Pentecost 11, Proper 15 August 20, 2017
Church of the Good Shepherd, Silver City, NM Rev. Paul Moore
LINK TO PDF VERSION (Good for saving or printing out)
Today we talk about pilgrimage. Dora Somerville and Eduardo Argüello are leaving this week to walk El Camino de Santiago de Campostela in northern Spain. We will send them off this morning with our prayers and some special gifts. In preparation for this event we have invited you all to bring symbols of your pilgrimages, of your journey with Christ, to lay with the Communion of Saints on the top of the Columbarium. We will remember our own pilgrimages, and we will send them off from the Baptismal Font, the symbol of the beginning of every Christian’s life journey with Jesus.
What, then, is a pilgrimage? Sister Cintra Pemberton,Order of St. Helena, an Episcopal order of nuns, wrote a book called Soulfaring. (Morehouse, 1999.) In chapter 1 she states, “the primary focus of a pilgrimage is the interior growth resulting from an exterior journey.” (p. 9.) She has led countless pilgrimages to holy places in the Celtic lands of the UK and Ireland. She is eloquent about the role of pilgrimage in the Celtic tradition both Christian and pre-Christian. And she is right. Pilgrimages are a marriage between an outer journey and an inner one.
In a sacramental way, the path under our feet is also the path within our hearts. However, she says something in that introductory that is almost misleading, and if you didn’t go on to read you might get the wrong idea. She says pilgrimages are journeys in search of the Holy. But the Holy is elusive. It’s not available on the shelves of Albertson’s for $1.50 a pound, or even $150 a pound. It doesn’t just sit there passively and wait for us to find it like a lucky gold strike above P.A. No, it’s much more scary, and exciting.
Recently another friend of mine went to walk the Camino. She went with a certain intention. She wanted to pray that intention along the path. She returned, busting at the seams to tell me about it. We sat down in my office and visited for an hour. She told about the spiritual insight, the freedom gained, the profound sense of provision and care, the immediacy of the divine all around her. At the end I asked her about her intention—you see, in an hour’s time she had not mentioned it once. Her response was something along the lines of, “Well, it seems we had better things to do, God and I.”
The truth is, the Holy is out in search of us before we ever set booted foot on the path to seek it. The Holy is truly found only when it surprises us. And Sister Cintra talks about it in the book. The work of the pilgrim, and this is the inward journey, is to prepare oneself for the unexpected. This is where the outer pilgrimage and the inner one come together.
In the Gospel lesson today we get two stories back to back. One might think that the creators of the lectionary were just cutting pieces off and stacking them by dates, but that is not the case. These two stories, while containing lessons independently of one another, when read back to back reveal a constant theme between them. Both have to do with encountering the holy.
In the first one Jesus turns our eyes away from the rules for the sake of rules. In one of the books read by the EfM 4th year students last year a story is told about a Hindu nun in Florida. (Peace, N. Rose, Jennifer Howe. My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation. Orbis Books. 2012.) She loves to sing, so she joined a community concert choir. In one of the social moments after rehearsal someone asked her what she did for a living. She replied that she was a Hindu nun of Ramakrishna Order of India. One of the male singers was a conservative evangelical Christian. His “rules” would have pushed her to try to convert her, yet instead he listened earnestly and openly to what she had to say, and later on, when someone made an unkind remark, came to her defense. This man’s faith led him to a place where he could be surprised by the holy, and it made him wise and compassionate.
As Jesus said, the inner life is where moral corruption and moral virtue reside. If we are not willing to be surprised by the holy on the inside we will never live a moral life on the outside. The holy life is a coming together of the outer and the inner.
In the second one Jesus is met by a tormented foreign woman. Her daughter is possessed by a demon, and like every mother, she yearns for the health of her child. Somehow, she has come to trust that Jesus can do something about it. But is Jesus merely a wonder-worker, a magician handing out party favors? No, his dialog cracks open a window into the woman’s heart. She, unlike the “righteous” Pharisees, the foreigner and the woman, is willing, even eager and yearning to be surprised by the holy, so much so that her replies almost seem to surprise the Holy One! By the “rules” she doesn’t qualify. By social expectations she is not worthy. There was no guarantee that Jesus will heal her daughter–he even seems reluctant to do it. Yet Jesus surprises her.
The holy life is a surprising coming together of the outer and the inner—and it is a gift of God. It is not earned, it is not merited. The word, “worthy” doesn’t come into play here. It’s just pure gift to be received with delight.
We talk about the spiritual life as a pilgrimage because it is a journey into ourselves and back again, as the two are brought into harmony.
I’ll tell you of a pilgrimage of mine. In 2011 I took Landon and went on sabbatical and went to places of pilgrimage in Latin America, the UK and Ireland. We went to Guadalupe in Mexico City and El Santuario de Ceferino Namuncurá in Patagonia in Argentina. We went to Iona in Scotland and Canterbury in Kent. We went there and interviewed pilgrims about their experience of spiritual hospitality, and my study of it became a Master’s Thesis for a degree in Spiritual Formation. But it became a pilgrimage for me as well. I found that as I visited these places a certain feeling accompanied them all. It was the sense of time spent in prayer, a hallowing of the place itself, as if, hearing the intentions of so many humble hearts of faith, the very earth began to tingle with anticipation of the sacred, an anticipation of holy surprise. I found I could sense it in my hands.
Part of that whole endeavor was preparation to leave the church I was currently serving. That part of the path brought me to this Nave. As soon as I walked into this place my hands began to tingle in the same way. I knew THIS place to be a place hallowed by anticipation of the sacred, with hope of holy surprise, and something deep inside of me knew that my journey with Christ would bring me here.
We walk our path alone. Each pilgrim must do the work. Nobody can do it for you.
Your struggles are the battle for your faith, not mine, and for me to try to help you fight would only deprive you of the prize of victory. Each one prepares for the journey by cultivating an attitude of humble joy, honest openness and a willingness to be surprised.
At the same time, we cannot do it alone. We need support, guidance and company along the way or we will never make it. We have not walked this path before; we do not know the pitfalls, the twists and turns and the potholes. We will flag in our endurance, and without support give it all up prematurely. We must have our anamcháirde, our soul friends with whom to journey.
The great masters call it a journey to find oneself, a journey into the heart of God, a path into transcendent Truth, the Path of Compassion. It has a hundred names, but it is one path. It is the human journey out of brokenness into the fullness of our humanity, which is found in God.
So, what about your pilgrimage? Where is your soul faring? This journey from the waters of baptism to what the ancient Irish saints called The Place of your Resurrection, where is it taking you now? What are the temptations along the way? Who are those who are your soul friends with whom you journey? What are the glories you have found?
And most important of all, when have you been surprised by the Holy? And when and where will you tell the story?