On Pilgrimage: Meeting Christ in the Stranger

Saint Columba of Iona

(talk for the Orthodox Friends of Iona pilgrimage, August 2012)

By Jim Forest

Here we are, pilgrims all, in a corner of the world that Saint Columba would still find familiar even though fifteen centuries have passed since his arrival. We’re just a pleasant walk and a short ferry ride from the isle of Iona, which has no physical relics of its most famous occupant, not one small bone to kiss or actual signature to peer at, but where every beach and cliff is a relic. If you haven’t done it in the past, you’ll probably take home a few ounces of Iona, most likely a piece of green-veined Iona marble and perhaps also a fragment of dull gray Lewisian Gneiss, the oldest exposed rock anywhere on Earth, roughly 2.7-billion years old, rock that carries one back to the early days of creation. We may put these souvenirs of pilgrimage on an icon shelf at home, a reminder of an Abraham-like saint who sailed off from his homeland to find the place that God would show him. It turned out to be Iona.

For Saint Paul, being a follower of Christ and being a pilgrim were one and the same thing. It’s Paul who was the first Christian author to speak of the Christian vocation as a pilgrimage. He wrote of our spiritual ancestors, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, who

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, a heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

Columba must have thought of these verses from Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews as he and his companions rode the waves in their coracle in 563 AD.

We are called to be pilgrims and to live a life of pilgrimage: pilgrimage as being and pilgrimage as journey. Just now we’re on pilgrimage in both senses of the word — pilgrimage as an approach to day-to-day life, no matter where we happen to be, and also in the more limited sense of traveling toward one of God’s “thin places.”

The most remarkable pilgrimage story in the New Testament concerns the risen Christ’s walk with two of his disciples to Emmaus, a village described as being seven miles — less than a two-hour walk — from Jerusalem.

The two disciples were escaping from a tragedy in Jerusalem and perhaps also fleeing from possible personal danger — people like themselves might be next in line for execution. The two were not only mourners, but disillusioned mourners. Jesus had failed to meet their expectations. The person they fervently believed would become the new king of Israel, heir to David’s throne, not only isn’t ruling Israel but is dead and buried. The candle of their messianic hopes has been snuffed out. His closest followers were in hiding. Their homeland was still ruled by Romans. The kingdom of God that Jesus had said was already present now seemed infinitely distant.

Conversation between the two would not have been easy. Grief is rarely a talkative condition. The words they hewed out of silence must have been confused, bitter, angry. Everything that mattered had turned to dust. Life’s axis had crumbled. Existence had no meaning, no pattern. People of virtue perish while their persecutors celebrate and count their money. How could one speak of a merciful and all-powerful God? Ruthless power, corruption, betrayal and the triumph of the tomb — this was Good Friday’s bitter message. Death once again had proven itself life’s defining event.

Walking side by side, breathing dust, the two friends are joined by a stranger who appears without description. He doesn’t impress the two men as being somehow familiar. They fail to notice his wounds. Without apology he joins their conversation. He wonders why they are so downcast. They are amazed at the stranger’s ignorance. One of the men, Cleopas, asks the stranger how is it possible that he doesn’t know what has happened in Jerusalem in recent days. Could anyone share in this particular Passover and be unaware of what happened to Jesus of Nazareth? Only a week ago Jesus had entered the city in triumph, joyful crowds putting palms in his path and shouting hosannas and calling him king of Israel. And now the man who should have redeemed Israel had been condemned by the high priests, renounced by the very crowds that had cheered him, and sentenced to public execution under the authority of Rome’s agent, Pontius Pilate. Finally he had been ritually murdered while soldiers threw dice for his clothing. Jesus’ followers had dared to hope for a miracle even when Jesus was taken away to Golgotha — after all, he had raised Lazarus from death — but the man who had been able to bring others back to life proved powerless to save himself. Yes, the two men had heard the story told earlier in the day by a few women — an empty tomb, angels, Jesus alive again — but the men found it an unbelievable tale.

The stranger listened patiently. At last he responded, “O foolish men, so slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then, starting with Moses and going on to all the prophets, he explained all the scriptural texts concerning the Messiah.

By this time they had reached Emmaus, apparently the place where the two friends planned to end their journey or at least spend the night. The stranger appeared to be going further, but they were so taken with his authoritative explanations of the prophecies of scripture that they appealed to him to join them for a meal in the local inn. “Stay with us,” they said, “for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.”

