Pilgrimage and Art

As someone who lived and ministered at a retreat house and led pilgrimages to the Holy Land, I know that journeys can change our life circumstances and us. Men and women journeyed from near and far to the retreat house; and I have journeyed to destinations near and far with common folks like myself to encounter God in a unique way and be changed by it.

As a matter of fact, pilgrimage has been one of the most important means by which God has performed His work of salvation in the lives of ALL of us. Yes, we are ALL, aware or unaware, recipients of the saving benefits of pilgrimage. Some pilgrimages take us half way around the world and some into the next room. Here is a wonderful reflection by Lisa Deam, that focuses on art as one of the means by which we can pursue this transformative discipline.

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The Journey of Trust and Desire

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

Articulation and Experience — Palm Sunday

Today is the day on which we celebrate pilgrimage. In the gospel texts that articulate the events of this day, we witness not only the intersection of a huge variety of journeys but the culmination of them.

They reach their various destinations. Ironically, the journeys and the people on them all end up at the same place. And this is the case even though the journeyers view, the place – destination – in dramatically different ways. They all believe this is the place where what they desire will be accomplished. Same destination but with different goals. How could we have different goals but all end up in the same place?! (I invite you to consider that notion deeply. Indeed, this dynamic is sooo much of our everyday life in relationship with others.)

I have shared my struggle to put words on the experienced reality of my life with and in Christ Jesus.

I have spoken of it as:

  • a journey/pilgrimage
  • an unfolding
  • about identity before it is about behavior
  • a labyrinth
  • a pulsating point (thank you Fr. Serafim)

As a result of spending time with a dear friend over the course of a weekend of retreat, we spoke of the need to articulate authentic experience. The need to put into words what has, is, and will occur.

He sent this quote to me. It is a beautiful articulation of the faithful struggle that is our life in Christ Jesus.

If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line—starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven.  Or you could take the King’s Highway past appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City.  But that is not the way I have done it, so far.  I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked.  Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circle or a doubling back.  I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times.  I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order.  The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back.  Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there.  I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises.  Often I have received better than I have deserved.  Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes.  I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley.  And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led—make of that what you will. Wendell Berry, Jaber Crow, p. 133.

Soooo Much Always “On the Way”

I am a pilgrim on “The Way.” I am a fellow combatant in the arena of salvation. I bring nothing to the table, so to speak except my fragile “yes”. “… by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.” I am no more than a faithful struggler but I am at that at least. I am a son of God and an inheritor of the riches of God my Father, by grace. I am learning what that identity means and to live out that identity in relationship with all things.

I find that the most powerful resource in this journey is not, primarily, the consideration of what I have attained but what is yet to be attained. Not how far I have come but how far I have to go. The inklings of what has been accomplished and how far I have come are for the purpose of “pressing on” in the creative work of God – the artistry of God.

The more I consider myself and my life in Christ in these terms the more I can hear the Lord’s voice and the the Lord can speak and act through me.

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9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

