I recently returned from spending a few weeks in Colombia. I was invited by the bishop, and worked in three Episcopal parishes in Bogota and Medellin. It was an extraordinary experience and I am still thinking and praying about everything I was privileged to see and do, and remembering especially some of the wonderful, generous people I met. The people of Colombia have lived through decades of violence. Terrorized by guerilla groups like the FARC, and suffering through the murderous days of Pablo Escobar and narco-terrorism. What is less well known is that Colombia has the world’s highest number of internally displaced people – more even than Syria. These are Colombian men, women and children who over the past 30 years have been forcibly driven from their homes by armed groups, and who have become refugees in their own land. Eight million of them – many now living in poverty in the outlying barrios, which cling to the mountainsides of the great cities.
I spent much of my time living in one such barrio in Bogota. It was a tough place to be, but the great blessing I received was to meet and talk with men and women, who in the midst of great suffering and hardship, radiated a profound faith and trust in God.
One summer, a couple of years ago, I was standing on the white cliffs of Dover, in southern England, staring out over the expanse of the English Channel, towards France.
In that same spot, 1400 years ago, a Benedictine monk called Augustine, with 40 other monks, landed their boats. They were on a mission to bring the light of the Gospel to the English people. They were scared to death. They had already tried to turn back once, because the people they had met in France had told them horror stories: those Britons are violent and barbaric. With Brexit, I think the French may well have the same opinion today!
But the man who had sent them on the mission told them no– don’t turn back. And he encouraged them and gave them new courage. That remarkable man, who had the vision and drive to send Augustine to evangelize England, was Gregory. And we remember him today.
As Anglicans, we have I think a special closeness to Gregory. The Venerable Bede affectionately called him “our own apostle.” Gregory was a man of many gifts, but essentially he was a monk, a Benedictine monk, like Augustine, living peacefully in a monastery perched high on the Coelian hill in Rome. But Rome was anything but peaceful. He was experiencing the horrors of war – barbarian invasions, plague, and famine. Although Gregory wanted to live the monastic life, he was one of the most gifted men of his time, and he was almost dragged out of the monastery. And both the secular and religious authorities pleaded with him to help. His energy and abilities and holiness were so great that after a few years, he was elected Pope – the first ever monk to become Pope.
As Pope, his three greatest gifts came to the fore. First, he was a remarkable administrator. He personally organized the defense of Rome against the barbarian attacks, and he fed its people from the papal granaries in Sicily.
Secondly, he was a man of profound prayer and spirituality. Much of the worship life of the churches was in a terrible state, so drawing on his own monastic experience, he re-ordered the church’s liturgy, including the introduction of a beautiful chant, later named after him: “Gregorian chant.” In many ways his genius for worship and liturgy has molded the spirituality of the western Church till the present day.
But thirdly, he was a wonderful pastor. The Gospel reading today includes words which get to the heart of the kind of pastor Gregory was. From Mark’s Gospel, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you: “Whoever wants to be great among you must be a servant.”That was Gregory’s mandate. So, of all the titles which were conferred upon him, the one he chose for himself was “Servus, servorum Dei”: servant of the servants of God. For him to be a leader was to be a servant, like his Lord. And this colored all his pastoral theology. He expressed his theology in beautiful writing. His most famous work is the Regula Pastoralis, or “the Pastoral Office.” It’s a wonderful work, written for new priests and especially new bishops. It’s still very popular, and it’s still probably the best held ever written about the inner life and work of a bishop.
It was written 1400 years ago, but still packs a punch. His harshest words were against bishops who did not preach God’s saving word. Listen to him: “There is a feature, dear brothers, in the life of pastors, which causes me great affliction. We have descended to secular business. We abandon the duty of preaching, and to our disgrace, we are bishops in name, and have the title but not the virtue that befits that dignity. For those committed to our care abandon God and we are silent. They commit sin, and we do not stretch out a hand to correct them.”
Gregory was ferocious about bishops who were guilty of the sin of silence. They allowed grave disorders to go on in their jurisdictions and they were silent. They were silent because they wanted to avoid trouble. They worked to maintain the status quo. They wanted to remain comfortable and secure, and highly thought of.
