pilgrimage for lent one...

NOTE:  it was -17F this morning and we gave thanks that the wind quit.  About 35 strong souls joined us for the First Sunday of Lent; others were ill, had cars that wouldn't start or took advantage of the beginning of a school vacation.  But we began a Lenten pilgrimage with Jesus towards Jerusalem this morning - with only a few technical mishaps.  The straw in a small flower display caught fire, one candle completely melted and a scented candle caused a bit of distress - all things that can be fixed this week - so I call success for our first week. Here are my written notes for the start of the season.
There is a stark, simple beauty and truth to both the desert and the season of winter.  The
Quaker educator, Parker Palmer, put it like this in his spirituality of winter:

Winter has an even greater gift to give us than quiet and beauty: It comes when the sky is clear, the sun brilliant, the trees bare, and the first snow has yet to arrive. It is the gift of utter clarity. In winter, one can walk into woods that had been opaque with summer growth only a few months earlier and see the trees clearly, singly and together, and see the ground that they are rooted in.

In this, winter is like the retreat house I used to visit at the start of nearly every Lent in Tucson. The Desert House of Prayer was dedicated to the spirituality of Thomas Merton. You may know Merton as the father of contemporary contemplation and social action in the United States. He taught that the severe clarity of the desert had much to offer a hyper-stimulated America – especially when it comes to being honest with ourselves.  Like our New England winters, the desert clears the landscape of our souls so that we can see ourselves plainly – brutally and without encumbrance – even to the core of our being.

Small wonder that the season of Lent always starts with the journey of Jesus into the desert:  we all need extended times to free our heads of stress and expectations.  So Jesus models this for us with his wandering in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. He makes a pilgrimage of sorts into the desert for two reasons:

·     First, because the desert was a place of mystery, uncertainty, and testing for ancient Israel. In our tradition, God’s people left their bondage in Egypt only to spend 40 years being purified, tested, and refined in the desert before they were able to enter the Land of Promise as new beings.  Lent speaks to us of our own sorting and refinement – a late winter cleansing of the soul – for this is our season of Exodus.

·     And second, because pilgrimage is a symbolic way of giving shape and form to our inner quest for the Lord, there are specific Lenten practices to embody on our way to the Promised Land.  This season has always been spoken of as a physical journey through a barren place rather than a compilation of doctrine: from the start, Christianity has recognized the human beings need to practice externally what we ache to become within: namely, authentic, healthy and faithful children of God.

Christians, you see, have been experimenting with unifying body and mind through the practice of pilgrimage since our origins:  the prophets made a practice of extended retreats; Jesus went on a pilgrimage to the desert, the mountains as well as the sea and the Jordan River from time to time; and after Easter, Christ’s followers periodically performed their prayers by traveling to similar places of significance and solitude.

·    The earliest pilgrims went to Jerusalem to walk the Way of the Cross. There were no established places for these spiritual wanderers to stop for reflection, so in the early days they just began at the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane and walked until they were inspired by the Spirit to rest and pray.  In time their route became known as the Via Dolorosa – an informal Way of Sorrows – where people found something of God’s mercy by walking to the story of Jesus and his Cross.

·    By the 12th century of the Common Era, a surge of interest in pilgrimage throughout the Middle East and Europe arose. But the warfare of the Crusades made it dangerous and complicated so two alternatives to travelling to Jerusalem were created:  the Labyrinth and the Stations of the Cross.  The labyrinth – like that in the Cathedral of Chartres completed in 1193 – allowed people to spiritually walk to Jerusalem in the relative safety of their regional holy place. And the Stations of the Cross – probably first suggested by St. Francis of Assisi in the 12th century – linked 14 regional churches together each with a specific meaning and prayer based on the passion of the Christ.

·     In time, two other possibilities for pilgrimage emerged. Additional holy places closer to home like the Camino de Santiago – a shrine to St. James the brother of Jesus in Spain - or the font of Celtic Christianity at the Isle of Iona became Lenten pilgrimage destinations. And, for those who could not afford to make these trips, the 14 different regional churches that St. Francis had suggested might replace a trip to Jerusalem started to be incorporated inside individual Roman Catholic sanctuaries.  Now each local congregation could create shrines along the walls of their Sanctuary depicting the Stations of the Cross.

Now the whole point of making a pilgrimage is to incorporate your body into your prayers:  you let your feet move you closer to God’s love, you choose to leave your comfort zone for the as yet undiscovered blessings of mystery and paradox, you let your eyes and other senses open your soul to possibilities, and you do all of this as part of a community. Like the discipline of yoga, that integrates body and breath with postures and meditation, pilgrimage honors body and soul in a way that is deeply personal and boldly communal.  And because we have such a huge Sanctuary that is woefully underused each Sunday – mostly we simply sit and stand and sometimes sing - I thought we ought to have a go at exploring the spirituality of pilgrimage for our time.

·    So, if you have noticed, there are five rest stops located throughout our Sanctuary.  As I understand it, on any traditional pilgrimage during Lent, in addition to the sacred places of devotion like the River Jordan where Jesus was baptized or the Golgotha where he was crucified, there are also planned places for rest.  There is a rhythm to spirituality of pilgrimage – you are active in walking, then you pause for reflection; you are physically on the go and then you stop your body to let new insights rise up from your experiences – and that’s part of what I hope we will play with during Lent. 

