrine or holy place as a religious act 3. any of the band of English Puritans who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620.
(Here’s an irony: you can actually see the old Latin root of the word in the name of the first European born in the “New World”—Peregrine White.)
So a pilgrim wanders and wonders, taking a spiritual journey of the soul. You are a pilgrim.
When we make our pilgrimage through the human world, we have maybe a hundred years, if we’re healthy and lucky, to reach our destination. During this relatively short journey we’re strangers in a strange land; travelers searching for our destination, sojourners passing through this physical, temporal and very temporary part of life. Much like Peregrine White did, we cross an ocean while in the womb, and then encounter a completely new world, which we have to figure out how to navigate in real time.
Abdu’l-Baha referred to this reality in a talk he gave in Denver in 1912, where he said that the purpose of our lifelong pilgrimage is the acquisition of spiritual attributes, potency and aspirations:
What are the fruits of the human world? They are the spiritual attributes which appear in man. If man is bereft of those attributes, he is like a fruitless tree. One whose aspiration is lofty and who has developed self-reliance will not be content with a mere animal existence. He will seek the divine Kingdom; he will long to be in heaven although he still walks the earth in his material body, and though his outer visage be physical, his face of inner reflection will become spiritual and heavenly. Until this station is attained by man, his life will be utterly devoid of real outcomes. The span of his existence will pass away in eating, drinking and sleeping, without eternal fruits, heavenly traces or illumination—without spiritual potency, everlasting life or the lofty attainments intended for him during his pilgrimage through the human world. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 336.
Baha’is view this worldly pilgrimage we’re all on as the soul’s training ground. The Baha’i teachings describe human life as eternal, with three distinct stages: our period of gestation in the womb; our Earthly life; and after the death of our physical bodies our soul’s continued spiritual existence, which lasts forever. In that sense, we have three lives and three births: our birth from the womb-world; our birth in this world from the purely physical reality to the realization of a spiritual reality; and our birth into the next world, when the birds of our spirits finally escape the cages of our bodies.
We all make that same pilgrimage. Some live a long and healthy life, but some come to the physical end of their lives in sudden, unexpected and seemingly premature ways. Four days after Abdu’l-Baha arrived in North America for his 239-day sojourn, for example, the Titanic disaster occurred, and 1500 people perished. In this talk, which he delivered in Washington, D.C. soon after the disaster, Abdu’l-Baha once again refers to the mortal pilgrimage we all make through this uncertain life, and uses the metaphor of the child emerging from the womb to give us some insight into what awaits us at the end of our pilgrimage:
These human conditions may be likened to the matrix of the mother from which a child is to be born into the spacious outer world. At first the infant finds it very difficult to reconcile itself to its new existence. It cries as if not wishing to be separated from its narrow abode and imagining that life is restricted to that limited space. It is reluctant to leave its home, but nature forces it into this world. Having come into its new conditions, it finds that it has passed from darkness into a sphere of radiance; from gloomy and restricted surroundings it has been transferred to a spacious and delightful environment. Its nourishment was the blood of the mother; now it finds delicious food to enjoy. Its new life is filled with brightness and beauty; it looks with wonder and delight upon the mountains, meadows and fields of green, the rivers and fountains, the wonderful stars; it breathes the life-quickening atmosphere; and then it praises God for its release from the confinement of its former condition and attainment to the freedom of a new realm. This analogy expresses the relation of the temporal world to the life hereafter—the transition of the soul of man from darkness and uncertainty to the light and reality of the eternal Kingdom.
At first it is very difficult to welcome death, but after attaining its new condition the soul is grateful, for it has been released from the bondage of the limited to enjoy the liberties of the unlimited. It has been freed from a world of sorrow, grief and trials to live in a world of unending bliss and joy. The phenomenal and physical have been abandoned in order that it may attain the opportunities of the ideal and spiritual. Therefore, the souls of those who have passed away from earth and completed their span of mortal pilgrimage in the Titanic disaster have hastened to a world superior to this. They have soared away from these conditions of darkness and dim vision into the realm of light. – Ibid., pp. 47-48.