Over these past months, details of sexual abuse which had taken place over many decades in the Church of England have been brought to light. And it is clear that bishops had kept quiet. Over the past year, the extent of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church has been revealed, and it is clear that bishops have kept quiet. “They have the title, but not the virtue that befits their dignity,” says Gregory. Guilty of the sin of silence. Those powerful, courageous words of Gregory, uttered 1400 years ago, still have the power to convict us today. But not only the bishops, but each one of us who follow Jesus.
Through the centuries Gregory’s words ring out with the same conviction and point to each one of us, and ask us, “Where were you silent when you saw injustice being done? When were you silent when you heard others saying things which you knew were untrue – gossip or cruel words? When were you silent because, well, I just don’t want to get involved? And so you said nothing.”
Today we celebrate a man who was a true servant of God. And man of huge courage, who spoke out the truth without fear or favor. A man who spoke out whenever he saw evil or injustice both within and outside the church. A truly great man, holy and courageous.
Shortly after his death the church unanimously gave him the title of great honor: Gregorius Magnus – Gregory the Great. But for Gregory himself, Gregory, the humble follower of Jesus the Benedictine mon, the only title he ever aspired to was the one modeled on his Lord: “Servus, servorum Dei:” the servant of the servants of God.
When I was 26, I went to the Holy Land for the first time. The day I remember most was getting up at 3:00 o’clock in the morning with my fellow pilgrims and leaving our hotel in Jerusalem and getting into our coach, and in the dead of night driving due East. Ahead of us lay the great Judean wilderness. We could see very little, but eventually the coach stopped and we climbed out into the utter silence of the desert. As we stood in awe, our eyes slowly made out the shape of the hills, below the twinkling stars. Then the bus drove off. We were alone – standing together on the ancient road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
We, like the man in the parable, were going to walk from Jerusalem to Jericho. The ancient road is not the modern highway which now carries countless pilgrims down to Jericho in their air conditioned coaches. The road which we were taking winds its way between the hills and the rocks and the canyons, but always going down and down. For Jerusalem is high in the hills, while Jericho is way below sea level, one of the lowest points in the earth’s surface. The cities are less than 20 miles apart.
And so we set out for several hours of silent, prayerful walking .We began to see more and more clearly, and then there was a glorious sunrise, and we all sat down on the rocks and had Eucharist together.
On we walked, as the temperature rose; it became incredibly hot. “Keep drinking, keep drinking!” said our Palestinian guide. We did. But, sadly, we never made it to Jericho. The heat and sun became so intense as we walked lower and lower that some of our party felt unwell, and we called for the bus to drive us the last few miles into Jericho.
Acts 9:1-9 | John 21:1-14
There’s no going back. There’s no going back. Once you have said ‘yes’ to Jesus, once you have met the Risen Lord and said YES to his invitation to ‘follow me,’ nothing is the same again. For, as Saint Paul says in 2 Corinthians: “If you are in Christ, you are a new creation. Everything has passed away, see everything has become new.”[i]
In our readings today there are two wonderful accounts of how the greatest leaders of the church – Peter and Paul – each had to learn, in a way which was both humbling and painful, that to follow Jesus, first meant a real death to the life which they had lived until then. They had to become a new creation. They had to be born anew before God could use them for the work of the Kingdom.
So when, in our Gospel today, Peter says, ‘I am going fishing’ – I’m going back to the old life – that was no longer possible. He was a good fisherman, his strong hands were skilled with the ropes and the nets. But although he toiled all through the night, he caught nothing. Something had changed. What had changed was that Jesus had called him to follow him, and he had said YES. But what he was yet to learn was that he could not follow Jesus on his own terms, in his own strength, in the old way. That had died.
These skilled hands of the fisherman would be used by Jesus, but first Peter had to come to Jesus empty handed. And perhaps there is no more poignant moment in all the gospels than when Peter comes ashore, and sees Jesus sitting beside a charcoal fire. That word ‘charcoal’ is only used twice in the New Testament: here and in the courtyard of the High Priest Caiaphas, where Peter stood warming himself, and where he denied knowing Jesus three times.
It’s Easter Day! Today our Lord Jesus Christ has been raised gloriously from the dead. Alleluia! Today is a day for rejoicing. He is Risen: Alleluia!
But on Monday, just six days ago, I was not rejoicing. I was tearful. I was staring in shock and stunned silence – as you may have been too – watching those pictures of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burning. I first went to Notre Dame when I was 14; I was staying with my pen friend’s family in Paris. I was struck dumb, even at that age, with the beauty, the colour and light, the sheer holinessof the place. I remember we lit candles, and sat gazing in wrapt silence at a great rose window, shimmering like a jewel.
