31 July 2016

To Be a Pilgrim: IV. Return

A four-part series on the Christian life as pilgrimage. 
I. Summons
II. Departure
III. Getting There
IV. Return

Matthew 2:1-12

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
31st July 2016

We’ve been on a journey together over the last three weeks, exploring the significance of pilgrimage.  I’ve tried to show that the Christian life is essentially a journey (or journeys).  As followers of Christ who said he was Way (John 14:6), we, too, are people on the way, walking to the place that leads to life.  I’ve tried to make the case that thinking of the Christian life as journey might help restore a dynamic, active understanding of our life in Christ (something desperately needed in the Church and the world today).  This series has covered three of the four stages of pilgrimage: summons, departure, getting there.  And after getting there, wherever there is, there comes a time to return home.

One doesn’t stay away forever.  One has to return.  But as we all know, after being on a long journey, after a life-changing experience, we never return home the same.  Poet R. S. Thomas (1913-2000) says,
The point of our traveling is not
to arrive but to return home
laden with pollen you shall work up
into honey the mind feeds on.[1]

The journey changes us.  That’s exactly what it’s supposed to do, change us—which is why the prospect of pilgrimage or journey (whether it’s outward or inward) or simply leaving home generates so much anxiety in us.  But there are things we only discover about ourselves, and our life in Christ, after we leave home.  We have to go away to a strange land, venture out to a strange place, become strangers (which is what the word pilgrim means, “stranger” or “foreigner”), in order to discover things about ourselves or about life in Christ, which we never would have known had we stayed home. 

I love the verse in Matthew’s gospel which tells us that the Magi, after having made a long journey, following a star to Bethlehem, after their eventual arrival, were “warned in a dream…[and] left for their country by another road” (Matthew 2:12).  They returned by another road.  Now, even if they had returned by the same road, they still would have returned by another road.  The former road was not the same road.  How could the road remain the same?  How could anything in their lives be the same after kneeling before the Lord of Life?  You can’t go back to life as usual, but only to a new normal. As novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) knew, quoting the title of his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again.  Or, if you do go home, like the Magi, it’s never the same home that you left.  There’s no going back.  Poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) captures this wisdom in his poem Journey of the Magi.  The Magi say: 
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.[2]

Yes, there are things you can only discover on the journey.  You have to leave home to find it.  At the end of The Wizard of Oz, we find Dorothy Gale of Kansas who returns to consciousness after getting caught in a tornado.  She shares her adventures of being to Oz.  Her family and friends don’t believe her and then she says, “If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with.”[3]  Because, we’re told, “There’s no place like home.” This is one of my favorite movies; it had a huge impact upon me as a boy.  There’s something in Dorothy’s sentiment that’s true.  I used to think this was the point of the story: stay home.  But then I realized that Dorothy only came to her truth because she left home, at least in her dreams, and became a stranger, a pilgrim in the Land of Oz.


“It is said in Venice that upon their return, Marco Polo (1454-1424) and his father [, Niccolò,] were not even recognized because of their tattered traveler’s rags.  But inside their tattered clothes were sewn diamonds and jewels from their far-flung journey.”   The “diamonds,” the “jewels” within us, the invaluable insight and wisdom we discover on the journey, is what Phil Cousineau calls “bringing back the boon.”[4]  The boon, he says, “is the gift of grace that was passed to us in the heart of our journey.”  It’s what you carry home in your heart from the journey.  More than a souvenir, it’s a priceless treasure, the Holy Grail you left home to find, that then changes the way you live when you return.

