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Friday, May 31, 2019

Pilgrimage as Prayer

The past two days, our group of pilgrims has been focused on pilgrimage and prayer. We’ve been looking at what it is that makes us pilgrims and what shapes and forms our prayers – and how are prayers are shaped and formed by being on pilgrimage.

It seems that lots of people are leading lots of pilgrimages to lots of places which are considered “ancient” and “holy”: Rome, Jerusalem, Iona, Ireland, Canterbury, etc. Folks who are associated with religion – usually Christian – lead these trips: A priest, often the rector of a church, a member of a religious order, a member of the laity who is associated with a church or a diocese.

So, if a ‘holy’ person is leading you to a ‘holy’ place, it must be a ‘pilgrimage’, right?

The folks on Iona have a very different view of that. Mind you, they’ll never turn anyone away and they would never deny the title “pilgrim” to anyone who claims it. As one member of the Iona religious community said to me, “Who are we to know what sacrifice it took for them to be here?” No one is judging anyone.

She did say, “You know, pilgrimage is one of those words we use and use and then it loses its meaning. It’s like the word, ‘love’. A person will say, ‘Oh, I LOVE” my spouse,” or “I LOVE Jesus,’ or ‘Oh, I LOVE it here on Iona,’ and that’s good. But, that same person with that same inflection will say, ‘Oh, I had Scottish scrambled eggs and fried halloumi for breakfast and I LOVE it.’ Now, what that tells me about that poor soul is that she probably doesn’t know what love is. The poor dear has used the word ‘love’ so much, it has become meaningless. How can you love your spouse or Jesus or this island as much as you love fried halloumi? The same is true, I think, with the word ‘pilgrimage’. People have used it so much, they don’t really know what it means.”

She then gave me some excerpts from various ancient texts to read. I rather like these:
“And three Scots came to King Alfred in a boat without any oars from Ireland; whence they stole away, because they would live in a state of pilgrimage, for the love of God, they recked not where.” (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)
“God counseled Abraham to leave his own country and go in pilgrimage to the land which God had shown him, to wit the ‘Land of Promise.” Now the good counsel which God enjoined here the father of the faithful is incumbent on all the faithful; that is to leave their country and their land, their wealth and their worldly delight for the sake of the Lord of the Elements, and go in perfect pilgrimage in imitation of Him.” (Columba). 
The traditional religious understating of a pilgrimage is that it is a vocation, in that a person is called by God or moved by the Spirit to a spiritual quest. A pilgrim is one who is on a spiritual quest but doesn’t always know the full nature of that quest – or even the exact route – of the pilgrimage.

What is known to the pilgrim is that it will involve travel – sometimes rigorous travel – and that it will come at some sacrifice of time, money, pride, status, and, most importantly, security – emotional, spiritual and/or financial.

The Celtic image for the Holy Spirit is a Wild Goose. A pilgrimage is often referred to as a “Wild Goose Chase” because the pilgrim is off, chasing the Holy Spirit, finding something that perhaps was never lost, discovering something that was hidden in plain sight, and reconnecting to the Holy in oneself in order to deepen one’s relationship with The Holy One.

It’s a ‘thin place’ experience of God that does not necessarily happen IN a thin place but BECAUSE OF a thin place.

That’s because prayer is an essential ingredient of pilgrimage.

‘Prayer’ is another word, like ‘love’ and ‘pilgrimage’, that has become so over used and misused that it has lost the fullness of its meaning.

Here’s a sample of what I mean from the writings of Columba
“The path I walk, Christ walks it.
May the land in which I am be without sorrow.
May the Trinity protect me whenever I say, ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’.
Bright angels walk with me – dear presence – in every dealing.
In every dealing I pray them that no one’s poison may reach me.
The ninefold people of heave of holy cloud, the tenth force of the stout earth.
Favourable company, they come with me, so that the Lord may not be angry with me.
May I arrive at every place, may I return home; may the way in which I spend be a way without loss.
May every path before me be smooth, man, woman and child welcome me.
A truly good journey! Well does the fair Lord how us a course, a path.
There’s a sense in this prayer of a request for an awareness of God’s presence in every moment – traveling, interacting with people, knowing that Christ is presence in every step on the path we walk.

That’s very different from reading something someone else wrote, isn’t it? It’s acknowledging, every time you open your mind to think, or your mouth to speak, that God is already there, in every thought and every word.

In Celtic Spirituality these prayers are known as a Lorica or Breastplate. Episcopalians know parts of St. Patrick’s Breastplate, but here are parts of St. Patrick’s Lorica of the Deer’s Cry:
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism,
Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension
Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of doom.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.
As I’ve walked all over this island while I’ve been here on pilgrimage (I’ve walked between 2-10 miles daily), I have come to understand that ‘loricas’ are what my grandmother prayed every morning after reading scripture and before walking to daily mass.

They are active prayers for protection, for strength, for remembrance, so that one’s whole entire being is centered in God and Christ Jesus in everything one does.

Someone asked our pilgrimage leader what was the most common form of prayer in Celtic spirituality. Without a moment’s hesitation, she responded, “pilgrimage”.

Pilgrimage, she said, is in fact, the essence of Celtic prayer. It's about using your body and all your senses and your mind in an act of sacrificial dedication to following the Holy Spirit into a deeper understanding of your self and all of creation so that you might be in deeper relationship with God, the Creator of All of Creation.

One of the folks here on Iona told me that it is not an overstatement to claim that you can not really know Celtic prayer or plumb the depths of the Art of Contemplative Pray without going on Pilgrimage.

A pilgrimage is a form of prayer. A pilgrim is a person of prayer on a wild goose chase, following the spirit to “steal away because they would live in a state of pilgrimage, for the love of God, they recked not where.”

I love being a pilgrim. It is one way which has become my favorite way to pray. It is an important way to connect (or, re-connect) with myself, my story, and creation and its story.

It makes me feel more connected to my grandmother who “stole away” from Portugal, not certain of where she was going or what would happen after she arrived.

It makes me feel more connected to Jesus who walked all over Israel, far from his home, following the Spirit, preaching a gospel of Good News wherever he went.

It makes me feel more connected to the apostles who travelled far in the name of Christ, to bring the Good News of Jesus the Christ near and far.

It makes me feel more connected to the millions and millions of pilgrims over the centuries of time who left home to put their feet in the same place where others had walked, to find the longing and the desire of their heart – especially in the “thin places” of God’s creation.

Something happens when you put your body in motion and allow it to become the incarnation of prayer in order to become instruments of the justice and joy of God.

As the Iona Community prays:
We will not offer to God,
offerings that cost us nothing.

O Christ, the Master Carpenter,
you, at the last, through wood and nails,
crafted our whole salvation.

Wield well your tools,
in the workshop of your world,
so that we who come rough-hewn to your bench
may here be fashioned
to a truer beauty of your hand.

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