SEVEN SPIRITUAL PRACTICES: Sabbatical Reflections
# 7: Pilgrimage
– Jesus, throughout the Gospels
“Home is where the heart is.”
“Here’s a question you’ll want to ask,” she said, when I was discerning whether I might be called to be rector of a parish. “Is my new bishop in a castle, or on a journey?” Bishops and baristas, doctors and dancers, each of us is faced with that ageless dilemma. Am I willing to embark on an authentic spiritual journey today, or am I guarding myself against the threat of what I have not yet seen or don’t yet know of God?
“How appropriate,” Brian McLaren says in Finding Our Way Again, “that the three Abrahamic religions begin with a journey into the unknown. It might be said that ever since, each religion has been at its best when it is on a journey, not settled on the throne of power at the capital city of Empire, but walking intrepid on a path of exploration to the margins of Empire, then beyond” (p. 23).
Power is what my friend, a bishop on her own journey, was referring to when she posed that question. “Tom,” she coninued, “it’s always all about power.” Corrupted power – sometimes known as empire – is one thing, but what about the spiritual power of home? Isn’t that important, too? What about “a man’s house is his castle?” What’s wrong with having a safe place for those who gather, as well as hunt? Isn’t it OK to be a spiritual settler, not a pioneer? Can’t I be a faithful Christian, Jew or Muslim rooted in one place, for a long, long time?
During my six decades of life I have called many places home. This sabbatical has returned me to a number of them. I’ve logged more than 5,000 miles since May 15. It’s a long drive from Maryland to Memphis and back, especially when you go through Wisconsin! In the past seven weeks I have seen and spent time with my wife, my daughter, my teacher, members of my extended family and many of my dear friends, including those from my family’s church, where my sisters and I joined my widowed dad in “our pew” to worship God together on Father’s Day. “It’s good to be home,” I said, when folks in Memphis welcomed me. Home is where the heart, not the address, is.
There is significant bias in our worlds, religious and otherwise, toward the one who takes a journey. “It’s the journey, not the destination.” I have come to believe that it’s both. Dualistic thinking, which seems so hard to change, always ends up with “it’s this, not that,” “either-or.” I don’t mean to question the wisdom of bishops or doctors, but my inner wisdom keeps telling me that life is not just about the journey. The destination is just as important, perhaps more so. So are gatherers and settlers. Homebodies are not nobodies, at least not to God.
That’s why I think McLaren uses the right word when he describes the “both-and” nature of the spiritual life. Pilgrimage is both the journey we choose to take and the destination we seek, which may be home. “People of faith have periodically interrupted their normal lives with an intentional experience of discomfort, dislocation and intensity, a kind of re-enactment of the original journey of Abraham, by engaging in voluntary pilgrimage.” Pilgrims interrupt “their normal orientations – their familiar sights and sounds of daily life – by seeking the new, unknown places God will show them” (ibid., p. 24). I have experienced the both-and-ness of Christian pilgrimage in interruptions and disorientations, known and unknown, in all kinds of sacred spaces and places. My homes are both internal and external, my journeys both inward and outward.
Whether our pilgrimage takes us on a labyrinth walk at a retreat center or a walk around the neighborhood, a trip overseas or downtown, a visit to Graceland or to a grace-filled community of faith, there will be interruptions – if we allow them, sometimes even when we don’t. As followers of Jesus, we will, if we pay attention, become disoriented with opportunities for spiritual growth. How could I predict that, in addition to visiting a new friend in a state I’ve never inhabited, I would suddenly know deep healing and reconciliation by finding, at a Tennessee conference, an old friend I had not seen since our Kansas days? How could I have planned going to worship in that old church where I was confirmed fifty years ago, only to find newer clergy friends who also call that church and Ohio home? We can’t make this stuff up! But God does, all the time.
Before I left on sabbatical another wise friend wondered with me whether I had ever truly left Memphis. There is a way in which Memphis will always be my home. But I have several homes, including one in Maryland. Parts of my heart remain in several places across the country. We 21st century pilgrims need more than one spiritual home, more than one sacred space, more than one place in which to heal our hearts and rest our bones. I’m grateful to call all of my homes home, for I know my pilgrimage is not complete. I still need safe places to go, where friends take me in, before I resume my pilgrimage again. – Peace, Tom