The Business (or Pleasure) of Pilgrimage

“We are all of us seeking a homeland, dear,
even though we have only seen and embraced it from afar.
We are all of us strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”
Frederick Buechner

“Business or Pleasure?”

It was what acquaintances asked when I mentioned I’d be out of touch for a few weeks while traveling in eastern Europe.

It was what the sales associate asked me when I bought my electrical adapter and extra camera memory card.

It was what the teller at the bank asked me when I told her to mark my account as going overseas.

“Business or pleasure?”

It’s such a cliché and profound question at the same time. They’re asking because I’m going to an uncommon and surprising destination (the bank teller made me write “Transylvania” on a piece of paper for her before she believed what I was saying), and they’re asking because it’s what you ask when someone says they’re traveling.

But it’s also a deep and compelling question to ask someone: What is the purpose of your traveling? Why do you think you’re going to this place?

Really, I was never entirely sure how to answer that fateful question accurately. Because the categories of business versus pleasure aren’t enough of a distinction to encompass this trip.

Strangers and Pilgrims on the Earth

I’m going on pilgrimage, to a little town in central Romania, to visit strangers who are long-time friends of my church community.

I’m going because I’m on the church staff, and my presence underscores the importance of the partnership for us. I’m going because I was asked to go as part of my job. I’m also going because I very much want to meet these resilient, colorful people whom — until now — I have only known from afar.

Pilgrimage is more than pleasure: it is certainly the answer to what Frederick Buechner calls the “summons” of mystery in human experience. It is also more than business: this is a sharing of communities, not a transaction.

When I arrive in Transylvania tomorrow, I will be at the mercy of my hosts, who I’m sure will welcome me to their tables, their homes. Though we don’t share language, we share a commitment to honoring the places of their Hungarian heritage. Though we don’t share a culture, we share the roots of religious tradition, and those are deep roots indeed.

The complexities of kind of this kind of trip is not particularly easy to explain to acquaintances, bank tellers, and sales associates, so I tell them I am traveling for both business and pleasure.

Really, though, what I mean is that I’m traveling for more than business and pleasure.

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The God who is already here

Neighborhood Cat

Why do we rush about looking for God
who is here, at home with us,
if all we want to do is be with God?
(Augustine, On the Trinity VIII)

“Ah, you again…”

I’ve always had a favorite neighborhood cat, everywhere I’ve lived. In central Berkeley, it was this tiny, round, soft-furred little delight with the sweetest little ears. Her name, according to her collar, was Donut. In my current neighborhood, my favorite cat is Matches, whose coat is the perfect mixture of tawny, brown, and white, and whose friendly demeanor charms me every time I encounter him.

I never know exactly which house the neighborhood cat lives in, or who owns it. I just know that, again and again, often when I’ve forgotten to expect it, I run into this familiar feature of my street.

The most staying spiritual lessons of my faith journey are often like those neighborhood cats. They’re special to me, and I like them, and they seem to have this nagging ability to keep showing up. I can’t say I completely understand where they come from, but I’m well acquainted with their repeat appearances: “Ah, you again…”

Don’t look for it outside yourself

Lately, I have been running into this particular cat quite frequently: God is already present with me, closer than my own breath.

I encounter this lesson when I sit in silence at the end of the day and notice a gnawing feeling of separation from God. My soul can get hurried — “Where are you?! Where are you?!” — and then I remember that God’s presence is immovable: it is only my perception of it that waxes and wanes.

I encounter this lesson when I am surprised by the beauty of creation and realize I have somehow forgotten that “every common bush is afire with God,” that every moment is ripe with invitations to come home.

I encounter this lesson when I listen to others speak about their faith journeys: it is a gift to sit on the outside and see the weaving threads of divinity moving in and out of another’s life, even when they’re not able to see it themselves.

The mystic poet Rumi writes:

Wait for the illuminating openness,
as though your chest were filling with Light,
as when God said, Did we not expand you?
Don’t look for it outside yourself…
Beg for that love expansion. Meditate only on that.
(from “A Basket of Fresh Bread”)

Don’t look for the illuminating openness outside yourself. Don’t rush heedlessly through life looking for the God who is already here.

For me, for now, this cat just won’t stop following me home. And thank goodness for that.

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Loss & Despair on the Road to Emmaus

I’m reading the story of the walk to Emmaus over and over this week because sometimes the lectionary is a signpost that helps me remember the way I have come, that helps me find my way home again. Every time we cycle around to this story of Jesus strangely appearing to his friends on the road, I feel its fragmented in-betweeness, its unexplained mystery and desperate confusion.

It resonates for me because this is a story of loss and despair.

When Jesus comes upon the disciples, they are “standing still and looking sad,” and, though he already knows their hearts, he still asks them to share with him: What grieves you so?

The disciples ache for the friend and leader they have lost, so much that they can’t even perceive him as he walks among them. Hours pass as they tell and re-tell the story of their community splintering apart at his death. They don’t understand what has happened, and they’ve given up.

We had hoped, they tell this stranger. We had hoped that this man Jesus would save us, but we hope no longer. Everything is over now.

Of course, they’re wrong.

Everything is not over. Their hearts will “burn within them” as they look back on this day and realize they have spent it looking into the face of what they desire most, yet missing it all along.

But I love this story for that, for not passing over the heavy grief and hopeless sadness of the community that experienced Jesus’ death. They don’t just get to skip to the certainty of a risen Jesus: first they have to deal with the confusion of an empty tomb.

I’m glad this part of the story gets told because otherwise we’d be missing a critical piece of the narrative. Scripture is sacred to me because it gives words to the stories I already know as true in my own life, and this story is one that rings deeply inside of me.

Sometimes we are so shaken by the storms of life that we can do nothing more than stand still and look sad in the midst of it all.

Sometimes we are so blinded by grief that we cannot manage to hope for a future, even if that future has come to walk beside us and listen to our story.

Sometimes our hearts burn, so full do they become of that strange mixture of clarity and absurdity that comes from trying to process an experience of tragedy.

And always, no matter what, we have the opportunity to take the walk, however long, to Emmaus together.

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What stories of scripture are resonating in your life right now? How do you see your community responding to its experiences of grief or loss? Who walks to Emmaus with you?

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Filed under Lectionary Reflections, My Faith Journey