In recent years the idea of pilgrimage has come to the forefront as people have sought to reclaim ancient practices that will help deepen spiritual life. But what is a pilgrimage? Random House and Webster tell us that a pilgrim is one who wanders to a holy or sacred place and a pilgrimage is wandering to a holy or sacred place. Hmmm…….
I would like to add to that a bit. I would like to add that the journey is as important as the destination. With our modern means of travel it might be harder for us to imagine but hundreds of years ago, people walked to the sacred place or maybe traveled by boat from one land mass to another. But travel on foot was the common way. It could take days, weeks or even years depending on where the pilgrim came from. Life happened while they traveled. Maybe some died before they arrived at the destination. Certainly for them the journey was as important as getting there.
Pilgrimage isn’t just about arriving at a destination to see a tourist site. Pilgrimage is about listening to God through the difficulties and joys we encounter as we travel along. It is about taking a look at our own life in a deeper way than most of us have time for in the routine busyness of daily life. As we prepare and travel to the holy place, we seek to divest ourselves of unnecessary outer and inner clutter opening ourselves to however God wants to meet us along the way. It is like a moving meditation which prepares us for contemplation in the holy place of arrival.
The labyrinth was created for people who couldn’t go on a long pilgrimage. The principal is the same. As we walk we reflect on the issues of our lives, trying to empty ourselves of our grasping and need to control so that we can hear God.
As I think about this, I would suggest that life is a pilgrimage. Every day can be a pilgrimage if we pay attention to God in the midst of all that we encounter moment by moment moving throughout the day. We may not all be able to go on a long pilgrimage to some well known sacred site but we all can seek to divest ourselves of our inner and outer clutter through a daily quiet time, an evening examen and by noticing God’s gentle nudges throughout our day. Our sacred site can be our home, our place of work, a bench in Central Park or the Conservatory if we are mindful.
My prayer is that we all live with a spirit of pilgrimage as we journey toward the fullness of Christ within us.
From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
Hosea 12: 6
But as for you, return to your God,
hold fast to love and justice,
and wait continually for your God.
The seasons of the Church year were set as a way of helping Christians to learn about and follow the footsteps of Jesus. At a time when most people couldn’t read or have access to a Bible they were able to remember the story and reflect on how their lives might reflect the life of Christ. Today we have access to the Bible. We can read. We know the story. But, the Seasons of the Church year still invite us to reflect on our own lives and what God’s invitation to us might be anew and afresh at this point in our lives.
We know the story of the birth of Jesus, but Advent invites us to go beyond the obvious, simple reading of the story to what God might be saying to us in and through and beyond the story.
I would offer that the Adventstory offers an example of waiting. In a consumer driven culture, we are so accustomed to instant gratification that I don’t know if we really know how to wait. We fall into the cultural trap of instant everything. Instant messaging, instant mail, instant photos, instant pudding, instant meals, you name it. We can talk on the phone at any given moment, no need to wait to get back to the office or home. Without learning to wait our spiritual life will remain shallow. In order to grow into the deep things of God we must become people who can wait.
Advent is a time of waiting. God calls us through the Advent story to the simplicity of waiting, to emptiness, to the nothingness of nothing happening, to what John of the Cross calls “nada, nada, nada, nothing, nothing, nothing…….
The Advent Story is about waiting. Mary waited in the darkness of Winter for the Christ child. The Christ child was born at night in a cave. The spiritual significance of this image is huge.
Much of our spiritual journey takes place in the dark. Most often it is it is when we are in the deepest of our struggles and when we don’t know what is going on; that God is working secretly in the deep places of our hearts. Usually we fight against this. We try to make something happen. We run from place to place, person to person, to get answers. We try everything to get a quick fix. If we wait,we may not understand at the time but, later we become conscious of the fruit of the dark time. We have come to new birth in the darkness.