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The higher holy men advance with God, in the dignity of virtues, the more accurately do they discover that they are unworthy; because while they become close to the light, they find out whatever escaped their notice in themselves, and they appear to themselves the more deformed without, in proportion as that is very beautiful, which they see within. For every one is made known to himself, when he is illumined with the touch of the true light, and by the same means as he learns what is righteousness, he is also instructed to see what is sin. Hence is it that though our mind is often benumbed with cold in converse with men’s doings, though it sins and is ignorant in some points, though it regards some sins as though they were none; yet when it raises itself by the compunction of prayer to aim at things above, having been roused by the eye of its compunction, it returns to observe itself with greater vigilance after its tears. For when it deserts itself in neglect, and is torpid with fatal lukewarmness, it fully believes that idle words or unprofitable thoughts are of lesser guilt. But if warmed by the fire of compunction, and touched by the sudden breath of contemplation, it starts from its lukewarmness, it soon begins to dread, as grave and deadly offences, those things which but a little before it believed to be trifling. For it avoids, as most atrocious, all things which are in the very least degree hurtful; because, namely, being pregnant with the conception of the Spirit, it no longer allows any vanities to enter in unto it. For from that which it beholds within, it feels how dreadful are those sins which clamour without; and the more it has advanced when raised up, the more does it shrink from the grovelling pursuits, in which it sank prostrate. For nothing in truth supports it, but that which it has beheld within, and it endures the more heavily whatever thrusts itself on it from without, the more it is not that which it beheld within; but from those inward objects which it has been able to catch a glance of, it forms a standard for judging of those outward things which it has to bear with. For it is rapt above itself, when it contemplates sublime objects, and now beholding itself, by going out of itself more freely, it comprehends more minutely whatever remains to it, of itself, under itself. By which means it is wonderfully brought to pass, as was before said, that it appears the more unworthy to itself, by the very means by which it is rendered more worthy; and that it then feels itself far removed from uprightness, when it is approaching near it. Whence Solomon says, Ihave tried all things by wisdom, and said, I will become wise, and it departed the farther from me. [Eccles. 7, 23] For wisdom which is sought after is said to depart far off, because it seems higher to a person approaching it. But those who do not seek it, think themselves the nearer it, the more they know not also its standard of uprightness; because, living in darkness, they know not how to admire the brightness of the light, which they have never seen, and since they do not tend towards the comeliness of its beauty, they willingly become more deformed every day in themselves. For whoever is touched by its rays, his deformity is more manifestly pointed out to him, and he finds the more truly how much he is distorted in sin, the more keenly, from considering the highest objects, he beholds how far distant he is from uprightness. Source: “An Exposition on the Book of Blessed Job,” Book XXXII, Section 1, by St. Gregory the Great

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I have only just begun to comprehend the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I come to “know and to live” through my experience of repentance. Revelation or illumination is the prerequisite and fruit of repentance. By them, deification occurs. This is the journeying experience of salvation.

In actuality, every time I hear someone truly articulate it or display it, it is as if I am hearing it for the first time. Its freshness and soul boggling infinity of depth, width, and height brings tears to my eyes and opens up an infinite spaciousness and infinitely fullness of spaciousness with me all over again, and it moves me again as if for the first time. I enjoy a contentment and security and “wellness” (Julian of Norwich) that wells up from down deep. Simultaneously, all of this is not just issuing forth from within me but pressing on and into me from all sides as well.

And, I realize anew that am more able to talk about the faith than I am able to actually live it. I yearn afresh for the consummation of my own personhood, everyone else’s, and the renewal of the whole creation. Lord, have mercy.

The promise of more of the fullness and consummation of the love of God I know now, draws me forward. I am amazed, astounded, and so captivated by the grace of God.

Prayer: Lord God, the sacrifices acceptable to You are a broken and a contrite heart. In these O God, You delight. Grant me to be intensely aware of your mercy and deliver me from being conscious of my own righteousness. Glory be to God now and ever and to ages of ages. Amen.

The Doors/Gates of the Pilgrimage of Salvation

Journey is essential to the saving work of God in time and space. Lent is a multifaceted journey. More aptly put, it is a journey of and into the paradox – the Mystery – of our salvation. Into Christ.

  • From and to.
  • Out of and into and deeper into.
  • Through
  • Renunciation and affirmation.
  • Relinquishing and taking up.
  • Lamentation and rejoicing.
  • Loss and gain.
  • Death and life.

It is a journey from death to life; from chaos to order. A journey requiring discipline, vigilance, and perseverance. And these the outpouring of the grace of the Holy Spirit when we have come to the end of being able to do them ourselves. (Hint: Lent is not about us “being successful.” It is about humility.)

During Vespers on Saturday evening before the Sunday of Forgiveness, we heard these words:

“The arena of the virtues has been opened.
Let all who wish to struggle for the prize now enter,
girding themselves for the noble contest of the Fast;
for those that strive lawfully are justly crowned.”

And yet again, at a latter point, these words:

“Adam was driven out of Paradise,
because in disobedience he had eaten food;
but Moses was granted the vision of God,
because he had cleansed the eyes of his soul by fasting.
If then we long to dwell in Paradise,
let us abstain from all needless food;
and if we desire to see God,
let us like Moses fast for forty days…
The time is now at hand for us to start upon the spiritual contest
and to gain the victory over the demonic powers.”

During the Rite of Forgiveness at Forgiveness Sunday Vespers we heard these words:

“Let us humble the flesh by abstinence:
As we follow the divine path of pure fasting…
That passing through the Fast as through a great sea
we may reach the Resurrection on the Third Day,
of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of our souls.”

