Life As a Pilgrimage – Br. Curtis Almquist

curtis4How dear to me is your dwelling,
O Lord of hosts!
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of
 the Lord; my heart and my flesh
rejoice in the living God.
The sparrow has found her a house and the
 swallow a nest where she may lay her young;
  by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts,
 my King and my God.
Happy are they who dwell in your house!
​they will always be praising you.
Happy are the people whose strength is in you!
​whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.
Those who go through the desolate valley will find
 it a place of springs, for the early rains have
 covered it with pools of water.
They will climb from height to height, and the God
of gods will reveal himself in Zion.   

​Our opening hymn for today reflects the language of Psalm 84 which we’ve just prayed together, speaking of life as a pilgrimage: “Happy are the people whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.” Understanding your life as a pilgrimage may be enormously helpful to you in finding your way, especially during a time in our world, in our nation,and in the church when there is so much dissolution.  The founder of our community, Richard Meux Benson, takes the long view of life on this earth: “Whatever God calls us to is not the resting-place, but only a step of our pilgrimage.”   

​About ten years ago my brother David Vryhof and I had the experience of walking on pilgrimage across Spain for a whole month on the ancient Camino de Santiago de Compostela.  We had our own experience of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: the meaningful and the mundane, exhilaration and exhaustion, hunger and deep satisfaction; the sweat of the daily toil and the exhilaration of a cleansing bath.  We enjoyed fellow travelers; we avoided fellow travelers.  We felt the blistering sun and the cooling rains.  We climbed from height to height in the Pyrenees, and we had some real lows.  We pondered and we prayed.  We gazed, we read, we ate chocolate.  We spent hours each day in silence, and we spoke to one another from the depths of our hearts.   We laughed; we got lost; we needed help,and we gave help.  We discovered early on that we were carrying too much weight and yet, all along, we were looking to take on something more. 

Back in the twelfth century along the Camino de Santiago, an eye-witness describes an endless flood of the poor, the fortunate, the barbarous; knights and maidens, the illustrious and the ignoble, heroes and debtors, royalty and paupers, monks and nuns; merchants and mendicants; some barefoot and some on horseback.  Some holding the image of the cross or an icon in their hands; others distributing their possessions to the poor; some carrying iron or lead for the construction of a church;others, just liberated from prison, bearing their iron shackles and manacles upon their shoulders, performing penance and weepingfor their sins.  Down through history, there’s been many different souls in many different states on pilgrimage in life, and there are many ways to be a pilgrim. 

Why life as pilgrimage?  Why see life as pilgrimage?  Every pilgrim will have his or her own intentions for this bonum arduum, this arduous good.  Down through the centuries, people have gone on pilgrimage to purge their soul of debris, to “walk off” a past chapter of their life.  For others it’s been to “walk into” a new chapter of their life, to say “yes” to God’s abundant gift of life in the present and to freely walk into God’s future.  It may be a mix of both.  Pilgrimage is often about losing your old self and then finding yourself anew. 

The English word “pilgrim” comes from the Latin peregrinus, “foreigner.”  As Christians we need to hear the word “pilgrim” – foreigner – in the light of Jesus, and in the language of Jesus.  I remember as a child singing a Gospel hymn that went, “This world is not my own; I’m just a passin’ through…”  Well, that hymn’s true if we understand that this world, indeed, is not our own.  It belongs to God – all of it.  In our lifetimes we are entrusted by God to be temporary stewards of this world.  And, indeed, we are “just a passin’ through,” not because it doesn’t matter.  Matter matters.  It all matters, every breath of the way.  It’s just that this world is not our ultimate end.  Jesus is the inspiration at the beginning, the companion along the way, and the fulfillment at the journey’s end, gone ahead to prepare a dwelling place for us forever. Jesus, the alpha, and the omega, and the way. For us followers of Jesus, life on earth is not incidental; life is sacramental: outward experiences of inward graces… every step of the way.  As we brothers say in our Rule of Life, our quest is to learn to pray our lives, to practice the presence of God, which is the way of the pilgrim. We are pilgrims in life, and there are some practices and some places that may be very helpful to you along the way. 

You may find it meaningful to literally go on pilgrimage to some destination, your own experience of my brother David’s and my pilgrimage to Santiago.  In the Christian tradition, there a number of place recognized as holy spaces, places that are “liminal,” that is, places where there is a thinness between earth and heaven.  I’ve named already the medieval route to Santiago.  Before then there is Rome, and before Rome, Jerusalem.  Down through the centuries, many, especially Anglicans, have found Canterbury a meaningful pilgrimage destination.  The island of Iona in the Scottish Hebrides has been the repository of Celtic prayer and practice.   
And then there are destinations which may well be important to you quite personally.  Almost twenty years ago a dozen of us SSJE brothers traveled on pilgrimage to Zimbabwe for the hundredth-year anniversary of martyrdom Bernard Mizeki.  When our community had houses in southern Africa, we had prepared Bernard Mizeki for ministry.  We had a personal connection to this saint and his setting, and we joined on pilgrimage nearly 15,000 Africans who had come together to remember, to pray and worship, and to be transformed.  It was amazing.  There may be a destination that is very important to you, personally:  some mountaintop, a sea of water, a forest.  It may be your grandmother’s back porch, or a childhood playing field, or a school, or concert hall, or church.  Some place that, for you, is liminal: a thin place where you can experience the coming together of earth and heaven.  T. S. Eliot said, “Go and kneel at a place where prayer has been valid.”  Valid for others; valid for you.  What holy space?  What holy place speaks to you?  Can you go there in person?  Can you go there in memory?  Can you go there in imagination?  Martin Luther said, “God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.”  

