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.


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