Let’s face it. We’ve been living in a sea of tumult. The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted whatever “normal” may have meant. Life and death choices have greeted us each morning, deciding whether to leave the house, buy groceries, pick up a prescription, have coffee with a friend, or stay secluded inside with those we love, which sometimes tests that love.
Now, when we’re all suffering from COVID fatigue, it has come roaring back, following us even into our quiet, indoor gatherings with a few friends and family. This virus has attacked our trust, our confidence, and for some, our faith. Even if healthy, it has left us depleted.
While dutifully donning masks to deter the spread of invisible germs, political toxins invaded with ferocity the spaces where we think and live. Public life has been poisoned, almost mortally, by the past Presidential election. It has felt like none other.
Pervasive fears and divisions still seem overpowering, hanging in the air like the smoke from this fall’s wildfires, strong enough to smell and taste. It has been more of a cultural and spiritual battle than election. Inner anxieties cascaded, and are still projected outwardly in frantic accusations and baseless conspiracy theories, fracturing any semblance of common good.
Further, criminal police brutality instigated a massive, ongoing movement of racial reckoning in the nation’s life. America’s original sin of racism and white supremacy was revealed, once again, as a moral corruption chiseled into our corporate soul. Still many of privilege still cling to myths of incorruptibility. Public opinion surveys recently revealed that for millions of white Christians, “white” seems more formative in their values and attitudes than “Christian.” The introspection required for justice and healing drains our soul, necessarily.
Breathing air for months that is biologically and politically poisoned, while facing winds of righteous anger, has left us all breathless. We’re exhausted emotionally, politically, and spiritually. Our inner resources seem sucked dry. We’re all gasping for air, which, as we’ve witnessed, can be fatal. We thirst, panting for living springs. We hunger, longing for the bread of life.
It’s time for us to take a step back, to detach from the frantic and frenetic tumult that has swept over our society, and re-center our souls. That’s the only way we’ll know how to step forward, not in reaction or fear, but with intentional, courageous purpose as faithful disciples of Jesus.
All of which is why I dare, with a prudential Reformed trust in providence, to publish a book today, entitled Without Oars: Casting Off into a Life of Pilgrimage. It’s a serious, earnest invitation to take a profound break, and deepen our inward journey for the paths lying ahead.
I’ve become riveted to the metaphor and the actual experience of pilgrimage as the way to live out my faith journey. A few years ago, my wife’s cousin, a great friend, went on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. It transformed his spiritual life, and I was intrigued, drawn from within. Then, in August of 2018, an unexpected invitation came from Kyle Small, at Western Theological Seminary, to join him and two others on the Camino. My heart couldn’t refuse.
It was a lifetime event for me, and directed my attention to the whole meaning of pilgrimage in faith formation—its history, its present practice, and most important, what it means to grasp our whole relationship with God, and understanding of our faith, as a pilgrimage, whether or not we actually step foot out of our door. In this time of so much sheltering in place, it’s crucial to know that our inner pilgrimage can still move forward, perhaps even with more freedom.
What I’ve learned, and write about, is that a pilgrimage is about what we leave behind in order to move ahead. Above all, it calls us to an ever-deeper level of spiritual relinquishment to embrace the fullness of God’s presence and love. The title comes from a strange and true story from the year 891 when three Irish pilgrims set out in boat without oars, “wandering for the love of God.” Seven days later they arrived in Cornwall, England—a destination they knew was intended by God.
A precious, few moments of my life—and probably of yours—have been like that. And they’ve been transforming.
I don’t write much about abstract ideas, but rather formative experiences, which reflects the broader message, namely that faith isn’t wrapped up in a cocoon of beliefs but lived out through embodied practices.
That’s why I decided to go to Lourdes, France, before finishing the book, to grasp the power of the most visited pilgrim destination in the Christian world. Likewise, and close to my home in New Mexico, I describe the “holy dirt” at the Sanctuario de Chimayo, probably the most popular Catholic pilgrimage destination in the U.S. My ecumenical work took me to Mount Tabieorar in Nigeria, where 100,000 Christian pilgrims danced through the night on holy ground. All these and more were examples of embodied faith connected to powerfully incarnate expressions of spiritual life.
For Reformed Christians, this is a serious challenge. The Reformation rejected pilgrimages and everything associated with them. Calvin and Luther said some hideous things (which I quote). I think, in the stormy religious seas of the 16th century, the Reformers sought a safe harbor in a rationally satisfying set of beliefs. Hence the Confessions, proliferating, and often contradicting, one another as denominational lines were drawn in the sand.
I confess that I’ve lost some of my belief in beliefs. Yes, certain truths are core to Christian faith. But I can’t give the same weight to rational consent around a highly detailed and packaged set of theological assertions which, of course, provided the distinctive foundation to our particular tradition. I appreciate them—and those of other traditions that I’ve engaged ecumenically. But today I’m far more interested in where and how followers of Christ are walking. Faith is a pilgrimage.
In this time of tumult and depletion, we need to open inward space to journey deeper with our God. We need to sink our steps more firmly in the way of the Lord. This takes our whole self, in embodied practices. Then we may gain the strength of the Spirit necessary to walk on an outward journey in this time of political polarization, racial reckoning, and a surging pandemic.