The Way of the Pilgrim

[a talk given at the Center for Spiritual Development in Orange, California, on 18 October 2008; parts of the text are adapted from “The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life”]

by Jim Forest

Walker Percy, in his novel, The Moviegoer, made the comment, “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life…. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

There is a great deal of information in those few words about being a pilgrim. Not to be on a search is not to be a pilgrim. What keeps us from living a life of pilgrimage is the problem of “everydayness” — the sense of being trapped on a mobius strip of days that seem as interchangeable as fast-food restaurants.

To be a pilgrim is who we become when we step off the mobius strip. Most of us are pilgrims at least some of the time. Thomas Merton noted about his trip to Cuba in 1940, the year before he became a monk, that he had been ninety percent tourist, ten percent pilgrim. I can identify with those numbers.

Occasionally we step off — or are pulled off — the conveyor belt of everydayness into a pilgrim state of mind. At least for a short time, we actually see what’s around us with an almost mystical intensity, or become hyper-aware of some small detail of the world that we had previously glanced at a thousand times without really seeing it, and we find ourselves amazed, as if we had been struck by lightning.

We all have these moments, and when we have them we suddenly realize they happen too rarely and wish they were not so few and far between. All too soon, we find ourselves back on the conveyor belt of everydayness — a depressing state to be in, one that can bring on despair.

To be a pilgrim, to be someone who is trying as much as possible to be onto something, is not just a good idea but is even a matter of life and death. Not to be onto something, not to be a pilgrim, means to be more than half in the tomb. It’s a problem Jesus spoke of — eyes that don’t see, ears that don’t hear.

Anyone can be a pilgrim. It’s a potentiality that goes back as far as Adam and Eve. Being a pilgrim requires no particular religious identity — it’s absolutely ecumenical. Christianity is not the only religion with a pilgrimage tradition. Thanks mainly to St. Paul, there is a Christian theology of pilgrimage.

Paul put it this way in his letters to the Hebrews:

[Our spiritual ancestors, beginning with Abraham and Sarah] all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

St. Paul was definitely onto something. Following his encounter with Christ while on the road to Damascus, everydayness does not seem to have been a problem for Paul.

Even if we live the most stationary of lives, we can desire and actively seek what Paul calls “a better country.” This is what it means to be “in the world but not of it.” We are definitely here, living every minute of our life in this world, doing our best to make it better, but all the while attempting to make choices that are shaped not by nationalism or ideology, but by the reality of the kingdom of God, of which occasionally we get glimpses as we go about our daily lives.

These glimpses can come at the most unlikely moments. For example, consider a very important moment on the life of Thomas Merton. It happened suddenly and at a prosaic location, not at the monastery with all its reminders of the kingdom of God, but while he was on an errand that brought him to Louisville where he found himself standing at a busy intersection waiting for the light to change.

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream….

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…. It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake….

There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun…. There are no strangers! … If only we could see each other [as we really are] all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other….

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.

I have no program for this seeing. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.” [Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 141-142]

You don’t have to be a contemplative monk who has spent years in a monastery for something like this to happen to you. My guess is that such events are common and that each of us can look back at moments in our lives when suddenly the lights snapped on and we found ourselves in an intensely wide awake, astonished condition, a million light years from everydayness. In these moments, we are a hundred percent pilgrim.

When we hear the word pilgrimage, perhaps we think of Chaucer’s story-telling pilgrims making their unhurried way on horseback from London to Canterbury, or perhaps we think of all those people down through the centuries who have made their way, usually on foot, to places like Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela.

One of the advantages of that kind of step-by-step pilgrimage from here to a far-off place is that whoever sets off on such a journey quite literally become a stranger to those he meets along the way. Every day the pilgrim is seeing and hearing things he has never seen or heard before. This makes it more likely for the pilgrim to be in a high state of alertness. Freed from many ordinary chores and having access to many hours of quiet time while walking, meditation and contemplation come easier. Traveling an unfamiliar route is a way of living in a state of surprise and openness.

The harder challenge for anyone attempting to be a pilgrim while going nowhere special — on your way to work or to the supermarket, or stuck in traffic, or standing at a street corner waiting for the light to change — is to see and hear all that is familiar with a similar alertness.

One of the most important pilgrimage routes has nothing to with travel to distant places, but simply with seeing faces more attentively.

My wife and I know a nun who lives in Chicago, Sister Mary Evelyn Jegen. As she never got a driver’s license, she travels on public buses back and forth from her convent to the university where she teaches. City buses have become for her both a means of pilgrimage and a school of prayer. At the heart of her spiritual practice is the awareness that each person, without exception, is a bearer of the image of God and that this image is most visible in faces.

