On Pilgrimage: The Long Stretches

In an obscure night
Fevered with love’s anxiety
(O hapless, happy plight!)
I went, none seeing me
Forth from my house, where all things quiet be…

– Opening lines from “Dark Night of the Soul” by Saint John of the Cross

Dear Pilgrims,

The insomnia started in my early twenties. For more than a decade I have struggled with seasons of chronic sleeplessness. It has become a metaphor for the restlessness that has seemed to follow me throughout my life. If you’ve never experienced a season of sleeplessness, you are fortunate. It is a terrible feeling. The dark night, when all others rest and dream, is for the insomniac a tortured period of anxiety and sadness.

Saint John of the Cross described what I often believed to be a spiritual season of insomnia as a “dark night of the soul.” It is a season in which the waking soul has been stretched by the lasting darkness into places of terrible hardship and frustration. It is a feeling of the absence of God, the absence of light, the absence of rest. The opening lines to his famous poem portray the beginning of a journey into the night.

When I lived in Philadelphia, in the middle of a tumultuous 10-year stretch of pastoring, I would often get into my car in the middle of the night while my wife and daughter slept and drive around. I had no destination, no aim other than simply to escape the encroaching confines of darkness in a house that taunted me as I fought for a chance to sleep. I would drive, in the darkness, around the quiet city. These drives never alleviated my inability to sleep, nor did they give pause to my weary soul. They were the wanderings of someone desperate to find peace.

Perhaps, pilgrims, the worst part of wandering in the dark is the loneliness one feels. The excitement that accompanies the beginning of a journey has long since faded in these nights, and our isolation (whether real or imagined) seems to prevail. Very little makes us feel more alone than the dark, whether that darkness is the literal blanket of night or the night of the soul that shrouds us in seasons of despair.

Pilgrimage has these long stretches where we seem to wander aimlessly in the dark, not sure when the light will come but knowing that the darkness is not meant to be forever. I am currently in one of these seasons in my pilgrimage. Last summer the congregation I served as pastor in South Dakota decided to invest heavily in its building rather than in ministry. (Now, I recognize that many ministries make very good use of their building. This building, however, was used only a few hours a week by the church for meetings and worship.) Not only did this mark a sharp turn in the focus of ministry, they also saw the pastor as no longer relevant to their ministry vision. My family was cast aside with a startling level of ambivalence toward our future. Since then other ministry doors have slammed shut. Pastoral ministry opportunities have not panned out, and the prospect of fulfilling my dream of teaching in a university or seminary seems to be fading. I work long hours as a safety and compliance officer for a bus company, and though the work is mostly satisfying and my co-workers are remarkably loving, I am finding it difficult to find time to write and create. There is a darkness that envelopes me as I remember what could have been and have trouble seeing what could be.

I don’t know what is next for me, and perhaps neither do you know what is next for you. In this stage of any pilgrimage it is easy to give yourself over to despair. May I offer you some pastoral advice, even as I offer it to myself? Don’t give in to despair. As Pope John Paul II said, “We are an Easter people and hallelujah is our song.” As Lent continues, remember that the darkness is only temporary, though it may be long. Light is coming. Easter is coming. And with it comes glorious new life.

The Lord be with you,

On Pilgrimage: The Initial Burst

The most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between, and they took great pleasure in doing just that.

Norman Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

Dear Pilgrims,

In my last note I began to talk to you about the nature of pilgrimage, its first and second steps. We recognize our need for something new and then we chart a course. As I write this on the close of Ash Wednesday, I wonder if you are considering your Lenten pilgrimage of sloughing off that which is burden and taking on that which is change. Perhaps you are in consideration of your mortality and weighing the measure of your remaining days. Perhaps you are mindful of only this day and considering what tomorrow will hold. Wherever you are in your pilgrimage, Lenten or season or life, you have experienced the next phase in the journey: the initial burst of energy that comes with beginning anew.

Even in the solemnity of Lent with its slow walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem, its methodical consideration of change and even death, we find a surge that propels us forward. It is often pure exhilaration or sheer determination of will that moves us beyond the staleness of much of life to look forward to what will be. This burst is life-giving, so wonderful and freeing.

My daughter watches a Netflix series called “Spirit Riding Free” about a young girl whose free spirit bucks the prudishness of her surroundings. She is a cowgirl at heart who is determined to be free, and in so doing, she befriends a wild horse with whom she develops a strong kinship bond. The theme song is a lovely musical setting of what I have often experienced in the beginning steps of a new pilgrimage in life: “I’m setting out into the great unknown, I don’t where I’m going, but I’m ready … Nothing’s gonna hold me back.”

There is something so invigorating about beginning a journey. You can see such endless possibility, especially in a pilgrimage in faith. You can see who you are, who you can become, and how you could be transformed in the process. I imagine the disciples felt this same sense of energized freedom when they began following Jesus, an abandon that caused them to throw off their old lives and immediately go. I imagine that it was coupled with uncertainty in their fate, their destination, and the “in-between” along the way. But how free they must have felt!

This Lent I hope that you feel moments of this burst of energy because, ultimately, the momentum that accompanies and often propels us on pilgrimage isn’t confined to the beginning. It finds us throughout the journey and gives us the push we need to move in the direction of Jesus’ beautiful ways of love and peace. When it comes I hope that you will capitalize on its presence and not waste its precious nudging. Ride it into the unknown, fearless, knowing that the Jesus who calls us all into the great journey is leading our way. Savor the surge of hopefulness and the in-between space that populates the walk toward Jerusalem and beyond in resurrection.

As we walk together in Lent I’ll write a few more notes on the nature of pilgrimage. Where is your Lenten pilgrimage leading you? What was your most recent burst of energy like? How are you changing, becoming free?

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

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,