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.

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