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PILGRIMAGE: A Journey of the Soul
Sandy Reimer
April 2, 2000

Scripture Matthew 14: 22-27 - This passage follows immediately the story of Jesus feeding the 5000 with five loaves and two fishes.

As soon as the meal was finished, Jesus insisted that the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side of the lake, while he dismissed the crowd of people. When the crowd dispersed, Jesus climbed up the mountain so that he could be by himself and pray. He stayed there alone, late into the night.

Meanwhile, the boat was far out in the lake when the wind came up strong, and the disciples were battered by the waves. At about 4 o’clock in the morning, Jesus came toward them, walking on the water.

The disciples were scared out of their wits. "A Ghost" they said, crying in terror. But Jesus was quick to comfort them. "Courage" he said. "It is me. Do not be afraid."

Robery Bly: Why should we call these accidental furrows roads?
Everyone who moves on walks, like Jesus, on the sea.
The Dictionary in the church office – Pilgrimage: a journey to a sacred place. Pilgrim: one who makes a journey.
Walking a Sacred Path by Lauren Artress, a quote from Richard Niebuhr - Pilgrims are persons in motion, passing through territory not their own, seeking something we might call completion or clarity, a goal to which only the soul’s compass points the way.
Crossing to Avalon by Jean Shinoda Bolen: If we are spiritual beings on a human path, rather than human beings on a spiritual path, then life is not only a journey but a pilgrimage or quest as well. Both pilgrim and questing knight leave behind their usual lives and go in search of something that they are missing, not necessarily knowing what that something is.

A conversation with Matthew Thoburn, age 3, last Sunday at the end of the Retreat as we were standing outside the door to the Dining Hall: "I came to Retreat. I had fun. Now I have to go home. When you go away, you have to go back home. If you don’t go away, you don’t have to go back. But I came to Retreat and now I have to go home."

A pilgrimage is a journey to the sacred. That sacred may be to a geographical physical place or to an inward part of ourselves. The tradition of pilgrimage is as old as religion itself, and in the past, a pilgrimage was a normal part of a person’s spiritual life. Worshippers were expected to travel to religious festivals such as Solstice celebrations and the high holy days of Islam in Mecca. Think of the Native American vision quest and the Aboriginal walk-about. In the Middle Ages, Christians took a vow to make a pilgrimage to the Holy City of Jerusalem once during their lifetime. However, by the 12th century, when Jerusalem became the center of religious struggle during the Crusades, travel to that Holy City became became too dangerous and also too expensive. The Catholic then appointed seven pilgrimage cathedrals in Europe to become symbolic Jerusalems for pilgrims.

Louis Charpentier writes: "Let us spare a thought for those who century after century, took the pilgrim’s staff, whether they were Christian or otherwise, and set out by roads that were hardly tracks, across rivers that were hardly fordable, through forests where the wolf hunted in packs, through marshes of shifting mud in which poisonous snakes lurked; subjected to rain, wind, hail and sun, at night the only shelter a flap of tunic pulled over the head: all this having left home and family not knowing if they would ever see them again, in order to reach at least once in their lives a place that was holy."

While our experience is not the same way as those early pilgrims, we still have many opportunities for pilgrimage. The mark of a pilgrimage is that it is an intentional journey and that we, either physically or emotionally, leave home. We embark, not knowing exactly where we are going or what the outcome will be, but we know we are on a road, we know we are seeking the sacred. For example, the Lenten season itself is an intentional journey inward, stepping over the threshold at Ash Wednesday, continuing through the stations of the Meditation booklet, the Wednesday Taize services, and the Maundy Thursday service until we arrive at Easter morning.

I also resonate with 3 year old Matthew Thoburn’s recognition of Retreat as a pilgrimage. Each year, I leave home to go on UCG’s retreat and I journey to that place of water and trees and sky, passing into a luminal time of possibilities, in search of something I cannot even define. There are stations on my Retreat journey: the quiet settling-in, the large noisy Friday night circle transforming into the silent spiral of blessing, the laughter of the Talent Show, the learnings of the workshops, and the sense of community at the closing worship by the lake. For the past 20 years, I have shared the joy and sorrow of my life in the Communion circle on Friday night or Saturday morning: my search for a vocation and a calling, my children’s growth, my father’s death, my mother’s move to Gainesville, my struggles with relationships, the bittersweet moments of my sons leaving home, the joy of their weddings, and now the birth of my grandchild. And always, at the end of Retreat, at the end of that pilgrimage, I realize that the story I came for is seldom the story I leave with – and I return home, like a pilgrim, changed and changing.

When the Task Force on Adult Programs surveyed this congregation last summer and asked which program priorities are most important, the #1 answer was spiritual growth. I suggest this morning that the practice of pilgrimage is one way to address our inward spiritual hunger. And I have three invitations to pilgrimage: First, I invite you to spend some time today, and this week, reflecting on the pilgrimages you have made, or you are making in your own life. This is an invitation to a pilgrimage of memory and awareness.