Her approach is discrete. She respects the privacy of the people she travels with. Being careful not to make anyone uncomfortable by staring, she briefly glances at a face, holding the image while trying to be sensitive to whatever that face reveals — happiness, boredom, anxiety, fear, anger, love, irritation, impatience, confusion, depression, despair — all the while praying for that person. She often uses a simple variation of the Jesus Prayer. Instead of the usual form of the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, “she says, ”“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy [on him, on her, on the woman in the blue blouse, on the man who is so upset, etc].”

“It’s amazing how much faces on buses reveal,” she says.

She calls her way of looking at others “benevolent glancing,” a phrase she first encountered in a press account of Pope John Paul’s meeting with the Buddhist Patriarch in Thailand. The first part of their encounter, it was reported, was an extended period of silence during which the two men “exchanged benevolent glances.”

One of the most challenging of pilgrimage routes is right in your own house — the pilgrimage to the front door.

I became aware of this one morning when Nancy and I were having breakfast. She asked, “What’s the most important thing in the house?” I mentioned several of our hand-painted icons, certain treasured books, and works of art that hang on our walls. “That’s not it,” Nancy said. “The most important thing is the front door. The front door is the place where whoever knocks is made welcome or kept distant. The front door is directly connected to the Last Judgment.”

There is no pilgrim who wouldn’t agree. Just as important as setting out on a journey is finding open doors and welcoming faces along the way. For the traditional hotel-avoiding pilgrim following the route to Santiago de Compostela, without its many hospices along the way, few would be able walk those paths, least of all those with little money. Hundreds of volunteers staff the hospices, providing meals, bandaging blisters, giving advice, telling stories and listening to them.

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, founders of the Catholic Worker movement, urged every Christian family to have a Christ Room — a place in the home for at least one guest. As they pointed out again and again, Christ is hidden in the stranger — don’t turn Christ away from your home. The Greeks have a word for the spiritual force behind such hospitality: xenophilia, literally love of the outsider, the foreigner, the stranger, the pilgrim.

The pilgrimage to the front door can be hard or easy. We’ve had countless guests in our home over the years. The vast majority have been people we were happy to welcome and sorry to see leave, but not all.

We’re now engaged in a different sort of hospitality, taking care of an elderly person. This can be at the tougher end of the spectrum. For the past 18 months, since the death of my brother-in-law, our principal guest has been Nancy’s mother, age 91.

Hard or easy, hospitality is at the center of life. Each of us depends on the care of others, especially care that is given freely — care that expresses love. Where would I be in life had it not been for the hospitality and loving care of others: parents, teachers, friends, co-workers, nuns, clergy, doctors and nurses, and also strangers?

In some countries, hospitality is a deeply embedded tradition. In a memoir of her pilgrimage from atheism to baptism, Tatiana Goricheva, a philosophy student who was then doing graduate studies in Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was called in the Soviet era, relates a story of going on pilgrimage to the village of Pechory to visit one of the very few living monasteries that still survived in the Soviet Union. “Where will I stay?” she asked friends. “There are no hotels.” “All you need to do is knock on any door and say, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’.” To Tatiana’s amazement, it worked. The response of the person answering the first door she knocked on was, “Amen!” She immediately became a most welcome guest. It was a significant moment on her journey to Christian belief.

As a model of hospitality, I think of a nun who gave me a ride from Louisville to Lexington when I was in Kentucky to give a few lectures and whose attitude about being on the road was certainly that of a person on pilgrimage. I no longer remember her name, but I will never forget the spirit of welcome that she radiated or her old, battered car. It would have been worth little at a used-car lot, but in her care it had become a house of hospitality on wheels.

As we drove along the highway, the glove compartment door in front of me kept popping open. I closed it repeatedly, each time noticing a pile of maps inside and also a book. At last the text on the spine of the book caught my eye: “Guests.” I pulled it out, discovering page after page of signatures, most of them giving the impression that the person signing was barely literate. Some were in shaky block letters.

“What is this?” I asked.

“Oh that’s my guest book.”

“But why keep it in the car?”

“Well, of course, I always pick up hitchhikers, so I need a guest book.”

I was astonished. Though I had been a hitchhiker myself back in my late teens and early twenties, I knew picking up hitchhikers was not without risks, all the more so for women.

“But isn’t that dangerous?” I asked.

“Well, I’ve had many guests sitting where you are now, most of them men, and I never felt I was in danger.”

She went on to explain that when she pulled over to offer a ride, she immediately introduced herself by name, and then asked, “And what’s your name?”

