A four-part series on the Christian life as pilgrimage.
III. Getting There
III. Getting There
10th July 2016
Pilgrim. From the Latin peregrinus, meaning “foreign.” The word describes what one becomes when one ventures into new lands. A pilgrim is a foreigner, a stranger, a wayfarer, someone from the outside, from some place else, from abroad, traveling through.
A pilgrim travels, but not as a tourist. She’s on the road, he’s on the way and that road, that way is holy. The way is sacred. The destination is sacred. The return is sacred.
Why does a pilgrim travel? Why go on a pilgrimage? Because there are things about one’s faith and life and the meaning of one’s life and faith that can only be discovered after we leave home for a time and explore unknown territory. There are things we can only discover when we’re on the road, on the way. That unknown territory can be in the outer world, just beyond the horizon or that unknown territory can be the world within. In either place we are strangers to others or strangers to ourselves. The journey in the outer world opens up the journey of the inner world. The inner journey then shapes how we journey though the outer world. One informs the others.
In his remarkable book The Art of Pilgrimage, Phil Cousineau reminds us that “we are all strangers in this world and that part of the elusive wonder of travel is that in those moments far away from the familiar, we are forced to face that truth, which is to say, the sacred truth of our soul’s journey here on earth.” He says, “This is one reason the stranger has always been held in awe and why the stranger on the move is perpetually a soul in wonder.”
A stranger on the move. That’s a pretty good definition of a pilgrim. A perpetual soul in wonder. American theologian Richard R. Niebuhr elegantly described a pilgrim this way: “Pilgrims are persons in motion—passing through territories not their own—seeking something we might call completion, or perhaps the word clarity will do as well, a goal to which on the spirit’s compass points the way.”
There’s something within the human spirit, in the human heart that resonates with pilgrim life. We hunger to embark on a meaningful journey, a journey that feeds our souls and makes our hearts sing, a journey that brings us to life. The early Celtic Christians of Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, for example, often went on pilgrimage or peregrination. The Celts traveled all over Europe. Sometimes they got into little boats or coracles and just set off for sea, never sure where they would end up. Some of them never returned. They went searching, as they said, “seeking the place of one’s resurrection.”
Pilgrimage is a sacred adventure, which involves some risk. This is what the experience of pilgrimage speaks to—adventure, adventure of the soul. It’s “a transformative journey to a sacred center.” We find this desire in all the major religions of the world, in Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Pilgrimage, Cousineau writes, “calls for a journey to a holy site associated with gods, saints, or heroes, or to a natural setting imbued with spiritual power, or to a revered temple to seek counsel. To people the world over, pilgrimage is a spiritual exercise, an act of devotion to find a source of healing, or even to perform a penance. Always, it is a journey of risk and renewal. For a journey without challenge has no meaning; one with purpose has no soul.”
So much of this experience is completely alien to North American Christians, especially Protestants. We have no tradition of pilgrimage in our faith experience. There are no temples, shrines, grottos or sacred groves that we Protestants flock to. Even American Roman Catholics are missing this aspect of their spirituality here in the United States. The Sanctuario de Chimayo, just north of Sante Fe, NM, is one possible exception (there are probably others). The sand or dirt in the chapel there apparently has healing properties. To our Protestant ears, pilgrim and pilgrimage sound so antiquated, quaint. We think of Plymouth pilgrims with their buckled shoes and tall black hats and turkeys. The Protestant Reformation put the kibosh on pilgrimage, especially in Northern Europe, where it thrived throughout the Middle Ages.
I have to admit, being a pilgrim, going off on pilgrimage was a foreign concept to me. That all changed when I moved to Scotland after seminary. It was in Scotland that I came to learn about the importance of pilgrimage in Celtic Christianity. And then, living in St. Andrews, the importance of pilgrimage in medieval Europe was evident. St. Andrews was one of the major pilgrim sites in Europe. The cathedral, one of the largest in Europe, contained several bones that belonged (so the story goes) to Andrew. Christians walked and then sailed and walked some more from all over Europe to visit St. Andrews. Everything in the town was arranged to accommodate the countless pilgrims that traveled to this little town or burgh on the coast of the North Sea. During the Reformation, the Protestants destroyed the cathedral and then threw the relics in the rubbish bin. Today, followers of the golf gods make pilgrimages to St. Andrews, the home of golf, to pay homage to the 18th fairway. Although, there are plans underway to create a new pilgrim way to St. Andrews, right across the Kingdom of Fife.
Since my time in Scotland pilgrimage has come to mean a lot to me. The image might be overused, but I do believe that the Christian life is a journey. A Christian is a pilgrim. This spirit of adventure, struggle, and exploration was beautifully captured in the words of John Bunyan (1628-1688), found in the hymn Who Would True Valour See:
Who would true valour see,
let him come hither;
one here will constant be,
come wind, come weather;
there’s no discouragement
shall make him once relent
his first avowed intent
to be a pilgrim. 
I was first introduced to this hymn by Lawson Brown, the minister I served under at St. Leonard’s Parish Church in St. Andrews, a dear friend and mentor. It was one of his favorite hymns and it’s a favorite of mine.
I might not talk about it a lot, but this image of the Christian as pilgrim stands at the center of my faith. That’s why I put it at the center of my sabbatical grant proposal, which was graciously granted. Thank you, Lilly Clergy Renewal Program! To Be a Pilgrim: A Journey of the Heart, Soul, and Spirit – that’s the title I gave to the grant application. I should have added body, because as every pilgrim knows, “our eyes are in our feet.” The theme for the sabbatical time is pilgrimage. I will travel to familiar places that feed my soul, such as Scotland, and visit new places that I dreamt about seeing as boy, and then walk the ancient pilgrimage route across Spain, a 500-mile trek to Santiago de Compostela, which houses the remains of the St. James (so the story goes). And while I’m away, CPC will be exploring pilgrimage in various ways, including a walk to the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.
