Paula Northwood June 18, 2017
Texts: “Camas Lilies” by Lynn Ungar; Matthew 6:25–33; Psalm 84:5–7
Consider the lilies of the field,
the blue banks of camas opening
into acres of sky along the road.
Would the longing to lie down
and be washed by that beauty
abate if you knew their usefulness,
how the natives ground their bulbs
for flour, how the settlers’ hogs
uprooted them, grunting in gleeful
oblivion as the flowers fell?
And you—what of your rushed
and useful life? Imagine setting it all down—
papers, plans, appointments, everything—
leaving only a note: “Gone
to the fields to be lovely. Be back
when I’m through with blooming.”
Even now, unneeded and uneaten,
the camas lilies gaze out above the grass
from their tender blue eyes.
Even in sleep your life will shine.
Make no mistake. Of course
your work will always matter.
Yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
—Lynn Ungar, “Camas Lilies”
Blessed are those whose strength is in You,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of [tears],
they make it a place of springs;
the early rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.
—Psalm 84:5–7, New International Version
Please join me in a pilgrim prayer:
Take into your hands all the things that are keeping you from being present at this moment. Make a fist and stretch your arms out in front of you and release those things. Then turn your palms up to receive the gifts of this day and this moment. Draw your hands to your heart and say, “Thanks be to the Spirit.” Amen.
* * *
Last month, 10 members of Plymouth embarked on a pilgrimage to Chartres Cathedral in France. This trip was sponsored by the Spiritual Exploration Committee. My co-leader, M. J. McGregor, is an expert on the Chartres Labyrinth, and our intention was to invite participants to experience pilgrimage as a spiritual practice, especially using the labyrinth as meditative walking. For over 800 years, pilgrims have traveled to Chartres to walk the labyrinth embedded in the cathedral floor. We spent a week in Chartres, and, as many of you know, the labyrinth is covered with chairs except for Friday. On Thursday evening after the Cathedral was closed, our group was invited to move the chairs uncovering this ancient path. We placed candles around the outer edge. M. J. said, “Tonight the cathedral is ours.” For a couple of hours we walked, prayed and meditated in silence. There is much to tell you about our time in Chartres, but I have asked the group to share stories at a Sunday Forum so I won’t give away too much now. We did invite members of the group to bring a reading to our circle time each day, and the poem printed above was shared by Susan Zoidis. As part of our pilgrimage, we also walked sections of the Camino de Santiago.
I know that many of you have walked sections of the Camino de Santiago in Spain, Portugal and France. The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is a large network of ancient pilgrim routes that stretch across Europe and come together at the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. This pilgrimage route, well over a thousand years old, has seen an increase in pilgrims recently, and over 250,000 walk at least 100 kilometers of it each year. To embark on a pilgrimage is an invitation to experience travel in a very different way from that of a tourist.
Traveling as a tourist is not necessarily a bad thing, and likely all of us have been in that role. The tourist sees sights, discovers new places, learns interesting facts, takes photographs and accumulates souvenirs. An American tourist often brings to mind loud conversations and clothes, cargo pants, socks with sandals, fanny packs, passport wallets, money belts, sun visors and cameras—although now, more often, cell phones and selfie sticks. Tourists are the ones who often do culturally inappropriate things like wear sleeveless blouses and short shorts in cultures where modesty is valued. A tourist cares about their personal comfort over cultural norms. A tourist often over-packs and underprepares.
I know I have told the story of my own family when we took our one and only vacation out west. Leaving our farm in Ohio, nine people packed like sardines in a station wagon pulling a pop-up camper, we were ready for adventure. In St. Louis, Mo., we stuck our heads out the car window to see the giant Arch. In Arizona, we hopped out at the Grand Canyon for a 15-minute gawk (not walk) and a group photograph. In California, we stuck our toes in the Pacific Ocean and then headed home. You get the picture. The tourist returns home the same person even though they have seen a new place. But a pilgrim, well that’s a different thing; a pilgrim returns home a different person because they have experienced a sacred place on a deeper level.
The tradition of pilgrimage is as old as religion itself. In every religion, worshipers traveled to holy festivals and sacred sites. There are many stories in the Bible about people setting out on a journey: Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, Moses and the children of Israel. Even Jesus’ family traveled to Jerusalem for religious holidays. It was such an occasion when his parents accidently lost him, only to find him three days later in the Temple. In every religion there is often a holy place: for Christians, Jerusalem; for Muslims, Mecca; for Hindus, the Ganges River; and so forth. There are places in our world that seem to contain the powers of renewal, places to which people flock seeking healing, enlightenment and inspiration. There are places in the world toward which we are drawn, places of power that seem to offer transformation and wholeness. The spirit longs for what might make us whole again, and we are a people in motion.
During the Middle Ages, Christians often made a vow to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in search of physical or spiritual healing. Some pilgrims walked in order to atone for sins committed. This idea even became incorporated in the justice system in England, where enforced pilgrimages were used as punishment for crimes. However by the 12th century, when the Crusades swept across Europe, travel became dangerous. In response, the Roman Catholic Church appointed seven pilgrimage cathedrals to become the “Jerusalem” for pilgrims. Chartres Cathedral in France is one of those sites.