Throughout most of my life, as a parish priest in England, I tried to go back most years to Notre Dame, to light candles and pray for friends and parishioners who were sick or in need. Back to the place where for me, in Eliot’s words, “prayer had been valid.”
So it was heartbreaking to see this place of beauty and loveliness where I have for years felt so close to God, mauled and wounded and ravaged by fire.
Exodus 3:1-15, I Cor. 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
“I am who I am. I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. This is my name forever, and thus I am to be rememberedthroughout all generations.”
This, the great climax of that wonderful story of Moses and the Burning Bush. Poor Moses, hiding his face in sheer terrorfrom the God who now calls to him out of the bush. The God who now reveals to Moses his sacred identity: God’s NAME. In Hebrew, four letters, the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, “Jehovah” – so holy that their true meaning is unknown, and many will never pronounce them.
They are often translated “I AM who I AM.” I AM the one, the eternal I AM. But God is clear: My name is to be rememberedfrom generation to generation.
I want to talk this morning aboutremembering. The command to rememberis one of the most important themes running through both the Old and New Testaments. Yet it is not easy for us to understand what the Bible means by remembering because it is very different from what weusually understand it to mean.
“Do you remember last Christmas?” “Do you remember that restaurant we went to last week?” We think of rememberingas simply recalling something that happened in the past. But in the Bible, remembering has the full semitic sense of recalling in such a way that the event of the past is actually made present once again. This sense of remembrance is all but untranslatable into English. But it is fundamental to understanding God’s actions throughout scripture.
Remember the Lord your God. Rememberthe marvels he has done. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Rememberthat you are but dust and to dust you shall return. Don’t just call them to mind, but by remembering, call on their power, that you too may experience nowGod’s marvels, God’s holiness, God’s power to raise you up from the dust and ashes of death.
To remember in this way is really to literally re-member,in the way that a surgeon may put a broken body together again. What wasin the past has taken form and has become fully and powerfully present now.
I had one of the most precious and wonderful experiences of this some years ago. My father had had a stroke and he was dying. I managed to fly home and by the grace of God saw my father just a few hours before he died. I sat with him and I didn’t think he knew who I was. But at one point his eyes rested on me. I said, “Dad, do you know who I am?” After some time, staring at me, he said, “Geoffrey Robert.” After saying my name his whole being seemed to be radiantand he smiled broadly, and I knew that at that moment the whole of me, from my birth onwards, had suddenly become presentto him – and he had become present to me. I felt an incredibly close and intimate connection.
I think when God says, “This is my name, and this is how I am to be remembered throughout all generations,” it’s something like that. God longs to be so present to us, that God’s life irradiates our own.
And this biblical understanding of remembrance parallels the New Testament as well. So when Mary cries out in joy in the Magnificatto the Lord “who has remembered his promise of mercy to Abraham and his children forever,” it is not that God had forgotten for a while, and then remembered again. It is rather that in the act of remembering, that promise becomes fully presentin the child in Mary’s womb.
And perhaps the most mysterious yet wonderful place where God’s remembrance is made powerfully present is in the Eucharist, which we celebrate today.
“On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, ‘Take, eat, this is my Body which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.” The Greek word used here for ‘remembrance’ is the word anamnesis. In the Church of England prayer book, the phrase is translated, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The American prayer book’s translation, “Do this forthe remembrance of me,” although it is slightly clumsy English, is actually a better, more literal translation of the Greek eis ten anamnesin, and I think helps remind us of the special semitic meaning of the kind of remembrance going on here. At the Eucharist, we are not simply recalling, or calling to mind an event that happened two thousand years ago. When we say these words, a true re-memberingis happening. God’s saving deeds in Christ are being made present, so that the fullness and power of those deeds of the past – Christ’s life and death and resurrection and ascension – take effect in our lives here and now. In the sacrament of bread and wine, the Lord is truly and really presentin all his strength and power, and we receive him into ourselves. We are irradiated by the real presenceof the Lord.
“Do this for the remembrance of me.”
But if to rememberin this full biblical sense is so incredibly powerful, imagine what the opposite would be: NOTto remember. In Jeremiah 31:31, God says these words: “The days are surely coming when I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more!” Amazing words of grace! For if to rememberin the biblical sense is to make something truly present and real, then notto remember is to truly and really take something away, so that it is no longer real or present.