 An important aspect of pilgrimage is the preparation.  What will you need along the way?  Weight is a real issue.  Weight, quite literally, is an issue if you are carrying your life goods on your back.  Weight is an issue, metaphorically, given the weight of the burdens of life.  What do you need to part with?  What can you leave along the way?  What can you “walk off.”  It is so easy to accumulate in life – accumulate lots material things; lots of inner baggage.  A pilgrimage may help you part with both encumbering possessions and inner burdens in the form of disappointments, resentments, unforgiveness, fear… whatever weighs you down.   If so, you will be lighter, both in terms of weight and in terms of brightness, and you will have space to take in what is new and life-giving.  And what would that be?  What is your soul’s desire? Pilgrimage may help you claim God’s gift of life for you now.  For what does your soul long for, hunger for, thirst for this season of your life? 

Even if you are not traveling on pilgrimage to a specific holy place, if you are simply embracing being a pilgrim in life, what can you part with?  What can you detach from?  What can you give up, and I mean “give up” like an offering to God: “Here it is, gracious God: You take it, transform it, use it, multiply it, free me up from controlling it….”   

Another reality about traveling on pilgrimage is the other pilgrims.  When you are on pilgrimage, you soon appreciate one value above all others in how you relate to one another: kindness.  At any moment you may be in need, in need of help.  At any moment, someone else may be in need, in need of help.  Kindness, which is a compassionate, generous caring, is a quality to emulate and replicate.  Kindness.  We read in the Letter to the Colossians: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”   Set your heart on kindness. Receive and reflect kindness along the way.  Be kind.

 If you’re traveling on pilgrimage, there’s both the way to which you travel and also the way on which you travel. Something that has impressed me so greatly about traveling on pilgrimage to the Holy Land is how a place or space has been hallowed, made holy.  Often times a guide will say about some particular space that the geologists or archaeologists or biblical scholars have shown that it didn’t happen here.  The miracle, the teaching, the battle, the encounter with God did not actually happen in this specific space.  It couldn’t have.  And yet, at the same time, over the centuries (and prior to the insight of this modern scholarship) pilgrims have come to this place or space believing that this is it.  And so, in the Holy Land you will hear repeatedly about how a place or space has been made holy by pilgrims’ presence and prayers down through the centuries.  That insight gives appreciation both for modern scholarship and for the making of things holy by the holy people of God.  Where is that true for you in your own life: a space which, to you, has been made holy?

 Something else to bear in mind about the way on which you travel is that others will follow you.  We do not  desecrate; we must consecrate.  Whether we are talking about pilgrimage to a destination or simply living as pilgrims in life, we mustn’t leave a scar, we mustn’t take more than our share; we must reverence, both for the sake of other pilgrims and for the whole of creation, all of which belongs to God.  It’s to steward the life entrusted to us – our relationships with people, and places; our relationship to air and water, light and sound, birds and animals, mountains and prairies – protecting, thanking, reverencing, hallowing.  St. Paul writes in his Letter to Romans: “the whole creation is groaning in travail, waiting with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God… to be set free from its bondage to decay…”  Being as we are pilgrims, we are travelers not possessors, and we want to travel with light footprints, and with protecting, caring, generous hands both towards fellow pilgrims – pilgrims of the past, present, and future – and the created order that surrounds us.  There is a Native American wisdom on this: “Live so that a piece of earth mourns you when you die.”

I commend this metaphor of pilgrimage to you.  Ponder and pray with it.  You may get in touch with a destination you may want or need to visit or revisit.  You may get in touch with how to travel the way.  Life as a pilgrimage is fraught with adventure, with an awareness that there will be companions, not all of our choosing; that we will have needs and we will meet needs; that we’re to savor every breath along the way, and enable the rest of creation to do the same until we all come to our journey’s end.  Be a pilgrim! 

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  1. Claire on April 17, 2014 at 08:09

    Wow! I woke up around 5am w/ a phrase from one of the psalms running through my mind. ‘Happy are they whose feet are set on the pilgrim’s way” … couldn’t remember the exact words or which psalm it could be. So I googled the phrase & this website, with your response, came up first! How fortunate for me as this commentary is one of the most helpful and insightful I have ever encountered. This is a rich essay with much insight as well as food for thought, as in “there is much work to do,” now that I understand the meaning of the word pilgrim and it’s living dynamic quality in my life. Thank you, as I am greatly changed and helped by all you have said. It is Holy Week and this Lenten season has been challenging & difficult for me. Thank you for the light this has shed on this Lent for me … as it relates to my whole life up to today. I will print this and keep it always. God Bless ~ Claire

  2. Margo on November 5, 2013 at 14:21

    This is a beautiful sermon, an utterly eye-stinging one.
    As a 100% Scot the turquoise colored sea of Iona is my most sacred place and
    you yourself have embodied: “Kindness, which is a compassionate, generous caring, a quality to emulate and replicate.” for so many. You always set my feet back on the pilgrim way. Thank you.

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