17 July 2016

To Be a Pilgrim: II. Departure

A four-part series on the Christian life as pilgrimage. 

I.  Summons
II. Departure
III. Getting There
IV. Return

Genesis 12: 1-9

9th Sunday after Pentecost

17th July 2016

Pilgrim.  It sounds so antiquated.  Exotic.  Odd.  The thought of being or becoming a pilgrim seems strange, even weird. 

There was a time when pilgrimage was an integral part of the Christian life. During the Middle Ages pilgrims traipsed all over Europe, and beyond, going to places of historic and spiritual significance, often to do penance.  They walked to Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Canterbury, St. Andrews.  The Protestant Reformation put the kibosh on pilgrimage, especially in Northern Europe.  However, an interest in pilgrimage is on the rise in Europe.  Last year, more than 750,000 pilgrims walked across Spain to Santiago de Compostela. Even more will walk this year.  Former pilgrim ways have reopened, such as the St. Olav Ways to Trondheim in Norway, or the Way of St.Andrews, which goes from Isle of Iona in the west straight across Scotland to St. Andrews on the North Sea.  Many walk for religious reasons. Some walk just for the sense of adventure.  Many are spiritual seekers, with no religious affiliation, searching for something more, something more than life in the West has to offer, with its materialism and commercialism and superficial spirituality that doesn’t speak to the soul.

So much of this interest in pilgrimage is completely alien to North American Christians.  As Protestants, we have no tradition of pilgrimage in our faith experience.  There are no temples or shrines, no sacred grottos or groves for Protestants flock to.  Even American Roman Catholics, for the most part, are missing this aspect of their spirituality here in the United States.

It was through the writings of my friend Ian Bradley, in St. Andrews, decades ago, that I was first introduced to the importance of pilgrimage in Celtic Christianity.[1]  Since then, the life of the pilgrim, the meaning of pilgrimage, have shaped my understanding of the Christian life.  I might not talk about it much, but it stands at the center of my faith.  Being a pilgrim is essentially saying that the Christian life is about 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 followers of The Way (Acts 9:2).  And, as I shared last week, there are times when I wish we didn’t have the designation “Christian.”  It’s a word that has so much baggage—and pilgrims 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.

An active, dynamic, fluid understanding of the Christian life is a way of saying that a follower of Jesus is always on a journey.  Jesus invited us to walk with him. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said. Come. Walk with me on the road to life, 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 already on the journey. 

God’s people are always on the move.  Adam and Eve left the garden and fell into the world.  Abram and Sarai were summoned to leave home and venture into new territory.  Moses and Miriam led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and then walked for forty years through the wilderness.  Mary and Joseph traveled to a new place for Jesus to be born.  The so-called Prodigal Son left home and returned (Luke 15).  Jesus spent his entire life on the road with “no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20), and walked through Jerusalem to a cross.  Then the same Jesus met his friends on Easter evening—where?  On the road to Emmaus (Luke 24).  The apostle Paul was summoned to preach in Europe (Acts 16:9).  It’s all about the journey. The Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) even wondered, remarkably, “The feeling remains that God is on the journey too.”

It’s important to say that by journey we don’t mean a vacation or being a tourist.  It’s not a synonym for traveling.  To see our lives as a journey or pilgrimage is different because what we’re essentially talking about here is a process of change, of transformation.  Mark Nepo writes in his book The Exquisite Risk, “To journey without being changed is to be a nomad.  To change without journeying is to be a chameleon.  To journey and be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim.”[2] 

So, what is a pilgrim and why would you want to be one?  John O’Donohue (1956-2008), the Irish priest and philosopher, who died much too soon, left us with one answer.  “Ideally,” he said, “a human life should be a constant pilgrimage of discovery. The most exciting discoveries happen at the frontiers.  When you come to know something new, you come closer to yourself and to the world.  Discovery enlarges and refines your sensibility. When you discover something, you transfigure some of the forsakenness of the world.”[3]

The journey has a structure, a pattern.  It’s deep, archetypal, embedded in the soul.  It often has four stages: summons (which we explored last week), departure, getting there, and return.  And, I should add, there isn’t one journey, but many journeys throughout one’s life.  The pattern repeats itself over and over again.  We never return the same, which then opens us up to being summoned to something new.

And once you’ve been summoned…you have to move!  You depart.  Every journey requires leaving home.  The quintessential example of this leave-taking is the call to Abram and Sarai and their eventual departure.  It doesn’t get any clearer than this:  “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).  One word: Go.  Abram had to leave home in order to get to that new land, in order to experience the blessing.  The blessing could not to be found at home, where he was rooted.  He had to pull up his roots, sever his ties to the land, his family, his heritage.  If he latched on to any of these they would have held him back, cause him to get stuck, unable to move toward the place of blessing. And it was essential for him and for his family—and for his future descendants—that he go.  And, if you think about it, it was essential for us, for you and me today—that he went. Think of it, the entire Biblical narrative hinges on Abram and Sarai’s decision to go, to leave, depart.  “So Abram went,” scripture says, “as Yahweh had told him” (Genesis 12:4).

Eventually, we have to depart, we have to leave and step out into the future.  It took Abram three verses to go from summons to departure.  He just did what he was told.   Perhaps this is why Abram was praised for his faith and declared righteous (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3).  He knew that Yahweh could be trusted.