If we want to enter into the deep things of God we must be willing to enter this darkness of waiting………..what the ancients called the “cloud of unknowing” leaving behind our preconceived ideas, our good plans, or assumptions under the “cloud of forgetting”
…………..to be in the Dark Night of the Soul. We must enter the cave of our heart and wait.
We must be willing to wait, in whatever darkness we are in,
the time when nothing is happening
the time when we don’t understand what is going on
a time of sickness and suffering
a time of death of a loved one
a time of empty and dry prayer
a time of loss
a time when we don’t understand where God is taking us or why
We must wait in vulnerability, in emptiness, being content to wait in the dark for the birthing of a new and deeper place with God, to the birthing of a new way of being in the world, a new understanding of our vocation, call to service, career, life……………
We all have our times of darkness. In fact, all of life is really a time of darkness as far as our spiritual life in concerned. We never fully understand who God is or what God is inviting us to become. The sooner we surrender to that, the sooner we come to peace within ourselves, and often peace with others. When we come to the place where we can live in the moment and not be grasping for what is to come, or what we think we need to know, or be about, or whatever. That is the sacred moment.
Life is a dark night. We can only know God through this darkness. We can only know God through our willingness to wait. It is essential for us to go through this Dark Night of The Spirit in order to usher in the next phase of who God is creating us to be. As people of God we will never usher in the next phase of who God is creating the followers of Jesus to be at this time in history until we learn to wait…..to listen……to be willing to be empty and walk through the darkness of not knowing.
Mary waited in the darkness of Winter……..for the coming of the Christ child.
What are you waiting for?
Sit with this question for a moment……………….
Isaiah 64:4 From ages past no one has heard, nor ear has perceived, no eye has seen
any God besides you, who works for those who wait.
Dissecting prayer, in my view, always takes something away from what prayer is really all about. St. Paul speaks somewhere about being apprehended by God. It seems that all our efforts and discussions about the spiritual life fade in importance when somehow we are touched by God's incredible, unabashed, unrestrained Love in Christ. Our spiritual practices simply put us in a position where God is able to "kiss us with the kisses of his mouth" as it says in Song of Solomon. We are apprehended! We have seen God! We have tasted Eternal Life. From there on there is no turning back. When we fall in love we can't help ourselves. We want to be with the beloved. We can't stop thinking of the beloved. Our prayer becomes mute in the wonder of God's healing, transforming love. When this happens then prayer isn’t something we are obligated to do but communication we desire, in fact, can’t live without.
This is what makes prayer the core of our relationship with God. It is right at the heart of the spiritual journey. Prayer is not just one of many spiritual practices. Through prayer the spiritual journey becomes one of ongoing discovery and deepening love of God, ourselves and others. Pay attention to how your heart is drawing you to prayer and dare to follow you heart as one who has fallen in love. We can say with Paul, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what has been prepared for those who love God, these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God."
Think about prayer as the communication you have with the one who has created you in love, the very Ground of your being, who wants to heal and renew you so that you can enjoy being fully your best and truest self and the very image of Christ in the world. With this thought in mind it is easier to think of prayer as about what God is doing and not so much what you are doing. God knows our deepest desires, what we need and what our loved one need. We can hold them in our hearts and ask God to touch them with whatever they need. But God isn't a sugar daddy in the sky who is there to give us treats or a servant who is at our beck and call.
Acts 17:28 tells us that in God we live and move and have our being. We are like fish in a sea. We are the fish. God is the sea. All we need to do is pay attention. God is already in and around us all the time. So prayer becomes simply turning to God who dwells within and learning to listen and discern God's invitations. Of course, if you are inspired to pray for a certain situation by all means do it.
Your Cell Will Teach You Everything
I am alone and undisturbed.
It is quiet in the house.
An old monk said
go into your cell,
your cell will teach you
Today my bedroom
is my cell.
Here I can think
Here I can struggle
with all my doubts
This I know,
if I don’t have time alone with You
I have no faith.