I’ve heard people who’ve walked the Camino—the 500-mile trek across Spain to Santiago de Compostela—say that one thing we’re not prepared for was the return, the re-entry.  It’s a tough adjustment. Some become depressed.  They miss being on the Camino, which is Spanish meaning, “way” or “road.”  They miss being on the way.  It’s said that the real Camino, the true pilgrimage begins only after you’ve reached Santiago, after you’ve returned home.  That’s when the real journey begins.  Today, after pilgrims or peregrinos arrive in Santiago they catch a train to Madrid and fly home.  In the Middle Ages the return walk was also part of the journey. Back in April, when the Reforming Spirit Tour was in Geneva, we visited the archeological site under St. Pierre’s Cathedral.  I remember seeing scallop shells (the symbol of the Camino, the Way of St. James) on display, found in the graves of monks—monks who traveled to Santiago and ended up in Geneva.  Walking the Camino meant so much to them that they were buried with their scallop shells. 

The Camino is sometimes called “la ruta de la terapia,” the route of therapy.[5]  The Camino becomes therapeutic and therapy, from the Greek word therapeuo, means, simply, “to heal.”  Pilgrimage becomes a way of healing. If one returns having been “healed,” then a new life begins at home.  Returning home might mean coming home to oneself, and once home you begin to walk a new road, a new way.  Maybe you discover why you left in the first place.

The Christian life, our journey with God, both as a congregation and individually, is, ultimately, about our transformation, about being changed; it’s about the changes that continually occur to us—and should occur to us—as we grow in faith, grow in maturity, grow in grace, grow in love.  If you’re breathing, if you’re baptized, then you’re on the way.  In fact, Love summons you on the way!  It’s all for love that the Spirit summons us and send us off on the journey of our lives.  The Flemish thirteenth-century poet and mystic Hadewijch understood that it’s love that sends us.  She writes about, “All that the forces of Love urge me to.”  Love here is capitalized; she’s talking about God and refers to God in the feminine.  Hadewijch said, whoever dares the wilderness of Love, Shall understand Love: Her coming, her going.  When Love calls and sends us, courage is required.  She writes, “O soul, creature, and noble image, Risk the adventure!”[6]

Let us step out!  Let us travel with the Spirit.  Let us seek the blessing of God as we go.  So here is a beautiful blessing for the journey, written by Jan Richardson, For Those Who Have Far to Travel: 

            If you could see

            the journey whole,

            you might never

            undertake it,

            might never dare

            the first step

            that propels you

            from the place

            you have known

            toward the place

            you know not. 


            Call it

            one of the mercies

            of the road:

            that we see it

            only by stages

            as it opens

            before us,

            as it comes into

            our keeping,

            step by

            single step. 


            There is nothing

            for it

            but to go,

            and by our going

            take the vows

            the pilgrim takes: 


            to be faithful

            to the next step;

            to rely on more

            than the map;

            to heed the signposts

            of intuition and dream;

            to follow the star

            that only you

            will recognize;



            to keep an open eye

            for the wonders that

            attend the path;

            to press on

            beyond distractions,

            beyond fatigue,

            beyond what would

            tempt you

            from the way.


            There are vows

            that only you

            will know;

            the secret promises

            for your particular path

            and the new ones

            you will need to make

            when the road is revealed

            by turns

            you could not

            have foreseen. 


            Keep them, break them,

            make them again;

            each promise becomes

            part of the path,

            each choice creates

            the road

            that will take you

            to the place

            where at last

            you will kneel


            to offer the gift

            most needed—

            the gift that only you

            can give—

            before turning to go

            home by

            another way.[7]

[1] R. S. Thomas, “Somewhere,” Collected Poems (Phoenix, 2000).
[2] T. S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi,” Collected Works
[3] L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).
[4] Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred (Conari Press, 1998), 217.
[5] Nancy Louise Frey, Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 45.
[6] Hadewijch, “The Noble Valiant Heart,” cited in Catherine Keller, On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 92.
[7] Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons (Orlando, FL: Wanton Gospeller Press, 2015).

24 July 2016

To Be a Pilgrim: III. Getting There

El Camino de Santiago de Compostela (The Way of St. James), Spain
A four-part series on the Christian life as pilgrimage. 
I. Summons
II. Departure
III. Getting There
IV. Return

Psalm 86:8-15 & Jeremiah 6:13-16

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Pilgrim.  From the Latin peregrinus, meaning “foreign” or “strange.”  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, the entire way is sacred. 