Again and again, we hear and speak the language of journey. The journey of salvation.

Another aspect of this journey are the gates/doors we encounter. Scripture is filled with the image of gates and doors. They are essential to the message of salvation. I encourage you to do a word study of the passages. I is a fruitful study.

In the liturgical heritage of the Church, these door/gates are reiterated. The gates of repentance and paradise.

“Open unto me, O Giver of Life, the gates of repentance: for early in the morning my spirit seeks Thy holy temple, bearing a temple of the body all defiled. But in Thy compassion cleanse it by Thy loving-kindness and Thy mercy.”

and

“O precious Paradise, unsurpassed in beauty, tabernacle built by God, unending gladness and delight, glory of the righteous, joy of the prophets, and dwelling of the saints, with the sound of thy leaves pray to the Maker of all: may He open unto me the gates which I closed by my transgression, and may He count me worthy to partake of the Tree of Life and of the joy which was mine when I dwelt in thee before.”

As we pass through the gates of repentance let us set our face toward the gates of paradise. Indeed, let us realize, along the way in a refreshed manner during these forty days, that the two gates are actually two different encounters with the same gate/door the door of salvation which is Christ Jesus crucified and raised.

Note: All quotes are from , The Lenten Triodion, Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, trs.(London 1978).

Are We There Yet?! – 2

Words like patience, forbearance, forgiveness, self-control, hope, perseverance, joy, faith, peace, and others, have meaning when lived in the conviction that God’s straight line is experienced by us as a crooked line. These words and the meaning they hold are essential if we are to journey the mysteriously spacious, life-giving, straight and narrow Way of Christ.

The more we embrace and co-operate with the purifying, illuminating, and deifying work of the Holy Spirit, the more every one of these realities is fulfilled in us and through us. For me, and I surmise for most, this is realized only in retrospect (if at all !). The more we are more able, in the present moment, to reckon the crooked way of our experience as truly the good and perfect straight Way of the Lord. For this is, I conceive, what it means to have and live the mind of Christ.

Are We There Yet?!

The most life-creating, life-giving distance between two points (however those points are to be characterized) is the shortest, most direct distance. It is the distance to be preferred above all others, chosen, and travelled no matter how circuitous.

Maintain Inner Peace — Simple? Simple!

My spiritual father has taught me: “do not resent, do not react, maintain inner stillness.” It is that simple. I know it to be true intellectually, but I have yet to have it be what I live unceasingly. It is what I live in my “best moments.” (Emphasis on moments.) It is the difference between knowing something and living something. I believe that is the real definition of wisdom. Wisdom is the way of lived truth in union with God and others. Wisdom is the lifetime journey toward and in this Lived Truth. I am reminded of St. Teresa’s counsel…

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.
— St. Teresa of Avila

And so I journey on The Way of The Truth, yearning for the living of that which I already possess, The Life. Lord, have mercy — Grant it, O Lord.

The Kingdom Road Trip or “Lets Go Riding in the Car Car”

When the Lord invites us to follow Him, he gives us the grace to put aside everything that might keep us from doing His will. That provision sets us free. And yet, there are dangers that go along with being “free in Christ.” The celebration and love of our own life as an outrageous gift from God is one of those areas of danger.  But, how odd. The gift of our own life can become that which robs us of the very same life. So, we must be discerning, lest the very gifts of God become the means for our relationship with him going awry as a result of our freedom in the Lord.

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Galatians 5.1, 13-15

[1] For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
[13] For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.
[14] For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
[15] But if you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another.

John 12.23-28

[23] And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified.
[24] Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
[25] He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
[26] If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him.
[27] “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? `Father, save me from this hour’? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour.
[28] Father, glorify thy name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

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“The Death of the Saints is New Birth”

The body of man is a very frail thing. Sickness may consume it, wild beasts may devour it, the fire may burn it, the water may drown it, the air may infect it, a snare may choke it, the pricking of a pin may destroy it. Therefore when our temporal life shall end, we cannot tell.

The principal cause why we know not the time of death, is even the grace of God; to the intent that we by no occasion should linger the amendment of our lives until age, miles coverdalebut alway fear God, as though we should die tomorrow.