The exchange of names, she explained, was a crucial first step in hospitality and one likely to make for safety. “Once two people entrust their names to each other,” she explained, “there is a personal relationship.”

Her next step was to ask the guest to put his name in writing: “I would be grateful if you would sign my guest book.”

She didn’t have to explain to me that few of the people she had given rides to had ever been regarded as anyone’s guests, and fewer still had ever been invited to sign anyone’s guest book.

“I’ve met many fine people,” she told me, “people who have been a blessing to me. I never had any troubles, though you could see that most of them had lived a hard life.”

She had come to no harm, and there was also the factor of her nun’s habit, but it need hardly be said that pilgrimage as way a life involves risks. Countless pilgrims who went for long journeys to holy places died along the way, some from illness, some from violence, some from the rigors of old age.

There is, of course, the pilgrimage of dying.

If you ever have walked any of the great pilgrimage routes, perhaps you became aware that they are very long, very thin cemeteries. Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands of people have died along these paths. In earlier times when people set off on pilgrimage, the farewells didn’t hide the possibility that the pilgrim would not live to return.

On the topic of dying, I often think of a meeting in the early seventies that my friend Mel Hollander had with the Jesuit priest and poet, Dan Berrigan. In that first encounter with Mel, Dan immediately noticed Mel’s unhealthy skin color and sunken, dark-shadowed eyes. Clearly something was seriously amiss. Not bothering with the polite nothings that people so often exchange, Dan’s first words to Mel were, “What’s the matter?” Deciding to respond with the same directness, Mel said, “I’m dying of cancer.” To which Dan replied, without hesitation or embarrassment, and just as briefly, “That must be very exciting.”

Mel later told me how Dan’s few words instantly cleared the dark sky he had been living under since he had been told he had an untreatable cancer and had not more than six months to live. What had until then been a joyless journey on a short road to the grave suddenly was transformed into the most engaging pilgrimage of his life. (As it happened, against all medical expectations, Mel’s cancer went into prolonged remission. Mel lived on for some years. He did in fact die young, not of cancer but of smoke inhalation caused by fire.)

Sometimes we don’t journey to death — death journeys to us.

In my own family, my stepmother Carla made what I would call a daily pilgrimage to a center in San Francisco that was set up to help people struggling with alcoholism and other addictions. Caring and patient person that Carla was, she was just the right person for the work she was doing. Waiting for a bus to return home after work late one afternoon in 1968, someone with a gun in a passing car took aim at her and she died as a consequence. It’s a sort of crime Americans have become all too familiar with. Who shot her? Why did he do so? I have no idea. But I think of it as a pilgrim’s death. She was a pilgrim whose life centered on the works of mercy. She chose to work in a neighborhood that had more than its share of violence. She wouldn’t have given up what she was doing in order to live in greater safety.

None of us know when or where or how we are going to die, but what a sad life one would live if our choices were governed by an effort to be as safe as possible. What Walker Percy called “the search” would be out of the question. Instead we would be suffering chronic everydayness.

Being safe is impossible anyway. Assuming we find ways to avoid all the people we think might pose a danger, and assuming we manage to avoid wars, riots, fires, auto accidents, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornados, explosions, etc., we have a pretty good chance of eventually being seriously ill and at some point terminally ill.

One of the main pilgrimage routes in my life these past five years has been the pilgrimage of illness.

Back in 2003 routine blood tests that had been arranged by our family doctor revealed that my kidneys were failing. Following further tests at the local hospital, an internist, Dr. Bax, told me that I might have six months or so before needing to begin dialysis. “We will be seeing a great deal of each other,” he told me, “for the foreseeable future.”

Dialysis was a word that I knew nothing about. I quickly learned that it was an alternate method of filtering the blood when kidney function has either dropped below a minimal level or the kidneys have altogether stopped working. Without such an alternate method of getting rid of the wastes that ordinarily are filtered out by the kidneys, kidney failure is a death sentence. In every cemetery there are the tombstones of those who died because their kidneys gave out. Even since the development of dialysis in the latter half of the twentieth century, many such deaths still occur.

Things moved more slowly than the doctor had estimated — six months became a year, one year became two. During those two years there had been many prayers, from me and from others, that I might be healed. While not expecting a miracle, I was definitely not opposed to one. Meanwhile I did everything my wife and I plus our friends could think of to stave off dialysis. But at last the day came when the doctor, having reviewed the blood test of the previous day, said dialysis would have to begin tomorrow.

Ironically, while feeling sorry for myself, I was at work writing a book on pilgrimage — The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life. How funny! I had been writing about pilgrimage without being aware that the situation I so desperately wanted to avoid and whose demands on me I so deeply resented and resisted could do more for me than walking in prayer to Jerusalem.

