“Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.”
— Rabbi Abraham Heschel
Who are we and why are we the way we are? I surmise that our identities are fashioned by those people and places that have combined to give us our values and thus our identity. Some of these were given us (family, country of origin) and some we acquired on our own (friends, college, job, travels, spouse). It’s true of organizations as well. The church I pastor is a progressive church because of our location (in Elmira, a central conduit of the Underground Railroad) and the people who filled its pews and pulpits in the past. With different people in a different setting, The Park Church might not have emerged as a national landmark and leader in justice issues.
But too often we take these values as defaults without exploring, questioning, discarding, or celebrating them. The result is that we live on autopilot without exercising much control over our destinies. It was for this reason that God (or, if you prefer, the earliest wisdom teachers who collected their culture’s wisdom in the form of the great religious texts) developed the idea of Sabbath, the seventh day of the week during which God rested and instructed us to do the same. This kind of holy rest is not vegging out at the beach or hanging out with friends; it is a deliberate time set aside to reconnect with the best of ourselves and reclaim our identity as beings made in the image of God.
In exploring our identity and values, we also need to consider the role of faith, which is too often confused with belief or contaminated by heaven-or-hell pronouncements of the institutional church. This ignores the fact that doubt is to faith as dissent is to democracy – you can’t have the latter without the former or it’s sham. We meet fundamentalist Christians – or Muslims or belligerent atheists or anyone else with simplistic truth-and-falsehood, good-and-bad, heaven-and-hell explanations of God – and they just don’t seem … real. Rigidly held beliefs are so antithetical to the human experience that it’s hard to take them seriously; faith is not authentic if there isn’t some doubt at its core.
A wise elder shared an important insight about twenty years ago when I was tormented by whether or not to go into ministry. My head said this religious stuff was just phooey, but my heart was telling me that the call and the joy, however inexplicable, were real. On a spiritual retreat, I met with the resident priest, explaining that I was spiritually bipolar; my head and heart were in constant tension. After listening to my plight, he leaned back in his chair, smiled, and said, “It’s not your head and your heart at war; it’s that you – like everyone else in the world – is on the seesaw between mystic and cynic. Mysticism, however tenuous and inexplicable, brings joy, whereas cynicism is deadening. You’re a mystic trying to follow the rationalist explanations of the modern world, and you’ll never find peace until you honor the validity of the experienced God as the source of peace since the beginning of time. Remember, that’s why we call it ‘the peace that passes all understanding.’”
In short, faith can never be understood or explained scientifically. But there is the very real experience of connection with something outside of us that brings joy, peace, and energy. It is not rational or irrational; it is extra-rational. It is of the heart, not the head.
Events that take us to a new understanding of God and ourselves are not reserved for holy nutcases. On the contrary, several recent studies have reported that fully half of all Americans have had a life-changing religious experience at least once in their lives. In other countries, the percentage is even higher. As a rule, mystical experiences seem to be like grace, an unbidden gift from above. But there are definitely things we can do to connect with the divine.
One of these is a pilgrimage. The ancient Jews were expected to go to Jerusalem three times a year – for Passover, Shavuot (or Pentecost), and Sukkot. To this day, Muslims are required to travel to Mecca at least once in their lives. In our Christian history, those of us of European ancestry will think of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and the Pilgrims on the Mayflower – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Pilgrimage has been a major component of all the major faiths since the beginning of time – either mandated by the religious texts or encouraged by the culture.
Dear readers, have any of you ever gone on a pilgrimage? If so, what prompted you and what did you get out of it? Friends of mine who have undertaken a formal pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Mecca or along the Camino de Santiago or to the places of their ancestors typically return with a clearer understanding of their own identity and purpose in life. They return with a sense of the peace that passes all understanding.
As I begin my sabbatical with pilgrimages to Iona, Lindisfarne, and a collection of ancestral sites, I welcome your insights and prayers, for truly a pilgrimage is embodied faith: the work of the heart and the journey to discern our identity as children of a loving God.
Blessings on the journey!