Monday, October 18, 2010

Pilgrimage and Prayer IV: Unburdening

At the hostel in Roncesvalles, the first Spanish town after crossing the Pyrenees from France, pilgrims are asked to state their reasons for hiking the Camino. They are check the following boxes -- religious, spiritual, sport, historical, cultural --or fill in their own. An Italian journalist Giovanni we met along the way said he'd checked them all. He later told us he had bought only a one-way ticket to Spain. He didn't know when he'd be returning home -- nor whether he'd have a job when he got there.

We did our own informal survey. Chris and Gil, a retired couple from Santa Fe, said they were trying to figure out "Stage Three." A young man from Spain said he did part of the Camino every year for his "spiritual health." An Australian woman spoke laconically: "I needed to let go of some things." She didn't elaborate. We didn't ask -- but the response stuck with us.

What were we letting go of?

Physically, we let go of a lot of things. We simply brought too much stuff. Lisa had a hard-bound book, which she was reviewing for an academic journal. We finally cut off its binding. We left that behind. I had a pair of sox too many, a third t-shirt, a Spanish dictionary. We left them behind too. We tore pages out of books we were reading when we finished, and every day I'd choose a spot to leave the day's readings from a lectionary I'd brought along. All of this, we left behind.

We made tiny shrines of all our extra stuff, took a mental snapshot, and started walking. We never looked back.

Like pilgrimage, prayer invites a similar unburdening. To get to the place of prayer, one has to leave things behind possessions that have begun to possess us, but also cares and anxieties that clutter our spiritual space.

Luther wrote that on days when he was most busy, he had to spend at least three hours in prayer. Initially, this puzzled me: it seemed a lot of time precisely on days when he had so little to spare. The experience of the Camino made me see the truth. On his busiest days, it took Luther longer to clear the decks for prayer.

Prayer is letting go. The Christian tradition calls this "kenosis," literally, a pouring out.

Prayer tips the soul. Worries and anxieties drain out, so that we can be filled with the Spirit.


Sunday, October 17, 2010

Pilgrimage and Prayer III: Sabbath

A third symmetry between pilgrimage and prayer is Sabbath. My friend Jan Ruud hinted at this: "You walk your own Camino." I thought this was just another Camino koan. We'd heard a lot of this stuff from Camino-heads in our acquaintance. Then mid-way through our first week, we hit the wall. We'd been following John Brierley's wonderful book, "A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino de Santiago," which laid out the route in daily chunks: one day 21.1 km, the next 27.7 km, the next 24.8 km -- and by the fourth day, we were foot-weary, discouraged, and driven to reach Brierley's daily destination.

Then it struck me: we weren't walking our own Camino. We were walking John Brierley's. His pace was clearly too fast for us -- and he didn't leave any room to rest. We needed Sabbath.

That day we stopped 9km before Brierley recommended, found a B&B, showered, and enjoyed a long, leisurely lunch. We waved to pilgrims forging ahead. This was our sabbath; it didn't need to be theirs. From then on, we walked in sabbath-time.

When we got tired, we'd find a village, put our feet up at a cafe, and let the air blow through our blisters. Sabbath.

Or we'd plan a short day of walking by design and spend the rest of the afternoon doing laundry. Sabbath.

One day we took off entirely, shedding pilgrim habits to become tourists and poke around the intricate Knights Templar castle in Ponferrada. Sabbath.

We observed mini-sabbaths along the way, stopping for no less than 45 minutes to savor a cafe con leche each morning after a couple of hours of walking. By that time we needed an extended period of "horizontality," as Lisa put it.

Prayer creates its own sabbath. It's not a performance sport, as a lot of "how-to" self-help guides lead one to believe. Rather, prayer is a way of leaning into the Lord. Prayer invites the traveler on the inward journey to rest in God, or as Brother Lawrence, a 17th Century French lay brother put it, "practice the presence of God." This practice is more receptive than productive. Rest allows the soul to receive.

One way to shed the urge for production and performance is to simply let the words of Psalm 46:10, wash over you, until there is nothing left but silence.

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

The silence holds everything.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Pilgrimage and Prayer II: Displaced destinations

As beautiful as the Cathedral of Santiago is, pilgrimage is not about getting there.

But isn't that the point?! In the beginning, I thought it was. And I was hustling down the trail, face set toward Santiago. Early on, though, I discovered that pilgrimage is less about reaching the destination than about the way itself -- and the people on it.

This simple truth hit me during the first days of our trek. Lisa and I were both carrying too much stuff, and we unburdened that extra pair of sox, the third t-shirt, etc. But we were also burdened by something that was harder to jettison: the idea of reaching our destination. It possessed us like a demon -- and we realized we had to let go of even that.

One morning we couldn't find a pace that would allow us to walk together. I kept bounding ahead; Lisa kept lagging behind. We were yelling at each other like a married couple carrying on a conversation from room to room. Finally, she sat down in exasperation and evident pain, saying: "If you want to go on ahead, go. I'll meet you in Santiago. I simply can't keep up with you, and I'm getting angry trying."

In that moment, I realized that the point of pilgrimage wasn't about getting there, it was about being a good companion to my friend and colleague on the way. I jettisoned my heaviest and most burdensome possession: my desire to reach our destination. And together we found a pace that worked, a conversation that eased the pain, and a rhythm that carried us to Santiago -- the destination we'd abandoned.

Quite simply, we encouraged one another, just like Paul counseled his communities at Thessaloniki (1 Thess. 5:11). I'd never understand his advice until that moment.

