Pilgrimage: The First (and Second) Step

Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Dear Pilgrims,

The winter days are long now in South Dakota, the wind ripping across the open spaces and cutting deep slices of cold down to the bone. Snow comes, and comes, and comes. It is in these months that I sometimes feel that winter, with its early darkness and grey skies, is the best image of reality. But I then remember that spring is coming, and all the freeze and harsh will melt away into life and green and hope.

We have a few weeks remaining until Ash Wednesday moves us into the season of confession and repentance. During these weeks I wanted to write you a few notes on pilgrimage. As I’ve reflected recently on the nature of faith journeys I thought I could stir in you, too, a contemplation on the process of pilgrimage and what it means.

The first step in pilgrimage is, ironically, not the first physical step. The first step is a mental acceptance of the need for something. It is a craving, a desire, a longing for something. For me and for many others I suspect, this longing isn’t defined in words and exists only in our souls as a powerful force of ephemeral will. It is prompted by the darkness of experience and yet nourished by the repeated breaking of bread with Christ and his friends around table. The first step in a pilgrimage is an acknowledgement of how little you know and a desire to set sail across the vast sea of unknowing until you find something, anything of God that says, “I am here.”

For our friends in the early church pilgrimage was a journey to places of profound faith experiences. They wanted to walk in the steps of those who had encountered God and they wanted to encounter God there, too. These journeys were often long, visiting cathedrals, shrines, holy cairns, and small caverns and catacombs. They were searches for the thin places where the veil between our space and the divine space might be easily pushed aside, where the hem of the garment of God might be touched.

We don’t do that much anymore. If ours is a time when either everything is holy or nothing is holy then surely we are a people of pure hypocrisy or pure depravity. We don’t see ourselves in such clear cut ways despite the sharp dichotomy of our worldview. Our reality is much more grey than we would like to admit, and that is a blessing. But in our daily work few of us are granted the luxury to pick up and walk in far away lands the steps of our forebears of faith, searching for God. So we live in our grey reality, like so much of our winter, and perhaps convince ourselves that the biting wind that cuts through our existence is all there is. Grey becomes black-and-white, and blessing becomes curse.

What, then, do we do? If our first step is a mental acceptance of the need for something, then our second step is charting a course. We may not journey to our holy lands in physical ways, but surely we each have in our minds and spirits a yearning for a new way of living, a new way of being. The pilgrimages of our time don’t bring us to the ancient places of physicality in which the great cloud of witnesses sat in hushed silence before the face of God. Perhaps our pilgrimages are journeys in the steps of human existence with eyes wider and hearts more attentive to the face of God that is always around us. Perhaps now, and maybe always, the thin places are not set among the stones of shrines but among the flesh and blood of friends and strangers. And there we may find the Kingdom of God that dwells among us and within us, a destination most worthy of our full attention. That is a place of neither black-and-white dichotomy nor of grey and lifeless ambiguity, but of the dazzling and wondrous Light of God’s shalom. It is a place of spring that bursts forth life. That should be our destination of being.

I’ll write to you in a few days on what I think comes next in pilgrimage, after the first and second steps: the initial burst of energy that propels us toward our destination in God’s Kingdom. Until then, I hope that you will stop and rest on your journey. Sit with friends, sing songs, pray the liturgy, and feast on the Eucharist wherever you find it.

May the peace of Christ be with you in your journey,

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