The Good News of the Gospel is precisely that. Because of what Jesus Christ wrought for us on the Cross, God will remember our sins no more. It’s not that God is “forgetting” or pretending he never knew – but rather that God, through love and mercy, chooses not to remember: those sins are taken away, removed, no longer present.
I wonder if you may have something in your life, some sin, some action of which you are ashamed and which you keep remembering, replaying, going over again and again. Maybe God is longing to reassure you that God remembers your sin no more, and you should stop remembering it as well. You may not be able to forget, but you can stop rememberingand trust God’s word.
And what about your relationship with others? That person who has hurt you terribly. “I’ll never forget what you did to me!” No, you can’t forget it ever happened, but you can— and I believe, to be set free, you must— choose not to remember – not to constantly re-enact, “make real” the offence, so that it is an ever-present reality and a perpetual barrier and blockage.
“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”
“Remember our sins no more, as we no longer remember the sins of those who have sinned against us.”
In a few minutes, we will hear those words again: “This is my body, this is my blood. Do this for the remembrance of me.” As we remember, Jesus will be made real for us. When you receive his body and blood, you will truly be receiving his power and his strength, wonderfully present to us.
In that power, in that strength, offer to God the burden of sin which you may be carrying, and hear again those gracious words of forgiveness: “I will remember your sins no more.” Then offer to God that person whom you find it hard to forgive, and ask for the grace to be able to say about them, “I will remember your sins no more.”
And there will be rejoicing in heaven – in the glorious Name of our loving, holy and gracious God, whom we remember, and will continue to remember, throughout all generations.
Genesis 1:1-19 / Psalm 104:1-12
“Bless the Lord O my soul, O Lord my God, how excellent is your greatness! You are clothed with majesty and splendor. You wrap yourself with light as with a cloak.”
Those wonderful opening lines of today’s Psalm 104. There is this amazing intimate relationship between God and creation. God wraps himself with light as with a cloak. So when we look at light we see something of God. And so with the cloud and the wind. They speak to us of God.
And this same relationship between God and creation is revealed in those opening verses of the beginning of the Book of Genesis. God creates the dry land and the sea, light and darkness, vegetation, plants, trees, seeds, fruit, birds, fish, cattle. And each time God saw that it was good. God creates with love and tenderness and in God’s image. The imprint of God’s very hand – the divine potter – is on everything he created. It is very good. This intimacy between creator and created is very important, because I know that the created world – the trees and flowers and birds, the sunshine – even the snow! – have the power to reveal God to us.
Isaiah 11:1-3 / Matthew 1:1-17
Well, I managed to get through that long Gospel reading! Why on earth did Matthew start his Gospel with a long, tedious list of names? Because for Matthew the gospel, (the Good News he was proclaiming), was entirely dependent on who Jesus is. The identity of Jesus is everything. And central to his identity is that he is a branch, stemming from the root of Jesse. O root, O radix Jesse, as today’s Advent antiphon puts it.
Identity is central to the whole prophetic tradition in the Old Testament. That tradition became more and more focused on the hope that one day, God would save his people by sending them a Savior – an anointed one—a Messiah. But who would he be? How will we know who it is? People were always asking “who are you?” “Where are you from?” Well, Isaiah tells us in our reading today: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him….” He will be the one. We will recognize the Messiah when he comes, because he will come from the root of Jesse.
Well, the long genealogical list at the beginning of Matthew is pretty dreary – but the image of a tree, a family tree, is much more appealing to the imagination. And that was certainly true for the medieval imagination. So over the centuries, artists have created some of the most beautiful and imaginative trees to teach and to celebrate Jesus’ genealogical identity. They are called Jesse Trees. We see them in stained glass windows. (The oldest piece of stained glass in England is the Jesse Tree at York Minster.) We see them in stone casings (like the wonderful Jesse Tree greeting pilgrims at the entrance to the cathedral of St. James Santiago de Compostela.) And we see them in illuminated manuscripts, such as the one you have before you. It is taken from the famous Winchester Psalter from the 12th century.
for everyday living
Br. Geoffrey Tristram traces the practice of pilgrimage back to the origins of our faith and deep into the inner realms of our hearts.
