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?


  1. Intentional Dislocation. That phrase stopped me in my tracks and will echo thru me for the rest of the day. Thanks, Karin

  2. I enjoyed your blog, especially "tiny pilgrimage" which is a must in our busy busy lives. I wanted to let you know of our books "The Pilgrim's Italy: A Travel Guide to the Saints" and "The Pilgrim's France" travel guides for people of all faiths. has full chapter excerpts. Thanks for your blog. Colleen Heater