Pilgrimages are meant to be challenging. One is meant to fight, climb and scramble over and around barriers to be on a pilgrimage. There are some flat, lovely passages, but so often there are boulders and fallen trees which, so often, are the greatest gifts of a pilgrimage.
Sometimes the way of a pilgrimage needs even to be death-defying in order to truly be life-giving. And of course, the problem (as well as the solution) of life is that, all of life is a pilgrimage from birth to death, filled as it is with barriers over which we must climb as we scamper. Pilgrimage requires a good, sturdy walking stick and some effort to keep up with The Entity which so loves us and which we rather pathetically have decided to name “God” even with so much proof that IT refuses to be named all throughout scripture. And even now.
A pilgrimage, like the one on which I am now, here on the Island of Iona, is a step by step wandering in which one allows the people walking with you to be the Divine One’s messengers. The people of one’s pilgrimage are always diverse and sometimes even comical – as we so readily see in Chaucer’s tale. A pilgrimage requires that we listen to all those voices – the saints, the sillies and even the Slitherins. They all have something to teach us, and they are, at the end of the day, they are all inside us as well – so we might as well engage them along the way.
My room in the Saint Columba Hotel is next to the 12th century monastery which replaced the original 8th century monastic ruins. It looks out to sea, rough as it is this morning with rugged whitecaps and darkened swirling currents. It is Sunday. A day to worship and rest. A day to begin a pilgrimage. Yesterday, as I arrived and introduced myself to the retreat members, a massive double rainbow appeared. But today is a day for close huddling against the winds. Retreats are like the weather here, the light shifts moment to moment.
There will be walking. There will be time for tea with oatcakes and reading, the occasional fry-up breakfast and encounters with oxen and sheep which dot the pastures around the monastery cloister and its standing crosses. I am aware, deeply aware, that a pilgrimage is not necessarily a charming, Anglican vacation. A pilgrimage can be a death defying fight for integrity, resolution and peace in a violent life and a sometimes even in a violent church – molting as it is.
In a few weeks, I will be reunited with a congregation on an island in Maine – people who request little of me and who give me, for some weeks, a beautiful home on the rocky coast of the ocean on which to rest, sleep and recover from the battle. That is soon. But this is now, and I am aware that this “now” is not vacation. This, now, is triage after a terrible and successful fight to retain my integrity in an anxious ecclesial system. But retain my integrity I have, and fight on I will.
But not today. This day, this Sunday is a day to prepare for a week of pilgrimage. It is a time to gather the inner resources needed to recover from a great ordeal and move forward into a new life – the stuff of which is yet to become clear. Today, as I write, the edges of the island are misty, foggy and windswept. One may not see great distances. Only the steps in front of one’s foot and the stones on which to plant one’s stick. But that is enough.
What great ordeal have you been through? On what pilgrimage is The One Divine Being whispering invitation to you? How is God placing your hand in your own hand? What will you need to set aside in order to move forward?
God is no longer calling me to this ministry or that ministry, this church or that church; rather, God is calling me home to myself. No church, no costume, no job, no money will protect me. I must do that work within God doing that work. I remember the “me” who went to university, the “me” who went to Haiti, the “me” who searched for a monastic home in Russia, in England and even at Harvard Square and in a New Hampshire forest. The “me” who made pots. The “me” who had friends. The “me” who wanted to be a priest. The “me” who wanted to be impressive. Even the “me” who thought it was my job to demand that the church be effective. And I have immense compassion on all of those “me’s.”
But today, on this windswept Island in the Hebrides of Scotland’s western coast with John Philip and Ali Newell and a few others, my job is to begin to ask who that “me” is now? To give up the notion that it is anyone’s job to protect me. Only I can do that while God wades in with me – never out of sight. God is not a good-luck charm, but God is never very far away and will give us what we need.
Some are parents whose children have left for new lives. Some are clergy facing transitions, some are teachers retiring into new freedoms, some are couples reinventing their marriages. There are aprons, cassocks, tweeds and corsets which need to be thanked but then set, gently, aside open to a new life. Today’s question is this: What tired costume can be gently removed, lovingly folded, and set aside on a lonely rock by some thistle and near some buttercups, so that this pilgrimage, this week, can be walked without constriction, midwifing a new “me” and a new “you”?