Can travel be spiritual? My family and I often asked that question while on a year-long pilgrimage across Europe. In his little book The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today, N. T. Wright says visiting places where saints lived can be a means of grace because they “carry memory, power, and hope” that can break into pilgrims’ lives and change them. But not just any travel will do. For Wright, there is a difference between pilgrimage and tourism. Tourism, he says, does not allow us to meet God in a new way. It’s only for our pleasure because it allows us “to see things our culture tells us we ought to see, to expand our own horizons and experiences, to buy souvenirs to make us feel good when we’re back home.” After we get back, we check it off our list, but our reality hasn’t been disturbed. Spiritual travel is different. To take a genuine pilgrimage, according to Wright, “we must be willing to let God break in unexpectedly, to surprise us with His grace, and to meet us in new ways.”
While my wife Michelle and I took this journey to revive our own spirits and sense of calling, we hoped for even greater benefits in our children’s lives. We wanted them to grow up with a strong foundation in the faith—one that would sustain them through the challenging years of college and the rest of their lives. To this end, we had arranged our travel around the three pillars of pilgrimage: rediscovering our spiritual roots, learning that life is a journey, and understanding our true destination. To learn about each of these pillars, we focused on three or four heroes of the faith by reading their books and walking in their footsteps.
When my family visited Ravensbrück, we experienced a moment of grace: We were standing where goodness happened.
We experienced the lives and places of C. S. Lewis, William Wilberforce, John Newton, André and Magda Trocmé, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Maria von Trapp, and over the months, God remade us. He lovingly broke open the false selves we had constructed apart from Him and formed us a little more into His image. Our travels were a means of grace that helped us rediscover our roots in Christ and understand that life is a journey—one that, at times, includes profound suffering and is best lived by a person who knows his true destination.
When my family visited Ravensbrück Concentration Camp in April 2010, our desire was to walk in the steps of Corrie ten Boom and her sister Betsie, who were interned there during the final year of World War II. They’d been arrested for running a rescue operation out of their home in Haarlem, Holland. When Jews came for help, the ten Booms found places to harbor them. But they also hid seven or eight Jews in their own home, and in case of a Gestapo raid, had built a hiding place behind a fake wall. On the day of the family’s arrest, the Gestapo searched for the secret space but never found it or the Jews hiding safely behind the wall.
Walking through the austere main gate of Ravensbrück, we entered Roll Call Square, a vast windswept space at the front of the prison, now covered in black volcanic rock to symbolize death. With the frigid wind racing off the lake adjacent to the camp, a cold chill cut to the bone. We paused, taking in the magnitude of the camp. We imagined thousands of women standing in line each morning, some in ankle-deep icy water and trembling, the cold tearing through their light prison jackets. We pictured guards barking orders, prohibiting the women from crossing their arms to stay warm. All they could do to ward off hypothermia and stay alert was stomp their feet. And that was essential because when a prisoner collapsed, the guards hauled her away to the infirmary, which really meant one thing: the gas chamber.
Fighting off the swirling wind after crossing that hallowed space, we made our way to the back of the camp, where some of the original barracks still stood. Though each was planned to house 400 women, 1,400 were stuffed in like cattle, creating unsanitary conditions that allowed disease to spread like wildfire. At any given time, more than 30,000 women lived in the camp, and by war’s end an estimated 92,000 would be killed by starvation, disease, or the gas chamber. When Corrie and Betsie first crawled into their beds, they gasped in horror because fleas were everywhere. But Betsie, much better at suffering than Corrie, reminded her that God says to give thanks in all things—even fleas. Corrie couldn’t accept that. She just knew her sister had to be wrong. But Corrie and Betsie later learned why the clandestine Bible studies they held in that squalid place were never discovered: The guards refused to enter it for daily inspections because they were afraid of the fleas.
We had discussed this story many times with our kids. But it took on new meaning for us. Somehow, standing there outside the forlorn building that had held so much suffering and hope, the words from The Hiding Place were more poignant for our family. There was a new emotional connection between the story and the historical location. There was a deeper meaning to the experience. It was almost as if we were there to witness the ten Boom sisters as they preached God is in control and encouraged the women that the best was yet to come. For my family, it was a moment of grace: We were standing where goodness happened, where God’s sovereign care shone through the darkness.
After we’d toured the camp and arrived again at the front, I sent Michelle and the kids back to our RV because I didn’t want them to see the crematorium, a place where thousands of women had been disposed of without ceremony or dignity. For this, I journeyed on alone.
To my left was the camp wall, covered with memorial plaques for the dead. A mass grave ran along the foot of the wall. As I turned to my right to look out over the lake, the wind struck my face. I shuddered and tightened my scarf around my neck.
In front of me was a huge statue of a woman dressed in prison garb, holding a man’s limp body and gazing out over the water. She looked forlorn but at the same time strong and determined. In the distance, I could see the church steeple in the heart of Ravensbrück. Corrie had mentioned seeing it as she walked to and from the factory where she worked every day. Was the church calling her or mocking her? I wondered as I looked across the lake. Or was it a sign He was still there?
Revelation 21:4 says that a day is coming when “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” Revelation promises that a better day is coming. I spun around and looked again at the camp, imagining it teeming with thousands of tortured souls, all suffering beyond imagination. I tried to envision what a place like Ravensbrück would look like in the face of the world God has planned. Scripture says there will be a new heaven and a new earth—and that the holy city, Jerusalem, will come down from heaven, replacing this sinful world forever (2 Pet. 3:10-13; Rev. 21:1-4). Ravensbrück and all broken things will be no more. Without that vision, everything around me was overwhelmingly depressing. But knowing this promise saved me from complete despair.
I believe this same truth sustained Corrie every time she walked back into the camp, exhausted and despairing. It was this vision that empowered her to trust God in suffering, continue to serve Him, and cling to the truth that He was in control. It was this view that inspired her to see Him as a God familiar with sorrow (Isa. 53).
N. T. Wright hoped believers would see pilgrimage as a way of taking “fresh steps along the road of discipleship that leads from the earthly city to the city that is to come, whose builder and maker is God.” By means of Ravensbrück, my family took fresh steps in our Christian walk. And the ten Booms had given us a great gift—the gift of knowing that in the midst of suffering, God is with us. We would never be the same.
After a time, I looked for the way back to the RV. The path would take me between the lake and the crematorium, walking directly over the mass grave. And as I crossed it, Betsie’s words echoed in my mind: There is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still.