Abraham and Sarah figure into two of the readings this morning. The Letter to the Hebrews gives a short-hand account of their story. It emphasizes the fact that Abraham and Sarah were on a journey.
By faith Abraham [and Sarah] obeyed when [they were] called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and [they] set out.
Life as a “journey,” even the Christian life as a “journey,” is a popular metaphor. Bishop McKelvey used to add to the invitation from the Prayer Book, “The gifts of God for the people of God.” He used to add, “Food for the journey.”
There is a synonym for “journey” that has often been used by Christians and those of other faith traditions. That word is “pilgrimage.” Some would say that a pilgrimage is a “sacred journey,” but I would be careful saying that lest it sound as if it is the kind of thing that is out of reach for a “normal” person. Pilgrimages are, in fact, precisely for “normal” people.
The English word “pilgrim” has its roots in the Latin word peregrinum, meaning “a stranger,” that is, one who comes from a foreign place. It eventually came to mean simply a traveler, especially one who was traveling to a holy place as part of a religious quest.
What makes a journey a pilgrimage? I think four things.
First, there is a sense of calling or biddeness. Striking out on a pilgrimage is not simply an act of your own will. Faith is required, and obedience, which is to say listening and following. The story of Abraham and Sarah is certainly a story that emphasizes this.
Second, one goes on pilgrimage with the attitude of a stranger. Which is to say that one goes on pilgrimage knowing one is walking into mystery. No one goes on pilgrimage thinking they know everything there is to know about the place to which they are going, or what is going to happen to them there. The writer to the Hebrews says of our ancestors in faith that “they confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth.”
Third, pilgrimages do not remove one from life. If anything, they intensify it. They are frequently joyous and freeing experiences, but like many journeys they are also perilous. There is great risk involved. Sometimes pilgrimages can be great trials.
Last, the most important thing about a pilgrimage is the vision out of which it arises, and that vision remains the most important thing during the pilgrimage and it is the most important thing left when the pilgrimage is over. The vision may seem to disappear during the pilgrimage, or it may at least greatly dim, but the pilgrim must keep awake and watchful and expectant, as Jesus urges us to be this morning, so that we can at least see it “from a distance,” as the writer to the Hebrews puts it.
Part of our job as Christians, I think, is to transform our life’s journey into a pilgrimage. For this to be true we need to open ourselves to several things: a developing vision of life, an attentiveness to the calling of God, the willingness to be a stranger and a risk-taker.
If pilgrimages are “sacred journeys” they are that in order to help us make all journeying sacred. If one takes a pilgrimage to some holy place, it is not so much to have a special, one time experience. It is to make all places and all experiences holy.
Our Celtic ancestors in the British Isles talked about “thin places.” By that term they meant places where the boundary between heaven and earth was thin, where one was likely to get a glimpse of that “better country” of which the writer to the Hebrews speaks. I was at one of those places during my sabbatical—an island off the west coast of Scotland called Iona. It is where a man called Columba came from his native Ireland to establish a community of prayer and mission from which missionaries would be sent to Scotland and beyond.
I had anticipated going to Iona for a long time and my expectations were high. Over the years I’ve talked with many people who have been there, all of whom have raved about it. On the bus traveling there from Glasgow, the guide for the group with whom I was traveling only increased my expectation. He told us to expect something to happen to us. We would receive a blessing on Iona.
For some reason, looking across the water from the Isle of Mull to Iona, my rational, skeptical side kicked in. I said to myself, somewhat disappointed, “But it’s only an island.” And that sort of dominated my thinking the first few days I was there. I was having a pleasant enough time, but nothing felt particularly special.
On the island there is a retreat center of sorts run by the Episcopal Church of Scotland. Our group was not “Episcopal” per se and we didn’t have anything to do with the Episcopal Center. But by the Sunday I was there, which was my fifth day on the island, I was starving for Eucharist in my own tradition. So I “snuck off” to the 8 o’clock Eucharist at the Center. When I arrived I discovered that one of my fellow pilgrims was there as well.
I said to her as we were leaving after the Service, “Well that was delightfully normal.” And then it hit me, the blessing I was to receive on Iona. It was that “normal” is where to find the blessing. I had come to that “thin place” to be reminded that all places are thin. All places are thin because Jesus is present in all places and he is the ultimately thin person—where humanity and divinity met and meets still.
Once I had understood that, then all kinds of things started happening to me. My last two days on the island were rich. Even a chicken was God’s messenger to me at one point, a story I’l save for another time.
I was reminded of a favorite poem, whose author I do not know. I’ll close with it.
I will seek no longer for the burning bush;
All bushes are ablaze.
And I will not hasten to depart
From daily grief and gladness
To climb a holy mountain;
Every mountain now is sacred,
Each marketplace, and every home,
All, all are blessed
Since God has pitched a tent among us.
Now on earth are to be found
The footprints of the word made flesh
Who walked with us in wind and rain
And under sun and stars,
In joy and sorrow,
Born of Mary, watched over by Joseph,
Eating and drinking, living and loving.
Dying yet living, the Word is made flesh
And all the earth,
And each of us,
Is holy ground
Where we must slip our sandals off
And walk softly, filled with wonder.