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).

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