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The Discipline of Pilgrimage

The Discipline of Pilgrimage

In the Daily Office we have been working our way through a dense teaching section in Luke, and the message is always “be poor and follow Jesus,” which is a pretty good message. And in order to do that it is needful to listen to the words of Jesus, or as his Father said at the transfiguration, “Listen to him.” The Holy Spirit wants us pay attention through stories, experiences, narratives, because they grab us. Those parables are not only complex to draw us into a deeper meaning, but they are interesting, picturesque. They hinge on two words: oral and aural. Spoken and heard. That is the connection between the speaker and the listener, be it God to us, we to each other, or God through us to each other.  

I am rather fond of the work of Victor and Edith Turner, anthropologists who worked on religious pilgrimage as an agent of change. They studied Catholic processions as expressions of popular religious practice, but I suggest that each time we hear or read a parable we are on a pilgrimage, and if we know how to hear and feel it, we come out changed. I believe that this action opens our heart to the Holy Spirit in a special way. And if you doubt the power of imaginative narrative, I give you the Harry Potter books, and before them, the Narnia Chronicles and the Lord of the Rings. They stick with us.

When we go on a physical pilgrimage we experience a lot of and often painful moments, and they integrate into our memory to help us remember, but also to kick in all those biochemical agents which excite, please, give energy to go on. But a very similar thing seems to happen when we speak and hear those pilgrim tales. In this heightened state of awareness, and the resulting light trance, we move into a liminal state, between the worlds, between ordinary reality and the greater reality. (“Liminality is a limbo, an ambiguous period characterized by humility, seclusion, tests, sexual ambiguity, and communitas.”) And we spiral inward. And there we change. It happens with every Eucharist, every Baptism. And when we hear or speak a sermon, and all the stories which we share. That makes our words very important.  

Whom do we listen to? Social media with its animated memes, and increasing invitation to explode into creatures of ego and self interest, in-fighting and humiliating each other for our own self aggrandizement? Or is it Fox News? Or MSNBC? Every time we watch a movie or read a book, or listen to the conversation of the people on the bus, we are on a pilgrimage into that liminal space. One way to protect ourselves is total control, censorship, and that has been tried by Church and State and it isn’t very nice or effective over time. Or we could develop a deep inner core, catechesis, that we can fall back on. That is what drives the passion at those religious parades. The color and sound, the row upon row of clergy and acolytes, the cloud of incense, the suffering of those carrying the heavy platforms on which the Virgin Mary or the Crucified Christ sway and rock their way down crooked cobbled streets touching the hearts of even the most lapsed in the crowd who line the streets, who reach out to touch the holy object, crying, singing. The inward spiral is in each and in the body as a whole (communitas), and nobody comes out unchanged.

So, yes, comic books matter, and video games matter, and the latest iteration of the Marvel universe matters. And the experience of the Burning Man, Renaissance Faire, rock concerts matter. And why so many of us have chosen to invest in historical recreation activities. We are hungry for those pilgrimages.

The reason I write so often about obedience and suffering is that love without testing is too easy and too shallow. It doesn’t stick. Go back and reread Harry Potter, or watch the films. Ironically, those who want them banned because of the perceived sin of magic fail to see the allegorical power in weak-good fighting strong-evil. Or the holy power of the three friends who suffer together (or two who follow Harry as a Christ-like figure), with no prophetic knowledge, only faith in their vocational call to oppose evil. And not theoretical evil, but the fruits of evil (the suffering of the Longbottom parents, the abuse heaped on the mudbloods, the rise of fascism in following the charismatic Voldemort). And facing the wages of sin (the spiritual damage Harry’s father as callow youth laid on Snape, and Snape’s struggle with love against his anger and frustration). Or what Dumbledore’s brother said about the hunger for power corrupting even a good man like Albus.

In today’s reading from Luke (16:19-31), “The Rich Man and Lazarus”, we see the purple robes of the rich man, and shudder at the dogs licking Lazarus’ sores. When they die, we feel the thirst of the rich man, as he cries out begging Lazarus, resting in the bosom of Abraham, be allowed to dip his finger into healing water and cool his tongue, bringing relief from the fires of Hades. Not only is his request denied, but he is told that the gate between salvation and torture is closed. In a moment of concern, even grace, the tortured rich man asks that at least his five brothers be warned of what is waiting for them if they do not change. But his torture is increased by the answer.  Sorry, no, for they have Moses and the prophets. It is up to them alone. Change Abraham to God the Father and Moses to Jesus and we again have “be poor, follow me.” And it is visceral. Some parables do that to us more than others, for example, the Prodigal Son, but they all do. So do the tests and dialogues between Jesus and others – Pharisees, disciples, a woman at a well.

The power of Scripture is that it is not a theology text, but oral/aural pilgrimages all leading to the same place. And we are invited to pay attention, and imbed ourselves in the story. We even call it the Way, our pilgrimage to follow Jesus. Are we hearing it, listening, letting it permeate our hearts and souls? But it is also God’s law speaking to us, calling us to union with the Divine through humility and obedience to God’s will and word. Wisdom is found in the heart of Scripture, that sometimes arcane first century rhetoric, the treasured snatches of the words of the Son of Man who was the Son of God. Do we believe the hard commandments of the Gospels, to love and not count the cost, to forgive, or do we think, oh, well, that is so yesterday, and God loves us anyhow? We are often distracted by the fruits of the Evil One as we wish the world to conform to our will. If we have the catechetical grounding and the Holy Spirit we can stay the course. Be poor. Follow him.

Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.


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Richard Gatjens

Thank you, Dana, for this insightful article. I have been on a spiritual pilgrimage myself through a Contemplative Formation program offered by a nearby center run by Dominican Sisters. When you speak about liminal states and ordinary vs. greater realities, it resonates deeply with my experience in the program. I am hoping to become a Contemplative in my daily life, seeing God in everything around me and developing a growing awareness of His presence within me. So you have provided much food for thought and I hope continued growth as I continue on my path. Have you seen the movie “The Way” by Emilio Estevez, following four modern-day pilgrims as they walk the Camino de Santiago? Definitely worth a view if you haven’t seen it.

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