A JOURNEY WITHIN
When I decided to stop in and visit the small village church in Lastingham, Yorkshire, I had no idea that the place was of any significance. I hadn’t set out on a pilgrimage. I hadn’t researched the site or prepared myself to have any particular kind of experience. I just happened to be passing by there with my brother-in-law. I went in and decided to go down into the crypt.
As I entered into the low, dim stone space, I actually fell on the ground because of the overwhelming sense of holiness. I nearly passed out. I had no idea what was happening or why. I thought, “What on earth? Why am I feeling this?”
After I came back up into the church and looked around, I discovered that this church was where Saint Chad and Saint Cedd, missionaries to the Angles, had established their monastery. And Saint Cedd is buried, still, down in the crypt. My experience there was utterly unexpected; I almost couldn’t believe it. Yet it was also undeniable. The sense of the holy was so close, it fell upon me like a huge weight.
“People come to kneel where prayer has been valid,” wrote T.S. Eliot.
Eliot not only kneeled, he fully collapsed – on the floor of our own Holy Spirit Chapel – during an early morning Eucharist in the 1930s. He was the only visitor in the Chapel with the Brothers. Suddenly, during the consecration of the elements, he experienced the presence of God so powerfully, so heavily, he collapsed under it.
I love these stories because they remind me that while churches can offer sanctuary, they also can be incredibly dangerous places of encounter. We should post warnings on the door: Enter at your own risk. If you don’t want to risk an encounter that might change everything, then you might want to stay away!
Take Paul Claudel, the French playwright. Not a believer, he went one day into the vast cathedral, Notre-Dame de Paris. Claudel stood, half hiding behind a pillar, watching the Mass. He later wrote that the pillars were like great trees in a forest, and, as he stood there, something extraordinary took place. He said it was as if the Holy Spirit was hiding in that forest, and it suddenly ambushed him. At once he believed and fell to his knees.
Notre-Dame de Paris, this Monastery Chapel in Cambridge, Saint Mary’s in Lastingham, Yorkshire: it’s not just aesthetics that gives such churches their power. These places are holy, which simply means that they have been consecrated to God. They are places where generations have come seeking God; where men and women have been ambushed by God and can never be the same again. They are places where thousands upon thousands of prayers have been offered; where solemn vows have been made: monastic vows, baptismal vows, marriage vows, ordination vows. It’s almost as if the very walls have become impregnated with prayer and saturated with God’s presence. The holiness of such places is not measurable, and yet it’s undeniable. We enter and, ready or not, God is already there, waiting for us.
We believe, of course, that God is everywhere. God can be found on a mountaintop, as well as in a valley; in the dark and in the light; in a holy place and in the gutter. The place where we encounter God is actually not material, for God of course is immaterial. Seen this way, there is no need to go anywhere at all to experience God.
And yet, as Christians, we also believe in the Incarnation. John’s Gospel tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” or, as another translation has it, “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (Jn 1:14). Within the more Catholic traditions of the Christian church, believers pray in front of the tabernacle – where the Sacrament is placed – out of a desire to be close to the sacramental presence of Christ, the Christ who became flesh and dwelt among us. We believe that Christ is physically there, in the Sacrament. Even though God is everywhere, we embodied creatures do experience God (like everything else) in our bodies and through our senses. Our sacramental practice within the Church is reflective of this; it invites us to experience God’s presence somatically, in our flesh, with our taste and with our touch. The God who became flesh comes to us again in the flesh every time we hold out our hands and “Take, eat” the Sacrament.
And so, too, there are physical places where we feel that God can be experienced in a uniquely powerful way. “Thin places” we call them, where the veil between Heaven and earth is thinned, somehow. Where – even if you aren’t expecting it, or are unprepared for it – you can become aware of an almost overwhelming sense of God’s presence, as I did at Lastingham.
These places of divine encounter are holy places with the power to transform us, just as the Sacraments do, by bringing us into contact with the living God. In these places of encounter, God’s presence is so palpable that it’s actually very easy to pray. We can be very vulnerable. We feel close to the Source of Life.
Such places of encounter become sites of pilgrimage.
While pilgrimage rose as a widespread devotional practice in the Middle Ages, humans have been practicing pilgrimage for as long as we have experienced and commemorated encounters with God.
Think of that wonderful story in Genesis 28, the story of Jacob’s ladder. Jacob falls asleep and dreams of a ladder ascending up to Heaven, with angels going up and down. When he awakens, he knows that he’s been visited by God. He says, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the Gate of Heaven.” He calls that place Bethel, “the house of God.”