Why become a pilgrim?   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 way can be out in the world or in the heart.

To be a Christian is to be a pilgrim, for the Christian life is essentially a journey, walking with Christ, being on the way with the one who said he was Way (John 14:6).  The earliest followers of Jesus were not known as Christians but simply as The Way (Acts 9:2).  And, as I shared last week, there are times when I we could get rid of the designation “Christian.”  It’s a word with so much baggage—and pilgrims prefer to travel light.  What if Christians were known simply as people of the Way?  Then we would have a more dynamic, active understanding of life in Christ.  For the follower of Jesus is always on a journey.  Jesus says, “Come, follow me.”  Come. Walk with me on the road to true life, meaningful life, full life. The journey is life; life is the journey.  If you’re breathing, if you’re baptized, then you’re on the journey. God’s people are always on the move.  And as we’ve explored the last two weeks, the journey begins with a summons, followed by departure and then the journey leads us to where we need to be.   

If you met my grandmother in the street or in the store or at church, and you said to her, “Hi, Ann.  How are you?”  Her response, 99% of the time, was: “Oh, I’m getting there.”  Not fine, not okay, but “I’m getting there.”  As a boy, I never knew where there was.  I’m not sure she knew either. But she was on the way there and seemed happy about it and that’s all that matters.

Along the journey of our lives, the call is sacred, the destination is sacred, but we need to know that getting there is also sacred.  Actually, in this series I intentionally fused together the getting there with the destination to make them one, in order to emphasize the sacredness of the getting there, wherever and whatever there is.

Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) famously said, “All the way to heaven is heaven.”   We participate in that toward which we are moving.  We are being shaped by the future, the destination, the goal (which is why it’s important to make sure your goal is worthy of your efforts). And the getting there shares in the experience of arriving.  The vision of the end shapes our walking.  I shared with someone recently that I begin my Camino, the 500-mile trek across Spain to Santiago de Compostela, on 15th September in St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, at the French-Spanish border.  And then someone, who previously walked the Camino, said to me, “Ken, your Camino has already begun.”  In other words, preparing for the journey, planning for what’s required to get there, imagining what it will be like to arrive in Santiago, holding that vision of the end or goal in mind is already shaping my walk, informing my steps, shaping my life, shaping my dreams.    

You see, the destination makes the getting there sacred.  But there’s something within us that thinks it’s only about the destination, about arriving.  We groan at the thought of driving all the way to the Eastern Shore or the Outer Banks, and all the traffic. We just want to be there; we just want to be at the beach.  There’s always the voice that comes from the back seat of the car just as you pull out of the driveway and leave on a long family road trip, “Are we there yet?”  Sometimes getting there is no fun—and sometimes it really isn’t.

What if getting there is half the fun?  The getting there is not incidental.  The way or road from your house to the beach is not simply transportational, not simply a means to convey you from one place to another.  That in-between time and space is holy and it shapes us; how we get there shapes us. 

So, where are you going?  Where is there?  Do you know?  There are many “theres” out there.  In the life of faith, each there, however, has something to do with this one word: transformation.  In her book The Soul of a Pilgrim, Christine Painter suggests that being “a pilgrim means becoming a stranger in the service of transformation.”[1]  The journey of the Christian life is in service to transformation.  God rarely calls us to stay put.  God meets us where we are, accepts us as we are, but then sends us in order to be transformed and renewed.

And on the way toward the place where we are summoned, as we’re getting there, we are changed and are being changed, which is the reason for the journey.  The goal of pilgrimage is not spiritual sightseeing.  Sure, arriving at an ancient cathedral or shrine is great. But it’s not the place so much as how you feel in that moment and all the previous moments leading up to that moment and how they’ve shaped you.