·    The other hope I have for our journey is that we practice our pilgrimage slowly, mindfully, and quietly.  Let me encourage you to saunter to one of the rest stops – you can go to the first one or you can go to any of the others – as you pause to light a candle. You can go in chronological order or you can make up your own order. But do so in a sauntering spirit. The word saunter comes from the Middle English santren – to muse – but I like Thoreau’s take on the word. It isn’t technically true, but is useful. He speaks of walking as those French souls who were on their way to the Holy Land – Sainte Terre – people who would take all the time necessary to be gently observant about their journey.

What a truly meditative and spiritually counter-cultural practice in this age of busyness and deadlines. It makes me think of walking with my grandson, Louie, who has no particular place to go and is in no particular rush to get there. In this, we might let Lent help us become playful children of the Lord.  Henri Nouwen once wrote that the key to spiritual maturity is to receive all love as a pure and free gift:  So much of the time, however, we let allour obvious failures and disappointments convince ourselves that we are really not worth being loved. Because what do we have to show for ourselves? But for a person of faith the opposite is actually true. The many failures can open that place in us where we have nothing to brag about but every-thing to be loved for. It is how we become a child again, a child who is loved simply for being, simply for smiling, simply for reaching out.”  That’s what Lent is truly for:  helping us become spiritually mature enough that we cherish beginner’s mind – like a child – one that is loved simply for being. This requires getting out of our heads for a time…

I don’t believe that Lent was ever intended to be a punitive time – it can be a season of harsh honesty, ok – but only in service of clearing our heads and freeing our hearts of distraction. It can be a season of relinquishment that encourages greater compassion for ourselves, our neighbors and our world. At another time, Nouwen offered this insight that I hope you will carry with you throughout Lent. He said: "Judgment in the eyes of the Lord begins with Jesus becoming one of us in humility. So God does not really judge us but rather reveals to us what we have become to one another. The day of judgment is in fact the day of recognition, the day on which we see for ourselves what we have done to our brothers and sisters, and how we have treated the divine body of which we are part.  So the question: 'What have you done for the least of mine?' is not only the question of injustice and the question of peace, it also is the question by which we judge ourselves. The answer to that question will determine the existence or nonexistence of our human family." Are you with me?  Lent is about a humble honesty that leads us towards compassion.

Today’s gospel story tells us that after the Lord’s baptism, he went into the desert to get honest with himself. In his baptism he heard God’s blessing – YOU ARE MY BELOVED – and that is a promise made to each and all of us.  Our baptism is a reminder that we have been bathed and saturated in God’s blessing. We, like Jesus, are God’s beloved. And like Jesus, we, too have challenges – temptations – shadows that can obscure and even diminish God’s blessings in our lives.

That’s what the story of these temptations is about: wrestling with what it means to be God’s beloved sharing love and hope in the world but in a vulnerable and sometimes broken body. Jesus got brutally honest with himself out in the desert – he owned his weaknesses – his desire for power, his ego, his deep hungers. He didn’t deny them – he faced them, experienced them, confessed them – and that’s what Lent asks of us, too. Fr. Ed Hays, who drew the images we’re using around our Sanctuary, put it like this: Like the Master, you also will frequently be tempted to choose the ways of the world instead of the ways of your cross. Daily you will be tempted to be practical as you confront the problems of life. The seduction is to behave like a realistic son or daughter of the pragmatic world instead of responding as a beloved daughter or son of God.

One of my favorite musicians, Carrie Newcomer, recently addressed the temptation to give up being God’s beloved in favor of being realistic or pragmatic when she wrote: What would it be like if everyday everyone did something that was all heart, something that might seem senseless to the sensible world? I do believe there would be more songs and poems, more fruit pies and chalk drawings on the sidewalk. More people would grab their sweetheart and dance in the kitchen or lay down in the green woods just to feel the earth support them. I think more people would vote their conscience and not hedge their bets. More of us would bring apples and chocolate to share at work just because. We'd call someone in the middle of the day just to say "I'm sorry" or "I miss you" or "You are a treasure to me beyond words or measure." We'd probably be surprised, delighted and chagrined more often. We might end up in places we did not expect to go. It might feel more risky...but it would surely be interesting. So maybe today is the day to listen to your heart and do something that does not compute.

Lent should give us the space – the time and the safety, too – to saunter around God’s holy land with these kinds of questions for a while. Someone said that when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” the truth is that God never leads us into temptation, we get there all by ourselves. It is always our choice – and as long as we are vulnerable and human we will have to wrestle with our choices.  Sometimes we’ll pause and invite God’s guidance – at other times we’ll rush to judgment, shoot from the hip and give in to the temptation.  But, please understand, it is always our choice.

So, during Lent let’s tenderly wrestle with – and clarify for ourselves – what God is asking you to relinquish. Let’s take the time to saunter together, letting our Sanctuary become a resting place on our pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And let’s connect our bodies to our minds in prayer as we move about this place. Remember: you are the beloved so please nourish and strengthen the sacred love that is within your sweet self. We’re going to give you some meditative traveling music so:  alors laissez le pèlerinage en terre sainte commence!



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