And others encouraged us. A Danish psychologist and his friend, a Swedish jazz dancer, taught us how to "sew" our feet, keeping our blisters drained and dry. In turn, we encouraged a young Korean woman, who was walking a long, hot stretch of the trail without water or food. We shared our provisions with her and accompanied her to the town of Viansa. I saw her later in the town, rested, hydrated, radiant. She looked transformed.

I thought we'd have deep theological discussion along the trail. Back in Berkeley, we had talked about "walking the questions" of John's gospel -- and there are some great ones: "What is truth? "What do you seek?" "Who are you?" But in fact our "theology" was much more embodied, our conversations much more prosaic. We spent a lot of time simply making up a shaggy dog story around one of the hospitalero we encountered along the trail. The miles eased away. But wasn't that Geoffrey Chaucer's insight in his "Caunterbury Tales?" It's not a book about Caunterbury, the supposed destination; it's all about the tales pilgrims tell each other en route -- to encourage each other.

That was our prayer along the way. Quite literally, we were meeting Christ in these other pilgrims. And they were meeting Christ in us -- in spite of ourselves.

Prayer is a lot like pilgrimage in that regard. Christians think it's all about union with God, and they keep trying to find the right formula. The disciples were always pestering Jesus to tell them his secrets: "Teach us how to pray...." His response was the Lord's Prayer, which gives God praise -- then, asks for bread, protection, and forgiveness. These are all highly concrete and highly corporate practices, because we share bread, we look out for one another, and we need pardon because we're hard-wired to get on each other's nerves. Just like Lisa and me.

Prayer also gets crowded pretty quickly. The needs of the neighbor rush in, and suddenly a solitary practice becomes peopled. We think prayer is about union with God, but discover instead it's about communion with the neighbor, who bears Christ to us, even as we bear Christ to them.

It was great to reach Santiago. But it was even better to have the journey bring me closer to my traveling companions -- and allow us to finish the journey on speaking terms.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Pilgrimage and Prayer I: Intentional Dislocation

The professorship I now hold is named after Bernhard M. Christensen, president of Augsburg College from 1938 until 1962. He authored a book entitled "The Inward Pilgrimage" (1976), in which he likens Christian discipleship to pilgrimage. It's not an original insight: Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) spoke of Christians as pilgrims, in Latin "peregrini," a much more modest designation than the "athletes for Christ" the church of the martyrs had used.

In his book, Christensen does not give his readers directions for the journey of the discipleship, because every disciple begins from a different place. Nor does he give his readers a map for the landscape of discipleship, because every disciple traverses different terrain. Instead, he gives disciples traveling companions, people who've made their own journey -- and left their travel diaries behind. He trusts that, if you've in good company, you'll get where you need to go.

And what company this is! There's Augustine of Hippo, who probably looked like many of the North African peoples who populate the area around Augsburg College today. There are the Desert Fathers and Mothers from the Egyptian desert of the fourth and fifth centuries. There's Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, John Bunyan, Thomas a Kempis, alongside Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It's a motley crew, probably a lot like the disciples who traveled with Jesus in the first century.

Finally, pilgrimage is pointed -- not toward some destination -- but to prayer, union with God and communion with the neighbor.

The symmetry between Christensen's interest in pilgrimage and my own -- grace, not mere coincidence! He prompts me to think of the parallels between pilgrimage and prayer that I would make.

The first is that both involve a kind of intentional dislocation. Pilgrimage and prayer both step out of the ordinary, leaving the familiar behind. On the Camino, Lisa and I met a couple who were entering a new phase of their life and marriage. They'd met, married, and had kids: Stage One. They'd raised their kids and had careers: Stage Two. Now newly retired and empty nesters, they were beginning what they called Stage Three. They wrenched themselves from jobs and children and familiar settings to go on pilgrimage. Walking the Camino would help them figure out what Stage Three was all about.

"And what has the Camino taught you so far?" I asked them as we approached Burgos. The woman, Chris, has a ready answer: "I don't know what it's going to be like, but I do know it will involve service." The intentional dislocation of pilgrimage had opened a new path.

So it is with prayer, which involves a similar kind of dislocation. Sometimes that dislocation is bodily or somatic. The gestures of prayer wrench the body from its familiar poses, calling for bowed head, folded hands, closed eyes, even breathing. I remember watching eight Jesuit priests enter the diaconate by prostrating themselves on the cold stone floor of a cathedral in downtown Oakland, as we sang above them.

Sometimes the dislocation of prayer is spatial, and we make places for prayer: chapels, shrines, and quiet spaces. Sometimes these spaces are designated by others; sometimes we make them up ourselves. A student said that driving to work each morning across the Arizona desert, she imagined Jesus next to her in the passenger seat. It was a great space for conversation. Another woman had a "prayer chair," a special chair she set aside for prayer. Whenever she sat in it, that's what she did.

At other times, the dislocation is temporal. Benediction monks practiced a rhythm of work and prayer, in Latin "ore et labore," during the day, gathering six times in the course of the day for prayer. Their lives became infused by the psalms that structured these offices -- not a bad way to live, when you consider the emotional range of the psalms!

A busy Silicon Valley executive realized that he was praying before difficult meetings by taking the long route around from office to board room. The path led him to a window overlooking the campus, where he could take in the beauty of the well-groomed campus grounds before heading into his meeting. It was the dislocation from the ordinary that he needed to gather himself. It was a tiny pilgrimage, but it was prayer.

So how do disengage from the familiar to pray? How do you dislocate -- to re-engage again with renewed spirit?