Where is “there” for you?  What are you searching for?  Where do you want to go?  For some pilgrims “there” is a place of healing, a place where one can experience wholeness, make peace with the past in order to move on, to let go and start fresh.  “There” can be a place of memory, to reconnect with what has been forgotten or repressed, to integrate it into one’s life.  Or maybe it’s a journey of remembering in order to finally forget, to let it go and not be burdened by it any more.  For many “there” is a place of encounter with the Living God, the place where you can’t run from God or God’s call in your life any more, the place where you finally feel the weight of God’s glory and the depths of God’s love and the radicality of God’s grace that goes right to the roots (to the radix) of your soul.

Chartres Cathedral, France
In this light you can see why labyrinths have been used as powerful symbols of the Christian life, the most famous one built into floor of the nave in the great cathedral in Chartres, France.  Labyrinths symbolize a journey to the sacred center—not in a straight line, but through all of its twists and turns, forward and back, and apparent detours, which eventually lead us to the sacred center.  How we arrive shapes the way you then leave from the center and return home. And we discover things along the way, as we’re getting there.

Three years ago I was in London’s Heathrow Airport en route to Washington from Edinburgh.  Walking around the Duty Free, a book cover and title caught my eye: The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, written by Robert Macfarlane, a new author to me.  Macfarlane, Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, has written extensively—and beautifully (he’s become one of my favorite writers)—about the connection between the landscape of the feet and the landscape of the heart and mind, all of which he knows something about since he’s also an avid walker.  Macfarlane reminds us that there’s a deep connection between walking and learning.  It’s actually rooted in language.  He says, “The trail begins with our verb to learn, meaning ‘to acquire knowledge’.  Moving backwards in language time, we reach the Old English leornian, ‘to get knowledge, to be cultivated.” From leornian the path leads further back…[to] Proto-Germanic, and to the word liznojan, which has the base sense ‘to follow or to find a track.’” Walking and learning.  “To learn” therefore “means at root—at route—‘to follow a track.’”[2]

And speaking of tracks, Macfarlane reminds us that, “Paths are the habits of a landscape.  They are acts of consensual making.  It’s hard to create a footpath on your own…. Paths connect.  This is their first duty and their chief reason for being.  They relate places in a literal sense, and by extension they relate people.”[3] It’s difficult to create a footpath on your own.

Of course, the prophet Jeremiah knew all about this—and more.  Jeremiah knew that ancient path ways help us to connect with God.

“Thus says Yahweh, ‘Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it and find rest for your souls’” (Jeremiah 6:16).  That’s the way.  Find the ancient paths.  We can refuse to walk in them, of course.  Jeremiah tells us that God’s people said, “We will not walk in it” (Jer. 6:16).  We have to choose.  When we stand at the crossroads of our lives we have to choose which way we’re going to go.  There’s an old Hasidic saying that speaks to this, “Carefully observe the way your heart draws you and then choose that way with all your strength.”[4]

Choose the ancient paths, the old ways made by the generations of God’s people who have walked before us, for they have the power to convey us to where we need to go.  They contain wisdom that we cannot discover or create on our own. We need to follow the path instead of going our own way, getting lost, walking in circles. 

When we walk these ancient paths we remember that we’re not alone.  We walk in the shadows of other pilgrims who have walked this way, who also searched for healing and wholeness and transformation and life and connection with God.  And when we walk these ancient paths our souls rejoice.  Why?  Because we’re allowed to rest.  Why? Because we don’t have to both create the way and then walk in it.  We’re called to walk with God.  The paths might be ancient but our walk on it isn’t.  It’s our walk.  We’re not walking back to the past, but using the ancient paths to get us to the new place we need to go.  We are invited to walk in the way that leads to life. 

Listen to your heart.  It knows the way—where it needs to go.  It knows where “there” is.  And your heart also knows the way home.

Teach me you way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; 
give me an undivided heart to revere your name.
(Psalm 86:11)

[1] Christine Valters Painter, The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within (Notre Dame, IN:  Sorin Books, 2015), 1-2.
[2] Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Penguin, 2013), 31.
[3] Macfarlane, 17.
[4] Cited in Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred (Conari Press, 1998), 82.