If an old silver goblet be melted, and be new fashioned after a beautiful manner, then is it better than afore, and neither split nor destroyed. Even so have we no just cause to complain of death, whereby the body being delivered from all filthiness, shall in his due time be perfectly renewed.

The egg shell, though it be goodly and fair-fashioned, must be opened and broken, that the young chick may slip out of it. None otherwise doth death dissolve and break up our body, but to the intent that we may attain the life of heaven.

The mother’s womb carrieth the child seven or nine months, and prepareth it, not for itself, but for the world wherein we are born. Even so this present time over all upon earth serveth not to this end, that we must ever be here, but that we should be brought forth and born out of the body of the world into another and everlasting life. Hereunto behold the words of Christ: ‘A woman when she travaileth, hath sorrow because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world.’ Namely, like as a child out of the small habitation of his mother’s womb, with danger and anguish is born into this wide world; even so goeth a man through the narrow gate of death with distress and trouble out of the earth into the heavenly life.

For this cause did the old Christians call the death of the saints a new birth. Therefore ought we to note well this comfort, that to die is not to perish, but to be first of all born aright. Robert Atwell, Celebrating the Seasons. Excerpt from “A Treatise on Death,” by Miles Coverdale, (1488 – 1569).

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“I will follow you wherever you go”

“’Give me more light as evening falls.’ O Lord, we are now in the evening of our life. I am in my seventy-sixth year. Life is a great gift from our heavenly Father. Three-quarters of my contemporaries have passed over to the far shore. So I too must always be ready for the great moment. The thought of death does not alarm me… My health is excellent and still robust, but I cannot count on it. I want to hold myself ready to reply “adsum” at any, even the most unexpected moment. Old age, likewise a great gift John XXIIIof the Lord’s, must be for me a source of tranquil inner joy, and a reason for trusting day by day in the Lord himself, to whom I am now turned as a child turns to his father’s open arms.

My poor life, now such a long one, has unwound itself as easily as a ball of string, under the sign of simplicity and purity. It costs me nothing to acknowledge and repeat that I am nothing and worth precisely nothing. The Lord caused me to be born of poor folk, and he has seen to all my needs. I have left it to him… Truly, “the will of God is my peace” (Dante Alighieri). And my hope is all in Jesus’ mercy…

I think the Lord Jesus has in store for me, before I die, for my complete mortification and purification and in order to admit me to his everlasting joy, some great suffering and affliction of body and spirit. Well, I accept everything and with all my heart, if it is for his glory and the good of my soul and for the souls of my dear spiritual children. I fear my weakness in bearing pain; I implore him to help me, for I have little faith in myself, but complete faith in the Lord Jesus.

There are two gates to paradise: innocence and penance. Which of us, poor frail creatures, can expect to find the first of these wide open? But we may be sure of the other: Jesus passed through it, bearing his Cross in atonement for our sins, and he invites us to follow him.” Blessed John XXIII (1881-1963), pope, “Journal of a Soul,” June 1957.

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“O Holy One, give the spirit power to climb to the fountain of all light, and be purified.  Break through the mists of the earth, the weight of the clod, shine forth in splendor, thou that art calm weather, and quiet resting place for faithful souls.  To see thee is the end and the beginning, thou carriest us, and thou dost go before, thou art the journey, and the journey’s end.” Boethius (c. 480-525)

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When I was a child, my parents and godparents used to pile into the car, during the summer, and go for a Sunday drive. We would spend the afternoon picking blackberries and walking in the piney woods. There is a song I learned in elementary school that seems appropriate to add at this point. Here is a portion of it.

Brrrm brm brm brm brm brm brm, brrrm b’ brrrm,
Brrrm brm brm brm brm brm brrrm b’ brrrm,
Brrrm brm brm brm brm brm brrrm b’ brrrm.
Brrrm brm brm brm brm brm brrrm.

Take me riding in the car, car;
Take me riding in the car, car;
Take you riding in the car, car;
I’ll take you riding in my car.

I’m a gonna send you home again;
I’m a gonna send you home again;
Boom, boom, buhbuh boom, rolling home,
Take you riding in my car.

