Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pilgrimage and prayer: A extraordinary practice in ordinary time

Of course, not everyone can go on pilgrimage. Not everyone has the time, the money, the inclination, the stamina -- or the enabling grant from the Lilly Endowment. How can we talk about our experience in ways others can relate to?

That question points to another: how can we find pilgrimage in everyday life? For of course, no one can be on pilgrimage forever. No one has the time, the money, the inclincation, the stamina -- and no foundation would ever fund it, even if they did.

How can we translate this experience into ordinary time -- for ourselves and for others?

Thanks to some illuminating conversations I had at Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota, I'm closer to a translation. This congregation commits itself to practicing their faith, and they've focused on centering prayer as a key practice that empowers disciples to become apostles, i.e., move from following Jesus to serving the world.

I'd been invited to speak about pilgrimage, another practice of the Christian faith and many of the world's religions. As I prepared for this community, I began to see the connections between pilgrimage and centering prayer.

First, both practices aim at emptying. I related stories of how we literally "shed stuff" across the top of Spain, building tiny altars of things we discovered we really didn't need: that extra shirt, a book we weren't going to read anyway, a cherished hairbrush that simply weighed too much. After days of pain-filled walking, I even let go the goal of reaching Santiago on foot! And that was ostensibly the reason for the entire trip. We learned to let go of everything -- and we learned it the hard way.

Centering prayer is the practice of letting go: you let go of distractions, worries, and those rat-wheels of anxiety that spin without ceasing. A kind of kenosis, or pouring out, centering prayers tips the soul like a pitcher -- and lets worry drain out.

Second, both practices focus on receiving. And in a world that rewards production -- produce more! better! more efficiently! -- that's supremely counter-cultural. Yet, as pilgrims we had to receive: we couldn't carry it all. We depended on others for food, shelter -- and, on that rainy day in Galicia, clothing. I'd lost my poncho; Lisa shredded hers. We needed industrial strength raingear -- and we found it one night in a hardware store in the gritty village of Palas de Rei. Pilgrimage accustoms people to begging; we became dependent on the kindness of strangers.

So too with centering prayer: it empties people so that they can be filled. They let go the spirits of anxiety, worry, and distraction, so that they can receive the Spirit. They become dependent on the kindness of divine mystery -- and there is nothing stranger, more wonderful, and more deeply familiar.

Finally, both practices invite people to rest. Lisa joked about our daily need for "horizontality," but moving from the vertical posture of hiking to simply lying down restored us immeasurably. We needed these pauses like we needed air to breath, water to drink -- and cafe con leche to begin the day!

Similarly, centering prayer invites pray-ers to rest in God. Sabbath is any time you lean into the Holy. Centering prayer is the practice of the presence of God. One way to move into this prayer is to simply sit with from Psalm 46:10, gradually letting the silence overtake the words:

"Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
Be still.

And thanks to you dear people at Colonial for finding the correct reference!


  1. Marty, Here is an odd, but interesting article that might interest you. Timothy Larsen, "Thomas Cook, Holy Land Pilgrims, and the Dawn of the Modern Tourist Industry," _The Holy Land, Holy Lands, and Christian History_ ed. R. N. Swanson (Ecclesiastical History Society, 2000)

  2. Thanks, DeAne! I saw the combination of commemoration and commerce in Gettysburg. And Lisa and I certainly saw it on the Camino. Maybe this will give some helpful analysis to us. Thank you thank you thank you!