Second, I invite you to consider participating in the pilgrimage of the Labyrinth which will be in our Sanctuary this week. Labyrinths have been known to the human race for over 4000 years. A labyrinth is usually in the form of a circle with a meandering, purposeful path from the entry point to the center and back out again. A labyrinth is not a maze; there are no tricks or dead-ends or cul-de-sacs. There is one path, and once we make the choice to enter it, the path becomes a metaphor for our own journey in life.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres, France was designated in the Middle Ages as a pilgrimage site. A labyrinth was laid into the cathedral floor sometime between 1194 and 1220 to symbolize the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. While it is not the only labyrinth, it is one of the few from that time which is still intact. The labyrinth we use here is a replica of the one at Chartres, brought to us by the wisdom and generosity of Ted Runions. It is 40 feet in diameter and has 11 concentric circles with 34 turns. The path into the center winds in a clockwise pattern, and the path back is counterclockwise. The center of the labyrinth is a 6-petalled rose-shaped area. At various times and in various spiritual traditions, this flower symbolizes the Divine Mother, the Virgin Mary, the lotus of enlightenment, the Holy Spirit, the cosmic sun, the God within, and the evolutionary process of Spirit coming into matter. The Labyrinth functions like a spiral, creating a vortex in its center. Whether you walk it to be part of an ancient ritual, or as a symbol of the sacred journey inward and outward, or as a walking meditation, or as a metaphor for your own life, you will have the sense that powerful energies are set in motion by this symbol.

Let me share a few thoughts about my own labyrinth experience – and take from this whatever is helpful to you. I find that, while the labyrinth engages my intuitive self, it is not easy for me to turn off my practical chattering busy self. I am developing a few rituals that help me enter the labyrinth. I wear comfortable clothes. I am very intentional about my entry into the Sanctuary. I pause in the foyer and take off my shoes. I take some deep breaths before I enter. I like to have music playing on the CD player. All of these rituals tell my body, and my mind, that we are going to a different place. If there is someone walking ahead of me, I pause so there is some space between us.

As I walk the path in, I use that as a time to let go and to simply be opent to the rhythm of the walk. If you turn to the front of your bulletin and put your finger at the entry point of that labyrinth, and slowly trace the path with your finger, you will see and feel the movement along the path. There are turns, there are short starts and reverses, and then there are places where your finger just sails along a sustained flow. As I walk the path in, I try to be aware of this rhythm in the path and experience the ways it symbolizes my life – the turns, and twists, and free flow.

When I get to the center, I like to stand or sit there for a while. Sometimes I just let myself be surrounded and held in the energy that is there. Sometimes a word comes to me there. Sometimes I sit there and nothing much seems to happen. Sometimes I have a question or an issue that I pray about.

The walk out is a return, and as I walk back, I walk in a posture of how I want to be as I come back into the world. That posture may have to do with my pace, how I hold my body, where I focus my eyes, or the word or feeling that I want to hold in my heart.

Last year, after I walked out, I tried something new. I stood on each of the outside partial circles, called lunations, that are at the edge of the labyinth. I looked into the labyrinth, imagining that I was standing on the outside of my life looking in at myself from the viewpoint of someone who is important to me. I asked from that spot what that person needed from me. For instance, I stood at the first lunation, as though I were Larry, my husband, and I asked what he most needed from me – and the words that came were that Larry needed my joy and my laughter. I stood at the next lunation as thought I were my son Matt looking at my life; the next one, as my daughter-in-law Kathy; then my son Chris; his wife Mary; my mother; a friend; and so on. It was amazing – at each lunation – as soon as I whispered the name of the person, a word came immediately to me.

The third invitation of pilgrimage that I offer to you is this. As summer approaches and we all begin to think of summer plans, I invite you to think of some part of your summer or some part of your vacation that can be a pilgrimage for you – a visit to a place that is sacred to you. It can be as simple as taking a morning or a day for yourself at the ocean or at a springs. It can be a visit to a place from your past - or going to a place you have always wanted to go. It can be a quiet day when you intentionally take time to go inward, to visit yourself. Give some thought, and some prayer, in these next weeks, as to what kind of pilgrimage you can make at some moment in time this summer.

Sacred space is by definition the place where two worlds flow into each other, the visible with the invisible. It is where the finite world touches the infinite. In the scripture passage I read, Jesus takes a short pilgrimage. He intentionally withdraws from the crowds and from his friends. He climbs up a mountain to be by himself and to pray, staying there alone, late into the night. And when he returns, he walks on water.

While one mark of a pilgrimage is intentionality – and embarking on a journey of our own – the other mark of pilgrimage is that we pass through territory that is not our own, and with no idea of how we shall return and what our change and vision will be. Jesus returns, walking on water. Let go of all of your resistance to the literal meaning of this story – and think of it for a moment, as a symbol of how we return from sacred moments when our human visible and finite selves have touched the holy invisible and infinite. We return from our pilgrimages moving on a new path with a different rhythm.

Robert Bly says it well: Why should we call these accidental furrows roads?

Everyone who moves on walks, like Jesus, on the sea.

Let us pray:

Comfortable and well-worn are my daily paths,
even the edges are pressed down by constant use.
Narrow are the hours that I shrink to fit
the chores, and needs of my daily life.
Sluggish and stalled is the passion of my heart
as I struggle with the many pulls on my life.
Come and awaken me, Spirit of renewal
Come and refresh me, Spirit of surprises
Come and inspire me, Spirit of the moving sea.
In this Lenten season of reflection,
I pray for a bitterness that I am ready to release
I pray for a sorrow that I want to heal
I pray for a dry, deadened part of my life that needs renewal.
Give me, O Gracious God, the gift of pardon
the gift of believing that I am forgiven
for the times I have done things I wish I had not done
and for the times I have left undone things I needed to do.
Open my soul to your healing touch of forgiveness
reminding me ten times – and ten times more –
that Your Spirit, both within me and beyond me,
is the Spirit of Second Chances.
I pray with love for those dear to me – and ….
Gather our prayers, spoken and unspoken, into your light and grace. Amen.