To Be a Pilgrim
Thoughts for December 2018 from Barbara Worsley
Journeys are common to Christmas; we all know Chris Rea’s “Driving Home for Christmas” and that the Magi went on a journey around Christmas. Mary and Joseph did a lot of travelling too. Though I am not well-travelled, I have always been fascinated by the idea of journeys, mostly of the walking variety. I used to be an active member of the Long-Distance Walkers’ Association but now am confined, by comparison, to short strolls. Perhaps that summarises our walking through life, our Christian pilgrimage for those who like to call it that. The Celestial City was once far off but now gets ever nearer…that is what we pilgrims hope, anyway.
There was once a king who, in the grumpiness of old age, got fed up with his jester. He gave him a jester’s stick one day telling him, “If you ever find anyone more foolish than you, give him this stick”. Not long afterwards, the king told his jester that he was going on a long journey. The jester, surprised, asked, “Where, when?” The king answered that he was dying and had not got long to live. The jester replied, “But you usually make many preparations for your journeys. Have you made any for this one? “ None,” came the answer. “Then you had better have the stick back!” (This was part of a sermon I heard once, given by a prison chaplain, a sign–post I observed on my exploration of a spiritual life)
All pilgrims are on the road to somewhere. Ever since reading at school about Chaucer’s Pilgrims going to Canterbury or, later, of a man leading his family and a donkey along the Pilgrim road to Santiago de Compostella or, later still, of Gerard Hughes, a Jesuit priest, “Walking to Jerusalem”, I have nurtured the idea of doing the same, of making a physical journey with a spiritual goal but have failed, like the king, to make adequate plans and preparations.
Life gets in the way and not many of us get to do such grand tours but yet we can count ourselves pilgrims nonetheless with the same spiritual goals, and, hopefully, better prepared than that king. We Christians believe that God may be encountered in everything. The 6th century Irish Missionary, Columbanus, once said, “If you want to know the Creator, first get to know the creation”. All walkers value the beauty of the earth they walk on but, I think creation, beauty’s glance, consists of much more: such as the tradition of the church, the words from the Bible, quiet prayer, the beauty of a view, the kindness of a stranger. Whatever kindness or beauty we encounter in our journeys comes to us from God and our recognition of this and our response is crucial to our spiritual health. Perhaps what matters to the pilgrim is not so much where he is walking to as Whom he finds himself walking with and that the journey lasts for the rest of his life.
Signposts are a vital pointer to a walker’s destination, to prevent getting lost but often we walk right past them, lacking imagination and insight, unaware that the heart of human experience, sorrow and joy is staring us in the face. When we go out into the world sometimes we miss the face of God Himself radiating from the face of the lover, the child, the sick-bed, the friend and the stranger. Manifesting God’s love is seldom a matter of grand gestures. All too often it is shown best through humble, patient, undramatic, housekeeping and caretaking….family, friends, our neighbours and all the people who need our love and prayers.
I have been lucky to have experienced a whole load of helpful signposts on my Christian Way, a sort of travelogue for the spiritual pilgrim; music, hymns, poetry, literature, all too many to recount here, provide resources for growing the human soul: family, the church community, like geese in flight, the one ahead providing sanctuary by a protective air pocket for the next one to fly in: and sermons, too, can light fires.
Two more sermons I remember well, the most recent being Angela’s last Epiphany Sunday when she advised us to keep looking for God, like the Wise Men. Don’t put away your Christmas cards too soon as they are signposts of someone’s love for you….a startling jolt to someone who gets easily tired of the clutter on the mantelpiece and finds writing Christmas cards a chore. If you receive “with love” from me in one this year it will have been a whole lot more thoughtfully written since, through Angela, the Holy Spirit tapped me on the shoulder.
Another one at Epiphany again, was one Roger preached during the Season. Why is the crib still here on Epiphany 3, he posited? To help us really get to know Jesus as our incarnate Lord. For He will cut a path for us through the jungle of life to help us be, for often we are, the only gospel many people will hear or know. Hadn’t thought of it so starkly!
At Christmas, if we are keeping faithful, watchful eyes on the road when listening to the story that never wears out, God’s presence comes to us in human flesh. Jesus slips down his “own secret stair” (George MacDonald, That Holy Thing). WE are the staircase, real human beings, to either welcome or reject Him. The child comes to us to offer deep peace in the God who is with us uphill and down.
Wherever we go wandering on our pilgrimage, we have all a fundamental need for home as GK Chesterton captured in “The House at Christmas” based on Mary and Joseph’s flight into Egypt.
“To the open house in the evening/Home shall all men come.
To an older place than Eden/ And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless/ And all men are at home”
May the story never wear out for all who tell it and hear it, and all needing a home this Christmas, and may we all keep on travelling, finding a “closer walk with God”, offering ourselves as signposts for others and knowing ourselves better. A Latin tag “solvitur ambulando” (You can work it out and be saved by walking) is worth remembering especially if you make the walking mindful and open hearted. I heard someone say recently, “There are no ring roads around Calvary”…. don’t expect your journey to be easy!
Not the perfect entry to the Good Pilgrim’s Guide, except that life should be seasoned with the capacity to laugh, especially at ourselves, is captured by John Betjeman in his inimitable humorous fashion describing parish life somewhere: “Their worship over, God returns to heaven, And stays there ‘til next Sunday at eleven.”