What’s significant is that Jacob is sleeping on a rock as a pillow. When he wakes up and realizes that he’s been visited by God, he takes that rock, makes it into an altar, and pours oil on it. As word spreads, people begin to come to that place. That site becomes holy because that’s where God came down and touched a human. It’s a place where, to quote T.S. Eliot again, we “apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time.” The transcendent God has actually broken through into our time-bound world, and we can point to where it happened. There, right there. Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to call these “little anticipations of Heaven,” moments of transcendence. They can happen in sacred places, they can happen on pilgrimage, and they can happen in the daily journey of our everyday life.
As Christians, we are a pilgrim people.
Pilgrimage is woven into the very roots of our faith, beginning with Abraham, the first pilgrim. In Genesis 12, God calls Abram (whom God will later call Abraham) to leave his house and journey to a land unknown. “Leave your country and your kindred and your father’s house, and go on a journey to a foreign land.” So Abram becomes nomadic. He pitches a tent each night; the next morning, he takes up the tent pegs and moves on. I think that this “Abrahamic” spirit is fundamental to our Judeo-Christian tradition: we are pilgrim people, from the very start.
The thread picks up with the most formative experience of salvation in the Hebrew Scriptures: the story of the Exodus, which is essentially a forty-year pilgrimage. God’s people are enslaved in Egypt, brutalized by Pharaoh, and God raises up Moses to be their savior. And Moses leads them on an epic journey across the desert, to the Promised Land.
This thread continues throughout the Gospels, as Jesus calls disciples to follow him away from their homes and all that they have known, on a journey into the unknown:
“He saw Simon and Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Mk 1:16-18)
“He saw James and John who were in their boat mending the nets. He called them and they left their father Zebedee and followed him.” (Mt 4:21-22)
“He called the rich young man and said, ‘Sell everything that you have and follow me.’” (Mt 19:21)
“He saw a tax collector called Levi and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up, left everything, and followed him.” (Lk 5:27-28)
Jesus’ uncompromising command to leave everything – and indeed the longing to leave everything to follow Jesus – inspired many of the first monastics: Saint Anthony and the Desert Fathers in the fourth century, who left all their property and wealth behind, to head out into the western deserts of Egypt.
And in the early Celtic Christian tradition, such men as Patrick and Columba embraced what was known as “white martyrdom” when they left their homes to travel to foreign lands, leaving everything behind, to follow Jesus. As a contemporary writer put it, “They sailed into the white sky of morning, into the unknown, never to return.”
While most of us are not called to such extreme acts of renunciation for the sake of following Jesus, yet those words in the Gospel are surely addressed to each one of us: “Leave everything and follow me, and you will receive eternal life.”
This command contains a deep truth for each of us: the first step in our pilgrimage will always be a movement away from, a renunciation of the familiar. Unless we let go of the familiar, the safe, the secure, unless we take the risk of becoming vulnerable, we cannot grow.
This is one of the main reasons why pilgrims set out for holy destinations: they are longing to take a journey of transformation. To do so, they literally leave behind the familiar and the known, and physically journey into a place and a future that only God can envision. The pilgrim’s physical journey can “jumpstart” the transformation, as it were, through the radical act of leaving behind the world that is known. It’s no accident that so much of the great literature of the world picks up on this very theme of the hero’s transformative journey; from the story of Abraham in Genesis, to the great epics, The Odyssey, The Iliad, even The Lord of the Rings. A pilgrimage of transformation requires first that we leave everything behind, and set out on a journey that will lead to new life.
Simply leaving home is not enough, of course.
Physical pilgrimage has value primarily for its ability to inspire inner change. In this, the physical journey of pilgrimage symbolizes (and often catalyzes) the spiritual journey that we are called to take within. In her wonderful treatment of medieval pilgrimage, Pilgrimage of the Heart, Sr. Benedicta Ward, SLG, catalogues four possible stages along the spectrum between physical and spiritual pilgrimage:
1. It was possible to stay and to stay, in other words to be completely lazy and attempt nothing, go nowhere, stay shut within the walls of self, to ignore pilgrimage altogether.
2. It was possible to stay and yet to go, by undertaking the pilgrimage of the heart while remaining in one place, which was the fundamental monastic way.
