Friday, April 3, 2009

Christian Pilgrimages - do we do this today?

Christianity Today did an article this month by Ted Olson about Christian travel, making comparisons with the ancient practice of pilgrimage. Beth Moore's daughter, Melissa, wrote a blog response to the piece (I went to college with Melissa though we weren't really personal friends).

Pilgrimage Church on top of "Hohe Pei├čenberg"

I find it all pretty interesting, since of course Protestants have often pushed back about treating people, places, or things as sacred. I think we've over-reacted. As N.T. Wright says in his quote in the article, "The only answer I have... is that when God is known, sought, and wrestled with in a place, a memory of that remains, which those who know and love God can pick up."

I thing that place and physical material really is more important then we often think. I think sometimes we can almost diminish the physical world around us and act as if the spiritual world is more important or more real, just intangible. Really, though, God created the physical world, and I do think physical places affect us, and that they can retain some of the scars of what goes on in them, good and bad. When we say a place is sacred or holy we aren't saying that it is innate in the physical place and therefore worthy of our awe, but that something that is holy and sacred has left its mark there.

Eugene Peterson is quoted as saying, "I am more and more convinced that holiness does infiltrate place. In such places, I always have a sense of homecoming - heaven-coming. We necessarily live much of our lives in exile, so to be able to spot the people and places that reestablish our true identity is so important. "

In response, I was thinking about how I have seen this in my life. Where have I encountered sacred spaces? Well, this is much less cool then the people in the magazine that visited Jerusalem or some great historical spot, but I think the most sacred spaces for me have been homes that are filled with love and beauty, and have a history of it. My family spent four years living in a building that used to be a dorm. Those were beautiful years for us, and I've noticed when I talk to other people that lived in that building that they also had great memories there. For me, being in the building infused peace and joy. Not always, but often.

I don't know that I've ever taken a pilgrimage, though. They listed some places that people go on modern pilgrimages to: Taize, Oxford (for C.S. Lewis's history), L'Abri, Israel, conferences, mission trips.... 

I have seen some cool things like John Bunyan's home and church,  John Wycliffe's home and church, and the chant at  Westminster Cathedral (which was gorgeous). Still, I don't think I have done much travel with the intent of a spiritual journey. I do do some of that locally - I think you can meet God when you seek him, and some places provide a unique venue and sometimes just new emphases about who He is. I like to find local churches that are different than evangelical churches, and sit in silence and learn from their worship. In Chicago I went to our Ukrainian neighbor's church, which was a huge Catholic Orthodox church, and I went and sat in silence and soaked it in. I did the same in the beautiful Holy Name Cathedral. Our visit to the Messianic temple a few weeks ago was the same sort of attempt to me, and I would really like to find a Catholic or at least some sort of high church service here around Easter. I think that's sort of my version of sacred travel. 

Holy Name Cathedral
It was interesting in the article to read Luther's objection to pilgrimages, and I think it's spot on with some of the tendencies in our culture as well. 

"As Luther saw it, the medieval pilgrimage industry was both fueled by and in turn fed dissatisfaction with the local church. It fostered a sense of spiritual restlessness and ingratitude, where - not content with the gracious provision God had made for Christians in the normal practice of a local church - the pilgrim was aways looking for something else, something extra, beyond what God had provided. More than this, though, it was a refusal to look for God in the very places where he has committed himself to be found, and instead insisting that God be found in places of human choosing. 
The perennial pilgrim, just like the perennial Christian conference goer, was always looking for the next spiritual high, the next big fad. Pilgrimages, just like Christian conferences, can also lead to disparagement of the local in favor of the big and global. But if they lead to a rediscovery of Jesus, the incarnate Word, they can lead to a renewed appreciation of the ordinary people and places that make up real live churches."
I think this is spot on. Sometimes kids in my world are taught to build their faith around the spiritual high of a retreats, summer camps, missions trips, conferences... etc. They come home and aren't able to keep up the emotion and get burned out. I think that's why a lot of kids go to Bible college - they want to find a place that will facilitate all of that emotion - a place that is spiritually "cool". By the end of it, when the rubber hits the road and the emotion has worn off, they are cynical, angry, and they no longer know where to find God. 

Passion Conference

That's dangerous. We have so much to learn about the value of silence, the value of daily life and contentment. I struggle to be content here in Dallas, so these are things to take in myself. It's an odd thing - place and location. Your life does change with the place you live in, but the place doesn't CONTROL your contentment or happiness. I need to be reminded of the simple beauty of life with people. 

As Olsen says, " Those who have returned from Emmaus and understand that God doesn't only meet us on the road. Theirs is the God who said, ' I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them.' A God who travels. And a God who dwells. A God who has made the whole world his holy land because he has made his people a holy people." 


Pharmgirl said...

Catholic church in Dallas:

I went there for Easter last year and it was really moving. It's a more modern looking church than Holy Name, but the orthodoxy is the same.

Kaycee said...

I love history and always feel more connected to people who lived long ago when I stand where they stood or visit places that were important to them. I've been doing some genealogy work recently and love to see the places where my ancestors raised their families.

Beautiful architecture also fills me with a sense of awe and wonder.

I do think you are right though. In our commercial culture people's expectations are unrealistic in a lot of circumstances, not just in relation to faith. I think that most of us are chasing some sort of unattainable "high" so I can see how that would relate to pilgrimages and the like.

I struggle with finding peace in the small things myself.

Mason said...

Kacie I really enjoyed this post.
The whole Protestant aversion to seeing physical space as sacred or some spaces as different from others was drilled into me pretty hard, but honestly I no longer think it is a biblical attitude.

The underlying issue seems to be the dualism that has crept into so many elements of the church’s theology. If it is the immaterial, the ‘spiritual’ alone, which truly matters in the end, then it makes little sense to ascribe special worth to physical locations.

If on the other hand there is inherent value in creation, if God’s saving plan encompasses all he made and not only souls, and if the end-point of that plan is a renewed heavens and earth not some disembodied bliss, then there is reason to see the world around us with new eyes.

This can be taken too far of course, with the search for the next spiritual high as you describe, but if we approach it maturely then I think it becomes clear why high-church services or natural wonders can make us feel connected to God in a way that the typical off white box with a pulpit approach of Protestantism often fails to.

Kacie said...

Yeah... I read a blog called Conversion Diary that is written by a very intelligent and wise Catholic woman. She talked about having a prayer room/area/closet in her home that created a SPACE to go and pray. I think that while it's true that the Holy Spirit is present with us everywhere, creating a space helps US get our minds focused and be intentional.