Legend holds that St. James's remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain, where he was buried on what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela.
During the Middle Ages, the route was highly traveled. However, the Black Death, the Protestant Reformation, and political unrest in 16th century Europe led to its decline. Today however, the walk is popular again and thousands of pilgrims from all over the globe walk the Camino de Santiago.
Anyway, in the film the character played by Martin Sheen has a son who began the walk and died in a storm at the very beginning so the father goes to France to bring him home but instead decides to walk the pilgrimage for his son and scatters his ashes along the way. The father arrives distraught, angry and guarded. His son was a free spirit and the father is not, so the father of course was wanting his son to live life his way and there was a lot of father/son conflict going on prior to the son’s death, so through his walking the father experiences his grief and his regrets. But he also discovers a part of himself long hidden and comes to a better understanding of his son. In his walking he discovers his faith that he has buried deep. In his walking he finds community that challenges him, embraces him and shares his brokenness. There are many twists and turns along the way but in the end he appears to be a changed man…he is transformed.
So you see, pilgrimage is part of our heritage as Christians. This past year I have been a little obsessed with this idea of pilgrimage…and have dreams of walking the Camino but in the mean time thankfully I found the book “The Soul of a Pilgrim” by Christine Valters Paintner and thankfully she talks about an inner pilgrimage in which one doesn’t travel far but deep within.
Christine says this about pilgrimage: Pilgrimage is an archetypal experience, meaning that the metaphor of journey for the spiritual life is found across time and traditions. Is there a greater adventure than plunging into our own depths and uncovering what the mystics have told us for centuries: the heart of God beating within our own? Pilgrimage calls us to be attentive to the divine at work in our lives through deep listening, patience, and opening ourselves to the gifts that arise in the midst of discomfort, and going out to our own inner wild edges to explore new frontiers.”
Ultimately, our faith journey is a pilgrimage towards the God that dwells within in each of us. It’s a long windy journey with many twists and turns, joys and sorrows, heartbreak and deep love, hard work and Sabbath all rolled into a life. But sometimes I think we don’t pay attention much to our lives, so I wonder if… we looked at our life as a pilgrimage perhaps we would be more intentional about listening deeper for God…perhaps we would lead less busy lives and leave space to experience God’s presence…and perhaps in our listening we would continue to hear the ways that God is calling us.
It is said that to know ourselves is to know God…pilgrimage is a journey that unfolds our true self. The self that is often masked by our distractions and busyness…our pain and brokenness, our lack of reflection. A recent pilgrim who walked the Camino confirms this saying “The real journey is an inward journey” and she asks the question: “What if we are defined not by what we do but by who we are in the midst of a spiritual journey?”
The metaphor of pilgrimage implies perhaps that we set out to discover something new….in today’s scripture the prophet says it this way; “Do not remember former things or consider the things of old; I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
The way of pilgrimage can find us in the wilderness or desert. The times in our lives when we feel like we don’t know where we are going or what is next…times when it feels dry and God doesn’t seem to be anywhere in sight. God might be doing a new thing but we have no idea what that is and it makes us quite anxious…but the prophet assures us that God will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in our deserts…all we have to do as usual is trust!
Oh that’s a hard one isn’t it?
Part of my own pilgrimage was actually walked right here at Wapping Community Church! I was in seminary at the time and struggling constantly with whether it was the right thing for me, if I had made the right choice, was God really calling me or did I make this up. What on earth was I doing? And your pastor Mark…who if you haven’t figured out by now is the most patient human being ever… maybe a saint even…well, he listened ever so patiently to all my lament over and over and over again…then one day he was telling me how the church had purchased a labyrinth and asked if I wanted to come to walk it. O.K. I said. So I drove here in the pouring rain thinking what the heck am I doing??? As I began to walk the labyrinth I felt that anxious feeling….am I doing this right? Am I going the right way? Several times I was sure I was lost or turned the wrong way. Of course I ended up in the center and found my way out and somehow that walk helped me let go of my angst about what new thing God was doing in my life…I let go and trusted it would end up in ways I could not see at the time and sure enough somehow that walk transformed me…changed me…opened my heart a little wider. It was a metaphor for my life at the time!
That’s what pilgrimage does…transforms us…that’s what our faith journey is about… transformation…God doing a new thing again and again and again. Our faith is not meant to be stagnant or comfortable all the time…God nudges us to wild places that make us uncomfortable but if we listen, if we pay attention…something new is unfolding…we just need to be patient and try not to rush the process. As the mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said “above all, trust in the slow work of God”
Over the next few weeks I want to continue to unpack this notion of pilgrimage….actually, come to think of it, I feel like we are on a pilgrimage together these next eight weeks as we share worship together…let’s see what unfolds!
So, the symbol of the Camino de Santiago is a scallop shell. The grooves represent all the ups and downs, ins and outs of the journey that lead to the center.
It is said of those who walk the Camino:
“When pilgrims carry the Scallop Shell it represents our personal journey, the sacred path that we must take within. We are all on the outer rim of the spirit, struggling to find our way back to our center. The Scallop Shell reminds us why we are walking, especially at the points when the journey feels too hard and we want to give up. It reminds us to focus on our journey only, and that each person has their own story that is unfolding. It reminds us that we are all ultimately one sacred soul, and that each of our roads are leading back to each other.”
As you leave worship this morning you will find on the table scallop shells, I invite you to take one and carry it with you for the next few weeks and let it invite you to ponder the pilgrimage of your faith journey. What new thing is God doing within you? What is unfolding in your life? Whenever you are walking imagine it is a pilgrimage…what are you walking for? What are you hoping to find? Slow down a bit and listen and trust that through the wilderness God makes a path and in the desert the river will flow to replenish all the dry and barren places!
I’d like to close with the full prayer/poem of Teilhard de Chardin:
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability--
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ
excerpted from Hearts on Fire