3. It was possible to go inwardly by longing and desire in the heart and to confirm this by outward pilgrimage with the feet, to be a true pilgrim.
4. It was possible to go on pilgrimage with feet, but not with heart, as a tourist, a runaway, or a drop-out from responsibility, a curious inquirer, in which case there had been no real movement; the traveler had taken the shell of self with him and whatever its name it was not in essence a pilgrimage at all.
Of this last kind of pilgrimage, the great biblical translator Saint Jerome observed, “It is better to live for Jerusalem than to journey to Jerusalem.” Better to stay home and be changed in heart, than to journey with your feet yet remain internally unmoved.
Whether or not each of us eventually chooses to embark on a physical pilgrimage at some point in our life, we are all of us called to set out, ever afresh, on the inner kind of pilgrimage, the pilgrimage of the heart. We are called, in the words of Jerome, to “live for Jerusalem,” as we follow Christ on a journey of growth and transformation.
“Come follow me. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (Jn 14:6). Christianity has never been a static body of doctrine, but rather is a dynamic way of life. The first term used in the New Testament to describe Christians is “followers of the Way,” because of Jesus’ compelling invitation to take to the road, to make all of life into a continuous pilgrimage. Monica Furlong, in her book Traveling In, wrote, “The religious person is the one who believes that life is about making some kind of journey. The non-religious person is the one who believes there is no journey to make.”
The journey – whether it be the journey of Abraham or Moses, Jesus’ disciples or medieval pilgrims – has never been simply about traveling across physical space toward a holy site. Every outward journey of pilgrimage always has as its true goal an inner journey of transformation.
The essence of pilgrimage, then, is the journey within. Therefore the essential pilgrimage to undertake is not the one of the feet, but the one of the heart. For this reason, I love the story that Sr. Benedicta recounts of the early Egyptian recluse, who fell under criticism for living a sedentary life. “Why are you sitting here and doing nothing?” one monk asked her. She replied, “I am not doing nothing; I am on a journey.”
We can embark on the most amazing journey without ever leaving our room. Every day Jesus calls us to embrace new life, and that means to let go, to leave behind what has become too comfortable, our habits, our compulsions. It means each morning awakening to a new day and saying to God, “Where do you want to lead me today on the journey of life? What are you asking me to leave behind? How are you asking me to change?”
“To live is to change,” wrote Cardinal Newman, “and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
Jesus’ continuous call to grow and change can make us feel insecure and, frankly, scared. I suppose, if we are honest, we’re not always very keen to take to the road. And yet that is what this resurrection Life is all about. “For here we have no abiding city, for we seek the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14).
As pilgrims, we are not simply wanderers. This pilgrimage of ours is not just away from our old life, nor is it solely into the depths of our hearts. Our journey is actually toward something very specific. “We seek the city which is to come.” We are headed somewhere. We have a specific destination: our heavenly home. Our pilgrimage journey is toward God!
This is the fundamental difference between traveling through life as a pilgrim and as a tourist. To the tourist, every part of the journey has equal value, whereas the pilgrim definitely has a goal. To understand our life as a pilgrimage is to see this life as teleological: to know it actually has an end, and a goal, in Heaven. God is the end of our journey – both our destination and our goal.
One thing that can be very helpful as we press along on this journey, is periodically to stop and make a sort of “map” of the road we’ve traveled and the road ahead. Ultimately, we know that our destination is God; yet like any traveler pressing on along an unknown road, we may need to check in and reorient ourselves from time to time, to be sure that we haven’t taken off on the wrong path.
Honestly take stock of your journey so far: Where am I now, where have I been, and where do I feel I should be going? Ask yourself: Where do I feel God is drawing me now? What is the vision I have of the person God wants me to become? What are the things in my life right now which are stopping me from realizing that vision, or dulling my sight? Where am I being pulled off the path?
It doesn’t matter how far along the path you are. And if you have come off the way, that’s ok too; you simply need to get back on it. “To repent” in the Greek is metanoia, which means to “turn around.” If you find you’ve gone astray, then turn around! Retrace your steps to the last time you knew that you were in the right spot, and start again from there.