Now, Abram might be a good model for us to emulate, but that doesn’t means this is easy.  What’s missing in these three verses is everything that went through his head and heart, and Sarai’s, when he heard the word to “Go.”  How much time elapse between summons and departure?  Did he doubt himself?  Was he fearful?  Did Sarah say, “What, are you crazy?”  Did they quarrel?  What kind of anguish did they endure?  We need to remember that, yes, Abram and Sarai, along with Lot, ventured with all of their possessions, we’re told.  But “the greater significance is not what they [brought] with them but with what they [left] behind.” They would never see their family and clan again.  In a tribal society leaving family was like death—at least that’s what it must have felt like.  They were sent to an alien landscape. God says to them, effectively, “Abram and Sarai, go and become aliens.”  Or, better, “Become strangers!”   In other words, become pilgrims. 

Christine Painter reminds us, “Journeys are movements from one place to another, often to a place that is unfamiliar, foreign, and strange.  In fact, the Latin root of the word pilgrimage, peregrini, means ‘strange’ or ‘stranger.’  The journey,” she says, “to become a pilgrim means becoming a stranger in the service of transformation.”[4] And in order for transformation to occur we are sent out from the familiar into the unknown.  “A pilgrimage,” Painter writes, “is an intentional journey into this experience of unknowing and discomfort for the sake of stripping away preconceived expectations.  We grow closer to God beyond our own imagination and ideas.”[5]

And if this act of departure, of crossing the threshold into that liminal space between the known and unknown seems scary—it is.  It’s full of anxiety.  It’s easier to recoil from the call, ignore the summons, stay home.  This is how I’m feeling, to be honest, about my upcoming sabbatical, especially the Camino, the 500-mile trek across Spain to Santiago.  I’m both excited and anxious and doubting.  Do I really want to do this?  Is this how I want to spend my sabbatical, walking for forty days?  There’s a pull in me that just wants to stay home, read on my porch, tend my garden (which needs tending), hike along the Patapsco and not deal with packing and planning for being away for almost three months. Sometimes the summons overwhelms us and we’re tired even before we begin.  But I know where all these feelings come from.

My good friend James Hollis writes, beautifully, about what is at stake in such moments.  Jim is a psychoanalyst and writer, now based in DC.  He say, “Our being inevitably depends upon repeated separations, repeated developmental departures, ever farther away from the archaic, safe place. Drifting as we do through the gossamer dance of life, we are flooded with nostalgia, a word whose Greek origin means ‘pain for home.’  When the desire to ‘go home,’ [or stay home,] prevails,” he says, “we will choose not to choose, rest easy in the saddle, remain amid the familiar and comfortable, even when it is stultifying and soul-denying.  Jim reminds us, “Each morning the twin gremlins of fear and lethargy sit at the foot of our bed and smirk.  Fear of further departure, fear of the unknown, fear of the challenge of largeness intimidates us back into our convenient rituals, conventional thinking, and familiar surroundings.  To be recurrently intimidated by the tasks of life is a form of spiritual annihilation.  On the other front, lethargy seduces us with sibilant whispers:  kick back, chill out, numb out, take it easy for a while…sometimes for a long while, sometimes a lifetime, sometimes a spiritual oblivion.”[6]

But the Spirit of God summons us to life!  Go, leave, depart, move into the future, to the “land,” to the place of blessing.  You can’t get there by staying put.  You can’t get there if you give into anxiety and worry and fear.  I think Carl Jung (1875-1961) is correct when he says, “The spirit of evil is fear, negation…the spirit of regression, who threatens us with bondage to the mother…”[7] By “mother” he’s not referring to one’s literal parent, but what “she” can symbolize, “the safe and sheltering harbor: the old job, the familiar warm arms, and the same unchallenged, and stultifying, value system.  Family and heritage and clan can also have this “mothering” role; these are not inherently bad, but to be dominated by their pull “means that we are in service to sleep, not the tasks of life, to security, not development.”[8] 

The call of God is not to security, but to growth and development, transformation.  Jung said, “Fear is a challenge and a task, because only boldness can deliver from fear. And if the risk is not taken, the meaning of life is somehow violated.”  Can you imagine how the history of the world would have been different had Abram and Sarai not risked departure?  What if they just stayed home?

We can talk and write eloquently about the task, but when it comes down to it, we just have to do it. We have to act. When we’re reluctant to step out, perhaps we just need to remember that song from Santa Claus is Coming to Town.  You remember.  You know it from the 1970 Rankin/Bass stop motion animation Christmas special.  There’s a scene in which Kris Kringle tries to get the Winter Warlock to change his nasty ways.  Kris Kringle helps him step out into a new way of living.  What’s his advice?  What does Kris Kringle say or sing?

Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking ‘cross the floor.
You put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking out the door.

You never will get where you’re going
If ya never get up on your feet.[9]

Put one foot in front of the other—and then another and another and another.

That’s how we get to where we need to go.








[1] See Ian Bradley, The Celtic Way (London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 2004); Pilgrimage: A Spiritual and Cultural Journey (London: Lion Hudson, 2010).
[2] Cited in Christine Valters Painter, The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2015), 1.
[3] John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes:  Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong (Harper Perennial, 2000), 20.
[4] Painter, 1-2.
[5] Painter, 2.
[6] James Hollis, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up (New York: Gotham Books, 2006), 38-39.
[7] C. G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation, Vol. 5, par. 551 in The Collected Works, trans. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973).
[8] This is Hollis reflecting on the quotation from Jung, 39.
[9] “Put One Foot in Front of the Other,” Santa Claus is Coming to Town (Rankin/Bass, 1970). Music by Maury Laws; text by Jules Bass.