The weariness of the pilgrim

I have been silent too long.  My intention to use this blog as a lenten discipline, to marshal and express my thoughts more clearly, and get used to doing so, has failed.  However, something has come out of my recent experiences which feels worthy of some exploration.

One of the hazards of pilgrimage that I have definitely experienced recently is genuine, visceral, shock.  Avoiding pilgrimage for a time, keeping oneself within a sphere which comes to feel familiar, if uncomfortable, makes restarting pilgrimage an unsettling experience.

Before going further with the question of pilgrimage, I think it is worth setting out my experience of the opposite.  My experience of attempted rootedness was in some respects a disastrous failure, though I met many good people on the way.  The problem with it was that it was precisely, in large part, an attempt to avoid pilgrimage, to shelter from a process which had got me not very far at all in my time living in Colchester. I arrived in Norwich determined that, come what may, I would find someone not horrendously uncongenial, and settle down.  I would explore the experience of ecclesiastical nest building, of making myself a home out of whatever materials I found.

What I learned is this.  The intention to build a home is all very well.  It is of itself a noble intention, if it is undertaken in the right spirit.  However, if the materials it makes available for nest building are in fundamental respects uncongenial, however attractive, it leads to a nest that can never be homely, never be heimlich.  It also leads to a kind of self-rejection, because this nest one has built doesn’t feel like home, so one feels simultaneously homeless, with all its attendant distress, discomfort and discomfiture, and incompetent, since one hasn’t even managed to build a basic shelter.  One finds some temporary alternatives, attempts to build others, but none of these are home, because none of them are within the space designated for the construction of home.

This creates a profound feeling of loneliness, an unbridgeable distance between oneself and those who, as far as one can tell, are finding their homes within the same space more congenial.  They are in the right place, and therefore in the right because they are congruent with the space.  Alienation, in a nutshell.

So one emerges – it cannot be any worse outside the former space, and the world outside may include a space within which a genuine home can be built.  Of course, during the time of stasis, the world outside became unfamiliar, and the layers of skin needed to encounter it without trauma fall away.  This adds inevitably to the trauma of pilgrimage, because the world outside is irreducibly different from the space previously inhabited.  Then there comes a shock – an unfamiliar voice, uncongenial in an unfamiliar way – which cannot be processed.  Pilgrimage, having been a nourishing experience, becomes an experience of pain and anguish, and the desire to continue reduces to a dread-filled since of inevitability.  One has left one place and not arrived anywhere else in particular, which must mean one is on pilgrimage.

In short, I’m tired, and I hurt.  Where is the empty tomb?  Is it more than a void?


Julian, pilgrimage & wilderness

Today is the second Sunday of Lent.    We have already spent 10 days in the wilderness with Christ, and the wild beasts are beginning to approach, looking to feed us.  No longer are they put off by the presence of strangers in their environment.  Our feet are becoming toughened by the dust of the desert, and our eyes accustomed to the squint required to keep the sand out of our eyes.

But what difference does it make that Jesus Christ has already passed through the wilderness?  What light does Julian cast on life in the wilderness?

There is much in Julian’s experience that evokes the wilderness.  Life as an anchorite, with its willed isolation from everyday companionship, would seem to many like a casting of oneself into the wilderness.  The experiences on her sickbed – the pain and the retreating from her experience of those around her – also have something of the wilderness about them in that she is cast into them, and through them into extremes of suffering.  Pain takes the place of heat, and suffering that of thirst.  In both her initial suffering and her subsequent anchorhold, Julian invokes Christ as her companion, first taking the agony of his crucifixion as the focus of her attention in her own suffering, and then inviting her courteous Lord to join her and sustain her in contemplating him during the years of her anchorhold.

Jesus’s experience in the wilderness was that of a young man, newly confronted with his true identity and  exploring the reality behind the words left ringing his ears after his cousin, always something of an oddball, insisted on immersing him in the River Jordan.  Only by slow and painful degrees did he come to see that the reality to which his experience in the river pointed had accompanied into the dust and heat of the palestine desert.  That strikes me as the reality behind the fabulous description of his interactions with the devil.  Each temptation represents a mode in which his connection with the divine could be used to modify, to soften the harshness of his incarnate experience.  He refuses each of them, preferring instead to stand in solidarity with his fellow Jews, moving towards God in the way given to Moses in his desert encounter with God.  In this slow, patient process of encounter and re-encounter, Jesus discovers and learns to live out the relationship with the Creator which will sustain him, through his ministry, through the cross and the tomb to the garden of the resurrection and on to the hilltop of the ascension.

Christ is Julian’s wilderness: he constitutes it and saturates it utterly with his presence.  This does not prevent it from being authentically an experience of wilderness, as is clear from her agonies of body, mind, and spirit.  But at every point, the reality of God’s invitation to participate in the loving dance of perichoresis is waiting to break in and sweep her up in its ecstatic embrace.

There is much more to explore in both, as I intend to over the remaining days of lent.  A journey with interesting companions lies ahead.

To be a pilgrim?

I’m going to start the meat of my blog by talking about pilgrimage.  There seems to me to be a complete misunderstanding of the nature of pilgrimage around, particularly among churches which are very proud of their identity as pilgrim churches.  Pilgrimage is not a package tour.  It does not restrict itself to familiar places and routes, and nor does it make any guarantees as to the structures which will be around to support progress.  We are called, it seems to me, to sit lightly to the structures which accompany us at any given point, and to seek connections with pilgrims through and around them, and to at least consider pruning and amending them as the conditions of our pilgrimage alter.

Churches, being institutions concerned above all with their own preservation and the retention of their membership, find it in their interest to offer a package tour rather than a pilgrimage.  It is more comfortable to both sides not to explore the world outside, even to label it a threat to the pilgrimage itself, i.e. as sin.  To me this is a misunderstanding of the character of the creation of a loving God.  Exploring that creation is the word of life, not of death, a call into God not a dangerous distraction from God’s love.  If individuals and institutions can’t face this truth, it is hard to see how they can embrace the reality of God, which infinitely stranger and more familiar to us than we are are to ourselves.

Of course, there is much here that needs exploration, and I would caution against the over-easy rejection of church structure which I seem to be promoting.  The call to sit lightly to a given form is addressed as much to the church itself as to its members – it’s a call to organic life, to growth and development, to focus on relationships as the means by which that life is developed and maintained, rather than a given state of church structure as being eternally right and desirable.  As human beings made in the image of God, we also need to embrace our own pilgrimage, and be willing to set aside long cherished understandings of ourselves as partial and provisional rather than the final word.  The final word is only found in total union with God.

Julian has much to say about the intimate relationship Christ calls us into with God, and about the intimacy of the relationship that the trinity itself constitutes.  I will explore this as my blog develops, and I look forward to reading your comments.