Even when they sat down to eat, the stranger was still unrecognized, yet it was he who presided at the table, taking bread, blessing it, breaking it and giving it to them. It’s at this point in Luke’s Gospel that we get one of the most breathtaking sentences in the New Testament: “And their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”(Luke 24:31)

Perhaps they recognized him because, at last, they noticed his wounded hands as he blessed and broke the bread.

In their moment of realization, Jesus “vanished from their sight.” Perhaps he actually disappeared — as we have seen in other resurrection stories, the risen Christ doesn’t seem subject to the rules of physics. Or perhaps he chose that moment to leave the table in order to continue his journey, but his departure was unseen because the two disciples were momentarily blinded by their tears. We don’t know. All we are sure of is that the stranger was Jesus and that the two friends finally knew with whom they had been talking on their way to Emmaus and who it was that blessed the bread and broke it.

They said to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” Forgetting their exhaustion and abandoning their meal, the two friends reversed their journey, hurrying back to Jerusalem in order to report what they had witnessed. But by now, they discovered, it wasn’t only women who had proclaimed the resurrection. “The Lord has risen indeed,” they were told, “and has appeared to Simon!”

What happened on the road to Emmaus, and finally in Emmaus itself, was the first Christian pilgrimage. Every pilgrimage, whether to a local park or to some distant place at the end of a well-trodden pilgrim path thick with miracles, is in its roots a journey to Emmaus, and every pilgrimage is animated with a similar hope: to meet the risen Christ along the way. It’s a hope one hardly dares to mention.

At the heart of the Emmaus story is the stranger. Had the two disciples failed to make room for him in their journey, the New Testament would be missing one of its most illuminating stories.

Pilgrimage is not possible if it excludes unexpected people found along the way. Perhaps it’s only for an hour or a day. A hesitant conversation takes wing. A reluctant tongue becomes fluent. Finally, we eat together. By now the stranger has become a named person. Sooner or later we part, but we remember that encounter as a shining moment. Perhaps we didn’t literally meet Jesus risen from the dead, and yet, in this brief communion with a stranger, Jesus became present and traveled with us. A chance encounter became both a eucharistic event and a recovery of sight. Theories about Jesus were replaced with an experience of Jesus.

The details of such encounters vary infinitely. No two God-revealing encounters are the same, but each of them triggers a conversion. Each conversion experience shifts the way I see, hear and act. Of each conversion one can say, “Their eyes were opened.” Certain fears I previously struggled with have been burned away.

There is not one conversion in life. Conversion follows conversion like an ascending ladder. Each rung reveals another. It’s a slow process, one that can never be forced or hurried. We are still busy being converted when we die. A good title for any autobiography would be the two-word message a computer occasionally displays when adapting a file from one program format to another: “Conversion in progress.”

Conversion isn’t something we can do on our own. As pilgrims, the main challenge is not to miss Jesus — Jesus the stranger — along the way. Life is a series of meetings. The only question is how deep we allow the meetings to be. The “I” exists only in communion with others.

We interact with other people every day: family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, plus many people we don’t know by name, people we meet briefly in shops, on buses and trains, behind counters, beggars on the street. Whether known by name or an anonymous stranger, how much real contact occurs is in large measure up to us. Even people living or working under the same roof can be too busy, too irritated or too fearful for real contact to occur. In fact it’s easy to bring out the worst in each other.

But there is always the possibility of conversation that moves beyond the exchange of distance-keeping civilities. To be a pilgrim — to be on the road to Emmaus — is to be open to contact, willing to share stories, willing to talk about the real issues in one’s life, willing to listen with undivided attention.

“Our life and our death is with our neighbor,” said St. Anthony the Great, the founder of Christian monasticism. “If we win our brother, we win God. If we cause our brother to stumble, we have sinned against Christ.”(1)

There is no such thing as finding Christ while avoiding our neighbor. The main thing impeding that encounter is my suffocating fear of the other. As Metropolitan John Zizioulas comments:

Communion with the other is not spontaneous; it is built upon fences which protect us from the dangers implicit in the other’s presence. We accept the other only insofar as he does not threaten our privacy or insofar as he is useful to our individual happiness …. The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God. Once the affirmation of the “self” is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other … it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary pre-condition for reconciliation with any “other.”(2)

That last sentence also works in reverse: Reconciliation with the other is a necessary precondition for reconciliation with God. As Saint Dorothea of Gaza put it, “As you come closer to your neighbor, you come closer to God. As you go further from your neighbor, you go further from God.” For most of us, the path to heaven leads through the rush-hour traffic of the human race.

At the heart of pilgrimage is the struggle not to let my fear of the other prevent meetings with strangers.