Sickness is time-consuming; it stops you in your tracks. It’s an opportunity to learn a great deal and to do a lot of growing.

The pilgrimage of illness made me more conscious than ever before of a basic reality in everyone’s life: our profound dependence on the care of others. Raised as I was in a culture which prizes individuality and independence, I was reluctant to realize just how much I relied on others, though actually there had never been a day of my life when this wasn’t the case. I started that dependence the instant I was conceived and it will continue without interruption until I draw my last breath. I depend on others for love, for encouragement, for inspiration, for food. I depend on others for the words and gestures that make communication possible. I have others to thank for all the skills I acquired while growing up. Whatever wisdom I have is largely borrowed from others. Sickness makes it all but impossible to nourish the illusion of being autonomous and a having a right to whatever good things might come my way.

There is an easily memorized short summary of the Gospel. It’s called the Beatitudes — ten short sentences placed at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. The verses form a kind of ladder. Illness almost automatically puts you on the first rung of the ladder of the Beatitudes: poverty of spirit.

When everything seems to come easily, as if by right, the phrase “thank you” may not always reflect a deeply felt attitude. Being sick changes that. Gratitude rises from the depths of the heart.

In the community of the sick, there aren’t many people unaware how much they depend on the care of others, even if we know only a few of them by name. It’s not only dependence on the doctors and nurses who directly care for us, but all those who have such unheralded tasks as doing laboratory analyses in rooms we never enter or those who quietly keep the hospital clean. I still find it cheering to recall a young Moslem woman, mop in hand, who always gave me the warmest smile when we happened to pass each other in the hallway. Such a radiant face!

Among kidney patients, I’m one of the extremely lucky ones. After two years of dialysis, last October one of my wife’s kidneys made the journey from her body to mine where it has been living happily ever since. I no longer have be at the hospital every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for three-hour sessions of dialysis. I’ll be a hospital patient for life, but my sickness currently involves a lot less of my time. I can do things I couldn’t do not so long ago. I can travel without having to work out medical care along the way. I have more energy. I don’t have to sleep so long at night. I don’t need a daily nap. I can be more productive as a writer. I can do lots of walking and biking. All this is a kind of miracle. I feel a bit like Lazarus pulled out of his tomb. Of course Lazarus will in time get sick and die once again, but he has had a preview of life after death and, as a consequence, has a different take on the gift of life.

It’s not surprising that my appreciation for all the people involved in health care has grown a great deal these last five years. Directly or indirectly, what all these people are doing day after day is trying to keep those of us in their care alive a little longer and, in the case of those we meet face to face, even trying to raise our spirits in the process.

They are professional life-savers, people doing heroic work yet do not consider themselves heroic.They do what they do with the matter-of-factness of a teacher writing 2 + 2 = 4 on a classroom blackboard or a plumber unclogging a stopped-up sink. Yes, there are those for whom health work seems to be nothing more than a job, and not one they especially like doing or have a talent for. But my experience suggests that they are the exception rather than the rule. However, much depends on the esprit de corps of the hospital or clinic in which they work.

It’s not only the professional care-givers who make a hospital holy ground, but also those who visit the sick. Though the regulations in most hospitals attempt to restrict visits to predetermined hours that pose the least inconvenience for staff, in practice visitors arrive and depart throughout the day and, in many hospitals, are only told to come back later if their timing is especially bad. Typically they arrive carrying flowers, though some bring books, magazines, chocolates, juice, balloons, music or all sorts of other things they hope will communicate their love and give the patient a little extra energy for coping with illness.

It’s holy work, and often done despite a temptation not to be there. Hospitals, after all, are places exploding with reminders about human mortality. The most death-denying person knows that every day there are people breathing their last under this very roof. Though hospitals are not the healthiest places to be, crowds of people each day manage to overcome their hesitations, even their fears, and cross the border. After all, it’s not easy to communicate the bond of love while physically avoiding the person you love. Greeting cards and phone calls aren’t bad, but they can never equal the reality of being there.

On the pilgrimage of illness, I came to appreciate better what a healing work it is to visit the sick — as crucial and powerful an action as what the doctors and nurses are doing. There is nothing more healing than love. Love can be expressed far more openly by the visitor than the health-care professional. Whether visitors sit silently or talk non-stop, they manifest how much the sick person they are visiting matters to them. Whoever visits the sick is a pilgrim, for they are meeting not only someone familiar but Christ as well. It was he who said, “I was sick and you visited me.”

Perhaps I’ve said enough. If we are tired of being in a state of everydayness, if we are drawn to the search, clearly we are on pilgrimage.

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text as of October 19, 2008
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