How can it be
someone who has been
so passionate for God
as I have been,
someone who has inspired others,
can be so filled with doubt?
When my faith was based on beliefs,
on what I knew with my mind,
dependent on the preaching
and teaching of others
I had loads of what
I thought was faith.
Now all intellectual concepts
All I have is
the experience of You,
the indwelling Presence.
The old monk said
Go into your cell
Your cell will teach you
If I don’t create a space
For my own cell work
I am lost.
I need to be alone
“The Spirit will teach you
Jesus, the great metaphor,
the radical counter culture man
who taught us that God’s Spirit
in us all,
that we are all children of God,
that happiness lies
in the opposite
of the obvious,
that the kingdom of God
isn’t wealth and power
but inner peace
Dark faith is hard to live by
There is nothing to hang on to
No firm absolutes
Telling me what to believe
And how to act
What to read or not
Who to hang around with
Where to go.
Deep down inside
There is a kind of
A sense of
That feeds my inner being
That draws me onward
Stirring my heart
To seek to know this
One who gives life
To every living thing
But the darkness
The words get more
Vague and abstract
There is not teacher
There is no doctrine
There is no one
Who can make this journey
I have to find
My own light
To guide the way
I have to trust that
You will guide me
And that I won’t
I have read several books on life after death. They are always fascinating to me as I read the testimonies of people who have gone through a near death experience. In her book, Imaging Life After Death, Kathleen Fischer writes about the many ways we can think of ourselves continuing on after our physical death. Of course, it is mainly conjecture. No one really knows. However, there are many stories of people seemingly leaving their bodies in a near death experience and looking down at themselves lying lifeless on a bed or hospital table. These people tell of being able to see the doctors and nurses working on their body or the family talking and grieving over their death. They also tell similar stories of experiencing a light and a warm loving Presence and often seeing loved ones who have died and are there to welcome them. They experience themselves as a soul or spirit who has left its body and who returns to once again live in its body.
I am reminded about a time when I was in Elementary School, around 10 years old, when I had a conscious awareness of being in my body, looking out at the people and the world around me. I had a realization that I was in my particular body looking out at others and that every other person was in his/her own body looking out. I realized that I could only see, experience or understand from the standpoint of what I could gain from my own vantage point of my body. I realized that I would never be able to be inside someone else’s body and see things as they saw them and I could never see me and they saw me.
In conversations about whether one feels old, people, including myself, will make statements like “I feel the same as I have always felt. It is just my body that feels old.” I am the same person I was when I was 10 looking out of my young body. My life experiences, hopefully, have made me wiser. I have learned a lot of things through life and education but my inner person does not “feel” old. My self awareness is the same. It is me inside this body. I am no age, just me, ageless, living inside an aging body.
Now as I am pondering life after death it makes me think that even though we are whole, one body, soul and spirit, somehow our soul/spirit is housed in a particular body that actually hinders our experience of oneness with others and nature. It is only when we are free of this body that we are truly free to become one with All. It is not hard for me to believe that when I die I will simply leave this body and be set free to enter another dimension of existence. “Jesus came and stood among them even though the doors were closed.” There will be freedom to see and experience God and other people without the hindrance of being captured in a body. It seems to me that in life after death we will be free to become one with the Mystery we call God and as One will become part of God’s ongoing generative creativity of the universe. Maybe the inner sense of oneness with God we experience now is just a hint of the union we will experience in the next life. We experience a taste of the promised union with God now and at death are released from our body to fully live in oneness with God and with all.
No one really know what life after death will be like but over thousands of years people of all religions have tried to understand it. People who have died and returned in near death experiences describe pretty much the same experience. People who meditate deeply grasp a Oneness with Something/Someone larger than themselves. Even Steve Jobs' last words were "Oh Wow! Oh Wow! Oh Wow!. People of all walks of life, all educational levels report experience of the Beyond. How can we not believe?
"See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwellwith them and they will be God's people and God will be with them; God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."