I often think of a nun who gave me a ride from Louisville to Lexington when I was in Kentucky to give a few lectures. It’s now too long ago for me to remember her name, but I will never forget the spirit of welcome that she radiated. Her old, battered car is also not easily forgotten, though it would have been worth little in a used-car lot. 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 which gave the impression that the person signing was barely literate.

“What is this?” I asked. “Oh that’s my guest book.” “But why keep it in the car?” “Well, I always pick up hitchhikers, so I need a guest book.” It was very matter-of-fact to her, but I was astonished. Though I had been a hitchhiker myself back in my early twenties, I knew picking up hitchhikers a risky business. “But isn’t that dangerous?” I asked. “Well, I have 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. Then she asked, “And what’s your name?” The immediate exchange of names, she explained, was a crucial first step in hospitality and, it occurred to me, one likely to make for greater safety. “Once two people entrust their names to each other,” she explained, “there is a personal relationship.”

The 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 been invited to sign a 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 many of them had lived a hard life.”

Should she ever be formally canonized, I suppose she will be put in the category of Holy Fools.

Saint Martin of Tours

Anyone reading the lives of the saints will notice that life-changing meetings with strangers are not rare events. Martin of Tours, one of the great saints of the fourth century, famously had one such encounter when he was still a catechumen. Here is a retelling of the story in the Attwater-Thurston edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints:

One day, in the midst of a very hard winter and severe frost, when many perished with cold, as Martin was marching with other officers and soldiers, he met at the gate of the city of Amiens a poor man, almost naked, trembling and shaking with cold, and begging alms of those that passed by. Martin, seeing those that went before him take no notice of this miserable object, thought the beggar was reserved for himself. By his charities to others he had nothing left but his arms and clothes upon his back; when, drawing his sword, he cut his cloak in two pieces, gave one to the beggar, and wrapped himself in the other half. Some of the bystanders laughed at the figure he made in that dress, whilst others were ashamed not to have relieved the poor man. In the following night St. Martin saw in his sleep Jesus Christ dressed in that half of the garment which he had given away, and was bid to look at it well and asked whether he knew it. He then heard Jesus say, “Martin, yet a catechumen, has clothed me with this garment.” This vision inspired the saint with fresh ardor, and determined him speedily to receive baptism, which he did in the eighteenth year of his age.(3)

One extravagant act often leads to another. Two years after his baptism, Martin — still in the army — risked his life by refusing to take part in battle. “I am a soldier of Christ,” he explained to Julian Caesar on the eve of battle. “It is not lawful for me to fight.” It was an act that put his life at risk. Accused of being a coward, Martin volunteered to stand unarmed before the enemy the next day, when the battle was to begin. Miraculously, the enemy sued for peace. Caesar afterward allowed Martin to resign his army commission. Martin went on to become one of the most distinguished missionary bishops of his era. He who converted many owed his own conversion to an encounter with a freezing stranger in Amiens.

Pick any century, pick just about any saint, dig carefully enough into the stories that have come down to us, and again and again one finds both pilgrim and stranger.

As the life of grace deepens, many saints are no longer willing to wait to meet strangers by chance, but make it their business to find them.

Often the Other, the stranger, is poor and in need. Among recent examples of those who each day sought Christ in the poor is Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, with whom I worked in my early adulthood. “Those who cannot see Christ in the poor,” said Dorothy Day, “are atheists indeed.”

Another saint of the same generation is Mother Maria Skobtsova, a recently canonized Orthodox nun. Like Dorothy Day, she founded a house of hospitality. Indeed in both women’s lives, their vocations of hospitality started almost simultaneously, 1932 in the case of Mother Maris, 1933 in the case of Dorothy Day, one in Paris, the other in New York.

In 1940, when the German army marched into Paris, hospitality became a vocation involving huge risks. Taking in many Jews and finding places of safety for them, Mother Maria and her co-workers were well aware they were courting arrest. In the end, she and three others from the same community died in Nazi concentration camps.