In Latin, pilgrimage means “walking through the fields.” It refers to the act of walking through unknown territory. A pilgrim leaves the comforts of the known behind to forge new ground within. It’s about getting a little lost to be found anew. Just like a rite of passage or the mythical Hero’s Journey or a walkabout, a pilgrimage takes the pilgrim into the wilderness of the unknown: It can be a life-changing, transformational experience. It can be a time of letting go of the old to let new life come in. A pilgrimage is a journey that encourages a new sense of awareness and wonder and brings you into deeper presence with yourself and the landscape around you. It can help illuminate your life journey, perhaps strengthen your sense of purpose, by helping you to focus on what really matters.
We often talk of the spiritual life as a journey. Maybe it’s a tired cliché, but, like most clichés, there is always an element of truth. This morning I am inviting you to think of pilgrimage as a metaphor for life. What does it mean for us to travel through life as a pilgrim? A pilgrim is not just a pious tourist. A pilgrim and a tourist may follow the same itinerary, but the pilgrim is on a sacred journey in which God is encountered through places, people and situations. The pilgrim will return with an impression imprinted on the soul, rather than in the memory of a digital camera.
It would seem that Jesus’ whole life was both literally and figuratively lived as a pilgrim. He was always on the road. And if we look at his life in total, it was a pilgrimage that led him to Jerusalem to confront power and corruption, and it ended just outside the gates of the city. So you may wonder why I chose the Matthew text where Jesus gives instructions not to worry. You can imagine Jesus like a yogi instructing the disciples to just breathe, to relax their tight muscles—even though they all knew they were in deep trouble with the authorities.
This is what I understand about being a pilgrim: A pilgrim holds the many paradoxes of life in their heart. It is possible, in fact necessary, to see and create beauty in the midst of oppression, terror and fear. It is possible to have joy in the midst of unspeakable grief and loss. It is possible to love and forgive unspeakable acts. It is possible to be compassionate and kind in the midst of hate. It is possible to be grateful in the midst of adversity. It is possible to be calm in the midst of a storm. It is possible to be at peace in the midst of war. It is possible to stay on the road even if it gets rough. It is possible to sacrifice your life for another and not lose yourself. It is possible to let go of privilege and power and take up humility.
For a tourist, when things get uncomfortable, they can complain, blame and quit. They can stop. They can turn their back and walk away. That’s privilege.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about privilege, especially white privilege, as a result of the racial justice work that we as a church are doing and in light of the verdict that was reached on Friday where Officer Yanez was found not guilty in the fatal shooting of Philando Castile. What is the pilgrim response?
St. Augustine said, “Solvitur ambulando”—It is solved by walking. And like Jesus—who walks with the hurting, the marginalized, the abused and mistreated, the wronged—the pilgrim, too, walks with others. The pilgrim keeps going. The pilgrim learns to listen to those who suffer. The pilgrim doesn’t give up when it gets difficult. The pilgrim drops the idolatry of whiteness and believes in the equality of all humanity. The pilgrim accepts that whatever has happened is a part of the pilgrimage and needs to be attended to in a different way. People of color are on a pilgrimage not of their choosing. While a tourist may say, “not my problem,” the pilgrim persists. The pilgrim keeps going . . . using all tools necessary to move forward. Using social media, protest, pursuing new laws and avenues of healing, giving time, money and voice to the injustice are just a few things the pilgrim can do. The pilgrim persists.
No metaphor is perfect. Here’s the difficulty with the metaphor of pilgrimage. We have a tendency to think that the destination is the goal. What happens when we get there? Staying at the sacred site or shrine is not the point of making a pilgrimage. That’s not pilgrimage; in a literal sense, that would become exile. The point of the sacred journey is to go home. We are all longing to come home to our best and most authentic selves. This is the destination and it takes a lifetime.
One of the joys of pilgrimage is that we are gifted with the presence of a loving God and travel companions, those around you in this place who lift us up when we fall, who encourage us when we falter, and to whom we can be companions, offering our guidance and help along the way. Our faith communities, at their best, provide us with a context in which we are challenged, edified, encouraged—and in which we challenge, edify and encourage others.
The pilgrimage of life is embodied in both body and spirit. It is an outer and inner journey. It’s not a trip to be taken once. It is a pilgrimage of a lifetime, a journey filled with new beginnings, sustaining grace and a reminder that the Spirit is being born in you. As the poem by Lynn Ungar goes, leave a note: “Gone to the fields to be lovely. Be back when I am through with blooming.” That’s pilgrimage. You do not have to physically travel anywhere to be on this pilgrimage. You need only to cross the threshold with your open heart.
In closing, I share this about what is means to be a pilgrim by Elizabeth Lesser (The Seeker’s Guide, previously published as The New American Spirituality): “Your path is your own, but you must walk side by side with others, with compassion and generosity as your beacons. If anything is required it is this: fearlessness in your examination of life and death; willingness to continually grow; and openness that the ordinary is extraordinary, and that your joys and sorrows have meaning and mystery.” May it be so. Amen