I believe that the Christian life is a journey. Every follower of Christ, by virtue of one’s baptism, is called, summoned on an adventure to discover the sacred core of one’s life and the meaning and purpose of such a life. It’s one big journey from birth through life to death to new life. And along the way there are countless journeys that make up the call of our lives. But what matters most along the way is that we hear the call, discovering the purpose of our lives as we walk through space-time.
Remember, the early followers of Jesus were not called Christians, but simply The Way (see Acts 9:2). They were followers of the Way, followers of the one who said he was Way (John 14:6). He is the road, which means that we when we are with him we are on the way to some other place. He’s both leading the way and knows the way and we are called to follow, to walk with him. Such an understanding of the Christian life allows our experience to be inherently dynamic, moving, never, ever static. We’re not supposed to stand still, but to move. What if we were not known as Christians, but as followers of the Way? Perhaps then we would have a more dynamic, active understanding of our life in Christ. T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) gets at this when he said, in Four Quartets, we ought to be explorers,
We must be still and still moving into another intensity,
For a further union, a deeper communion...
And the way has a pattern, four stages (roughly): summons, departure, getting there, and then return. We find this pattern at work in the lives of God’s people. Whether the journey is inward or outward, the pattern remains the same.
It all begins with a summons, an invitation, and a call, even a longing. The Spirit speaks to us through a hunch, a feeling, a thought, a desire, a dream. The Spirit evokes something in us through a tug on the heart, or maybe tears, or anger, or rage, or passion, or frustration, or sadness, or pain. It could be through the voice of a loved one, a friend, even a stranger, something that strikes you, catches you, grips you and holds you, something that eventually causes your feet to move. The Spirit moves you off dead center and then sends you. Time and again we discover that God moves us so that we then move, to do something we would not otherwise attempt or have ever dreamt of doing, something we would rather not attempt to do. It might even make us uncomfortable, probably will.
One of my favorite stories is the calling of Simon, here in Luke 5. They’ve been out on the Sea of Galilee all night, fishing, and hadn’t caught a thing. It’s easy to think of this story as being only about evangelism, about “catching people.” It does have something to say about catching people, but before we get there Simon has to do what Jesus asked him to do. Simon has been summoned to do something, something he’s reluctant.
“Look, Master, we’ve been out here all night long and didn’t catch a thing. We’re tired. And there are all those people who keep following you around. We just want to go home.”
And what did Jesus ask him do? “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4). That’s the call. Put out into the deep water. And then let down your down nets, into the depths, for a catch. And when they did so they had so many fish that their nets began to break. They signaled for help. And then they filled two boats to capacity with fish that both boats almost started to sink under the weight. Overwhelmed by the abundance of the depths!
And what does Peter say? It’s too much! All of this is too much! He fell down at his feet and said, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Or, in other words, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am not worthy of this.” But obviously he was.
Sometimes we don’t want to be summoned. Sometimes we don’t want to be called, we don’t want to experience the Holy, we don’t want to experience the abundance. Sure, we say we do. We think we do. But there’s a part of us that recoils from our capacity. This is because we know that every experience of the Holy carries an obligation to do something about it. It might cause us to change—change the way we see the world, God, and ourselves. It might cause us to change the direction of our lives. It might cause us to change professions, leave everything behind in order to walk with him. Note that Jesus didn’t ask him to leave everything behind. That was Simon’s decision. But he knew he had to leave behind something in order to take up this new call.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) knew something about being called. He invited us to pay attention to what’s going on within the soul. Does the call cause us to contract in fear or calls us to expand. There’s always some fear, even in an expansive call. Is the call confining or expansive? Thoreau wrote, “We do not commonly live our life out and full; we do not fill all our pores with our blood; we do not inspire and expire fully and entirely enough…. We live but a fraction of our life. We do we not let in the flood, raise the gates, and set all our wheels in motion?”
We are, too often, like Peter who was ready to give up on the call, overwhelmed by the abundance, overwhelmed by life, overwhelmed by the challenges facing us or what God expects from us. It can feel all too much for us. So we give it back to God or we shut down, or turn off the television, unplug, run from responsibility, go back to bed and pull the covers over our heads.
To what am I being summoned?
To what are you being summoned?
Where are we as a church being summoned?
After the horrific events this week in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and then Dallas, what are we being summoned to as a nation, as people of faith? You see, how you/we respond to the world around us might also tell us something about our call, of what is being asked of us, what difficult task we are being asked to take on. What are you being asked by God to do in light of these shootings? What next step on the journey of faith are you being called to?
I can’t answer these questions. It’s up to you. At least one thing is for sure: if you’re breathing you’ve been summoned. I can’t tell you to what and to where. Maybe you need to put out into the depths and let down your nets for a catch. Or maybe you need to take a walk, a very long walk. As every pilgrim knows, that’s what the journey’s for. That’s what the road provides. Augustine (354-430) said, Solvitur ambulando. “It is solved by walking.”
The French poet Jules Supervielle (1884-1960) writes in his poem, The Call:
And it was then that in the depths of sleep
Someone breathed to me:
“You alone can do it, Come immediately.
And so we go.
 Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred, Foreword by Huston Smith (Conari Press, 1998), xx.
 Cited in Cousineau, 14.
 Ian Bradley, The Celtic Way (London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1993), 77.
 Cousineau, xxiii.
 Who Would True Valour See. Text: John Bunyan. Tune: MONKS GATE, written by Ralph Vaughan Williams, originally appeared in The English Hymnal 1906.
 Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain (1977).
 Cited in Cousineau, 17.
 Cited in Cousineau, 29.