At the heart of Mother Maria’s countless acts of welcoming strangers was her conviction that each person without exception bears the image of God. As she wrote:

If someone turns with his spiritual world toward the spiritual world of another person, he encounters an awesome and inspiring mystery. He comes into contact with the true image of God in man, with the very icon of God incarnate in the world, with a reflection of the mystery of God’s incarnation and divine manhood. And he needs to accept this awesome revelation of God unconditionally, to venerate the image of God in his brother. Only when he senses, perceives and understands it will yet another mystery be revealed to him — one that will demand his most dedicated efforts. He will perceive that the divine image is veiled, distorted and disfigured by the power of evil. And he will want to engage in battle with the devil for the sake of the divine image.(4)

The Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn made the same discovery, in his case while a prisoner in Stalin’s archipelago of concentration camps, an environment of profound contempt for life. While witnessing cruelty day after day, Solzhenitsyn found the anger and hatred he felt was gradually replaced by compassion. As religious faith took the place of Marxist ideology, it became more and more evident to him that no human being has ever been born in whom there is no trace of the Creator. Even the most vile person at certain moments reveals some evidence of God. As Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.(5)

Mainly one learns this only in the crucible of life. It’s a truth rarely revealed in movies. In films those who do evil tend to be evil. The evil is imbedded in their DNA. They had a pathological twist before they were born. The only cure for such pure evil is death. Thus killing evil people is an act of a virtue — something one might call the Gospel According to John Wayne. Killing evil people is what we think heroes do. Seeing how merciless such people have been, we are tempted to think that they deserve no mercy and can never change for the better. In fact we behave toward them in a way that makes our dire expectations all the more likely to be fulfilled.

A great problem of thinking along such lines — imagining we know a person we know only through clippings or movies and resolutely refusing to search for God’s image in him — is that we exclude ourselves from walking on the road to Emmaus.

Being a pilgrim is not a naive undertaking. There are, we all know, strangers who are dangerous people. But should our fear of violence lead us to avoid all strangers? Should our fear of death lead us to live cautiously?

But pilgrims walking pilgrim routes have always known that they might die on the way, like countless thousands of pilgrims before them. There are many graves along the roads leading to Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela. Statistically, unexpected death along the way may be less likely for the modern pilgrim than it was in earlier times, but still accidents happen, grave sicknesses occur, and there are even occasional act of violence and murder.

The pilgrim’s attitude traditionally has been: “Sooner or later I will die. If it happens while on pilgrimage, what better way to cross life’s final border? Why be afraid?”

Pilgrimage is not getting from point A to point B on the map while counting the miles. The distances covered are incidental. What matters is being on the road to Emmaus — the road of discovering Christ in the Other.

Pilgrimage was, and still is, the great adventure of becoming unblinded. We discover it is impossible not to be in the presence of God. God is with us all the time, only sadly most of the time we don’t notice. It’s not that we are technically blind. We may be able to read the small print in an insurance contract without glasses, and yet there is so much we don’t yet see that we live in a darkness that is worse than physical sightlessness. It is a condition not caused by damage to the body but by deeply rooted fears, the imprisonment of self-absorption, and ideological obsessions.

Pilgrimage is so much more than going to one of the thin places where great miracles have happened or where some event in the life of Jesus occurred. The more important journey is the one we make while still at home. It can be to the pilgrimage to the front door of your house, opening it with a real welcome. It can be the pilgrimage to the kitchen sink, finding in chores like dish-washing an opportunity for prayer and meditation — as a Buddhist monk once told me, “Wash each dish as if it were the baby Jesus.” Daily pilgrimage involves choosing to see an unexpected and seemingly untimely event not as an irritating interruption but as a potential moment of grace. It can be your caring response to a beggar. It can be the journey to forgiveness in a situation in which forgiveness seemed impossible. It can be the difficult decision to take part in some act of public witness whose objective is to save lives, whether in war or by abortion or in an execution chamber. It might involve the creation of a Christ Room — a room of hospitality — in your own home, or helping found a house of hospitality in the town or city where you live. So many things are possible. It’s all pilgrimage.

Walking the road to Emmaus as a Christian on permanent pilgrimage is the great journey into discovering ourselves in Christ’s company with eyes wide open, a state of being that is described in a Celtic prayer attributed to St. Patrick:

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise, Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every one who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

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1. Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection; London: Mowbrays; Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications; see Anthony 9.

2. John Zizioulas, “Communion and Otherness,” Orthodox Peace Fellowship Occasional Paper nr. 19, Summer 1994; web: http://www.incommunion.org/2012/07/23/communion-and-otherness-2/

3. Note that Butler’s Lives of the Saints was first published in the 18th century and has been repeatedly revised in later years. I am quoting from the four-volume 1963 edition as edited and revised by Herbert Thornton and Donald Attwater; the entry about St Martin is on the web at: http://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/stmartin.htm

4. “The Second Gospel Commandment” in Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, edited by Hélène Arjakovsky-Klépinine, translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky; Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

5. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2, “The Ascent;” translation by Thomas P. Whitney.

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