This exercise can be particularly helpful when we undertake it with a companion, someone we trust, who knows us and loves us, and who also understands the things of the Spirit. Find someone who can act as a guide in interpreting your map and pointing you toward the next step on the road. In this, the Road to Emmaus offers such a wonderful image for this pilgrim life (see Lk 24:13-27). The disciples set out on pilgrimage to Emmaus. Suddenly, Christ draws near to them, but they don’t recognize him, until they reflect on the teaching the stranger has shared. So too, we need to be open and expectant that, along the route, somebody may draw close to us, and they may be the Christ, speaking words which set us on the path to life again, by renewing our vision.
Wherever we are on our life journey, we are never alone. The story of Emmaus promises us that we are always joined by another, the Risen One. He always walks beside us. When we are at the extremity of our strength, he is with us; in the wilderness of ice or the furnace of the fire; in our times of greatest loneliness or trial, Emmaus reassures us, “You are not alone: you have a companion.”
The Risen Christ walks by our side, but he also goes ahead of us. In John’s Gospel, we read, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places: if it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (Jn 14:2). The word used by John for “dwelling place” is very interesting. It’s the Greek word monai, which doesn’t mean a “house,” and certainly not a “mansion,” but rather a “stopping place,” like a wayside shelter, where a traveler could rest a night or two on a journey (like the mountain huts you find in the White Mountains). In the East, it was the custom for travelers to send someone ahead to prepare the next shelter along the road, so that when the travelers arrived, they might find comfort, as well as shelter.
Jesus, in this famous passage, is promising that he is that person for us. He is just ahead of us on our life’s journey: he prepares the way for us. Even though the next step of our journey may seem scary, “I have gone before you to prepare a place for you.”
As comforting as this image is, we should also hear in it something of a prod. We often reach a stage in our life where we have found a very comfortable wayside shelter, and decide that we’d like to stop there for good. We begin putting up curtains and might even stow our pack under the bed! But that is to forget our Abrahamic roots, which call us to take out the tent pegs in the morning, and move on.
We are a pilgrim people. Christ urges us on: “Get back on the road. Don’t be afraid. For I will always be the one walking by your side – and I will always go before you to prepare the way.”
In this pilgrim life, we are called to an ongoing journey, with God and toward God. And yet there is this amazing sense that, the more we travel away from what we know, the more familiar the landscape will become. My journey does not actually lead me away from myself, but toward it. I am called by Jesus to become more and more the Geoffrey that God had in mind when God created me. And so, too, are you: called to become the person God made you to be. We have this little time on Earth for that to happen, to become who we truly are, so that when we finally get to Heaven, it won’t be such a shock!
To quote T.S. Eliot once more, “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and to know the place for the first time.” At the end of our journey, we will find ourselves, finally, home.
About Br. Geoffrey Tristram
Br. Geoffrey Tristram, SSJE was born in Wales and studied theology at Cambridge University before training to be a priest at Westcott House theological college. He came to the United States fifteen years ago to join SSJE and has pursued a ministry of teaching, spiritual direction, and retreat leading, and for three years he served as chaplain to the House of Bishops. Before coming to SSJE he served as a parish priest in the diocese of St. Albans, as well as the head of the department of theology at Oundle School, a large Anglican high school in the English Midlands.
I Samuel 16:1-13
From the First Book of Samuel, that great story of the calling and anointing of David. I’ve always really loved this story. It’s a kind of Cinderella story. Here are all Jesse’s sons lined up in front of the prophet Samuel. He looks at each one in turn: which one has the Lord chosen to be king? The first one, Eliab. He’s tall and good-looking. He must be the one! But no, says God. Never mind about his appearance or his height – he’s not the one. Nor the next one, nor the next one. But surely, God, this one looks perfect to be king. No, says God – never mind what he looks like. “For the Lord does not see as mortals see. They look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
And none of his sons are chosen. Are you sure there’s no one else? Well, says Jesse, there is the youngest (or in Hebrew it can also mean the smallest or the shortest). It couldn’t possibly be him! – and anyway he’s out with the sheep. Bring him in! I need to see him! He comes in, and immediately Samuel knows‘This is the one!’ And he anoints him with oil in the presence of all his brothers, and we read “The Spirit of the Lord came mightily on David from that day forward.”
Well, it’s a great story, and the reason I think I’ve always loved it is that I’m the youngest son in my family and I’ve got two older brothers. Growing up I was always younger and shorter than them. Playing football (soccer) with them and their friends, they’d say, ‘Oh, you’re too small. You can go in goal. I hated being in goal and just standing around. Boring! You couldn’t run around with the ball.