From Tourists to Pilgrims: A Sacred Way in a Profane World (by Patrick Calvo)
“In everything the purpose must weigh with the folly.”
Shakespeare: Henry IV, Part II, ii. (Quoted on the first page of The Point of View for My Work as an Author, published after Soren Kierkegaard’s death by Peter Kierkegaard)
“Actually, I’m a Christian . . . so that I do not expect “history” to be anything but a long defeat – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”
There is a growing interest in Medieval Christianity today. Thinking Evangelicals are attempting to anchor their psyches somewhere within the tremendous instability of our deconstructing age at the tail end of Modernity where: ‘The Center cannot hold’ and ‘everything solid melts into air.’ Many of us longingly look back to the sacred canopy of pre-modern times, before the wonder and mystery of the sacred was stripped from the ugly profane world we now dwell within.
Consequently, the symbol of the pilgrim and the pilgrimage is one of the great themes of pre-Modern faith that both attracts and puzzles me. At one time in my life I imagined a large part of being a pilgrim in Modern times was merely to reject secular culture and consciousness. However, as much as I tried to make this happen, I discovered I could not simplistically return to a re-enchanted, sacred, pre-modern consciousness (as if this were ever a viable or even a preferable option). I have abandoned this quest as impossible and naïve; for I have no other choice but to dwell in my modern predicament as a fish dwells in the ocean academics label Post-Modernity (among other things).
We have been turned on to the Modern World. Like Jimi Hendrix and his acid trips of the Sixties, we are ‘experienced’ and cannot return. Just like Dorothy will never be quite the same after her techno-color trip to Oz. For I am creature of clay feet providentially embedded in such a time as this. To reject Modern culture wholesale is impossible, for I live and breathe in its atmosphere. And to try to live within another time is to some extent a rejection of where God has placed me.
On the contrary, I must instead realize the folly of embracing either proposition (Modern or Pre-modern) and learn rather to live beyond both, dialectically in an ongoing corrective conversation across the ages, bathed in the transcendent Living Word with the both the Communion of Saints as well as the company of sinners alike: just as the rain falls on both the just and unjust, and every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess. Rain slakes the saint and sinner alike in the same way both saints and sinners are blessed to bow and confess to the Glory of God that Jesus Christ is Lord.
As a pilgrim, I do not have the luxury of travelling in a straight predetermined line on a flat plane in a bullet train. A detached tourist does not invest his/her life like the way of a pilgrim, for the tourist mode of being cannot access the personal knowledge that a pilgrim seeks.
As a pilgrim, I have no interest in touring the Holy land in an air-conditioned coach on a six lane highway, buying kitschy mass produced souvenirs along the way. On the contrary, we strike out on an arduous and circuitous pedestrian journey, scrambling upon uneven footpaths of rock and root, taking the less travelled way with wild and wonderful surprises ahead.
In Medieval times most peasants would only set out on a pilgrimage in a spirit of compunction and repentance, longing for a restoring vision of God; for many dangers lay along the way beyond their familiar provincial world of provision and protection.
To entrenched pragmatic observers, a pilgrim appears to be merely an idealistic and foolish wanderer like Don Quixote jousting with windmills; or better yet for our times, Monty Python’s silly medieval King Arthur searching for a meaningless holy grail in full view of a post-modern audience. Our world has no time for one who is so heavenly minded he’s no earthly good. We often bemoan such people as lacking common sense. But so often the problem with common sense lies in that it is only what is common to man’s senses! Nonetheless, from a transcendent perspective that only faith can provide, common sense can merely mask a Machiavellian natural human knowledge, unenlightened and emptied of any divine revelation. In the same way a Rationalist may say that only detached empirical human reason is the only authentic source of knowing, and all religious thought is irrational. But the pilgrim’s way of faith is not really irrational, but a-rational (beyond rational). Or better yet we could say the way is supra-rational (above mere anemic human cognitive abilities).
And so it can be said that a pilgrimage is not all about the systematic efficiencies of managing a tremendous task. Nor is a pilgrimage all about attaining a great goal with precise technique, arriving at a final pragmatic solution, for that is the way of the Modern world. The true nature of a pilgrimage is motivated by a paucity of spirit and a profound need. The way is rich with mystery and providence as we consider the lilies of the field and sparrows of the air. We are not slavishly copying a famous master out of a stultifying ‘paint by numbers’ box. Rather, as pilgrims we abandon all in hopeful desperation that the Spirit will spontaneously create a masterpiece in the midst of our journey; for a pilgrimage is more about transformation and communion along the way rather than efficiently rushing to completion of a pre-packaged program.
It was the Chief surgeon making his hospital rounds with his new interns who cautioned: “We must slow down, for we have no time to waste.” It is much less about what I want to do and so much more about who I must become. As a homeless wanderer I am truly self-deceived if I really think I could ever know the way armed merely with my own academic acumen, or my frenetic activism, or my stoic bravado, or my modern clinical techniques. How can a camel pass through the eye of a needle? On the contrary, to progressively and intimately know Christ is to know the way.
Things often are not what they first appear to be. My prayer is that as a pilgrim on a sacred journey one becomes so heavenly minded all s/he does is earthly good. A lonely wanderer is homeless without hope and without vision, while a pilgrim possesses a tangible hope of glory, seeking only the beatific vision of Christ face to face for the sake of His own great worth.
Let us walk like Abraham the Father of our faith who left all things familiar to follow God across the wilderness. The very nature of the pilgrim’s journey hastens my feet to fall step by step beyond the pale of my known provincial life, beyond my familiar town and farthest field into what, God only knows. . . . . .
Patrick Calvo is a husband, father, gardener, and closet writer who lives in Snohomish, Washington. You can follow his blog at www.dialogpc.blogspot.com.