I’m a gonna let You blow the horn;
I’m a gonna let you blow the horn;
A oorah, a oorah, a oogah, oogah,
I’ll take you riding in my car.
“Riding in My Car, by Woody Guthrie

It was during those Sunday afternoon rides along the roads of East Texas that I learned the practical meaning of the Scriptural readings I had heard that morning during Holy Communion. I heard what it meant to faithfully struggle in the midst of everyday life to “go the distance” and “keep the faith” and “finish the race” from men and women who had lived the Great Depression and World War II. We have our struggles too. They are just as significant and provide the opportunity to fashion us into what it means to be an everyday saint.

We human beings are a pretty dynamic bunch. We have the capacity to exhibit incredible “durability and flexibility.” We can adjust and maintain our emotional balance in the midst ofokies seemingly impossible circumstances. I have seen stories of stamina, perseverance, resourcefulness, and hope. People who have lost their whole family in a heartbeat are, mysteriously, able to reach out to others who have lost less providing strength and hope for those who have none.

And yet, at the same time, we are incredibly “fragile and delicate.” In the midst of the fairly mundane and ordinary events of everyday life, let alone the major disasters, we find ourselves on the ragged edge in each and every moment, unable to take another step.

We cannot successfully “go it alone”. We need to let God and others care for us and we need to be one of those whom God chooses to enlist to care for another who also needs someone.

We are strong. We are weak. Not one or the other, but both. We have the ability to be both strong and weak at the same time! That is our blessing and it is, potentially, our curse. Human life is, therefore, a risky business. Of course, we are not sand dunes. We have the added dynamic character of being able to choose to be strong when it is called for in the face of our own weakness and weak in appropriate ways so that, by the grace of God, we might finish the race that is set before us.

Lets answer the invitation Jesus offers to go for a ride in His car car…

The Region of Theophany

As we continue our transformative pilgrimage through the province of Christmas toward the province of Theophany, let us hearken to the universal characteristics of the land in which we journey – the Kingdom of God (the land of our pilgrimssalvation).  I have underlined the themes I noted as I reflected on it during my quiet time this morning. Perhaps you will be blessed by what I have noted.

Fr. Thomas

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From a homily by St. Basil the Great

God on earth, God among us! No longer the God who gives his law amid flashes of lightning, to the sound of the trumpet on the smoking mountain, within the darkness of a terrifying storm, but the God who speaks gently and with kindness in a human body to his kindred. God in the flesh! It is no longer the God who acts only at particular instants, as in the prophets, but one who completely assumes our human nature and through his flesh, which is that of our race, lifts all humanity up to him.

BasilHow, then, you will say, did the light come everywhere, through one sole person? In what manner is the Godhead in the flesh? Like fire in iron: not by moving about, but by spreading itself. The fire, indeed, does not thrust itself toward the iron, but, remaining where it is, it distributes its own strength to it. In doing so, the fire is in no way diminished, but it completely fills the iron to which it spreads. In the same manner, God the Word who ‘dwelt among us’ did not go outside himself; the Word which was ‘made flesh’ underwent no change; heaven was not deprived of him who controlled it and the earth received within itself him who is in heaven.

Look deeply into this mystery. God comes in the flesh in order to destroy the death concealed in flesh. In the same way as remedies and medicines triumph over the factors of corruption when they are assimilated into the body, and in the same way as the darkness which reigns in a house is dispelled by the entry of light, so death, which held human nature in its power, was annihilated by the coming of the Godhead. In the same way as ice, when in water, prevails over the liquid element as long as it is night, and darkness covers everything, but is dissolved when the sun comes up through the warmth of its rays: so death reigned till the coming of Christ; but when the saving grace of God appeared and the sun of justice rose, death was swallowed up in this victory, being unable to endure the dwelling of the true life among us. O the depth of the goodness of God and of his love for all of us!

Let us give glory to God with the shepherds, let us dance in choir with the angels, for ‘this day a Saviour has been born to us, the Messiah and Lord.’ He is the Lord who has appeared to us, not in his divine form in order not to terrify us in our weakness, but in the form of a servant, that he might set free what had been reduced to servitude. Who could be so faint-hearted and so ungrateful as not to rejoice and exult in gladness for what is taking place? This is a festival of all creation. (Celebrating the Seasons, pg. 53-54, by Robert Atwell, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 1999)