Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Pilgrim's Progress

Hindu pilgrims, India

My third-grade teacher at my Christian school, Mrs. Olive Sandvig, was innovative, teaching us things like how to churn cream into butter, and inviting us to listen occasionally to stories on the radio, helping us, the first television generation, learn the power of words without pictures.

For a while, during quiet time, she read to us from Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s metaphorical tale of Christian’s pilgrimage to the Celestial City. Though Christian met with dangers and challenges and temptations, the spoken words had a calming influence on me, and to this day, I can place myself at my classroom desk with my head laid down, eyes closed, imagining the trip.

When I was spiritual leader of Atlanta’s Midtown Spiritual Community, a congregation that had left the Unity denomination because it was “too Christian,” I appreciated the challenge of talking about spirituality in a more generic way. I still had much to learn. Once I spoke of the need to move and to travel in order to grow spiritually—in essence, the need for pilgrimage, and I was taken to task by my dear friend Linda Pogue, who explained that a neighbor in her English village had never gone anywhere all his life, yet she knew of few as spiritually mature as he! For some of us, our only necessary pilgrimage is through time.

Due to economic limitations, my own pilgrimages these days are mostly limited to my imagination and my morning walks. But I have travelled widely when my circumstances permitted it.

During my first decade of ministry at a Presbyterian Church, I was expected to take study leaves, and I travelled on two Fordham University religious studies tours led by Byron Shafer: one to Egypt, Jordan, the West Bank, and Israel; the other to India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.

Though we were visiting sacred sites of the world’s religions, these were not billed as “pilgrimages,” but I approached them as if they were. My personal text for the first trip was The Bible, and for the second was Gandhi: Selected Writings.

Given last week’s post on “Altars in the World,” blog readers may not be surprised that the open, natural places I encountered felt more “spiritual” to me than the closed, box-like structures (as beautiful as they are) that housed religious meaning.

Though early one morning I walked the Stations of the Cross alone along Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa, what spoke more to me were the green pastures beside the Sea of Galilee, the great rivers of the Nile and of the Ganges, the Egyptian wilderness devoid of any visible plant life, the gnarled trees of Gethsemane, the everflowing sea of faces throughout India, the wild-elephant-populated jungles of Sri Lanka, the Himalayas as seen from Nepal, and the colors of the stone of Petra in Jordan, which I’ve written about earlier.

Given my predilection for open spaces, I found that the retaining wall that served as the Jerusalem Temple’s base, known now as the Western Wall, is a fitting place for prayer and contemplation all by itself, without reconstructing the temple.

And, in New Delhi, serendipitously stumbling alone upon the garden where Mahatma Gandhi was martyred gave me the opportunity to give in to my spiritual emotions un-self-consciously.

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  1. A reader added these places which I will list here and under "Altars in the World": "I also find 'places' that cause my heart to change, to listen to the still quiet voice, to become new: A hillside behind my childhood home, a river in NJ, empty churches . . ."

  2. I first saw the Richard Attenborough "Ghandi" film on videotape during Religious Education classes at School in the early to mid eighties. It had a profound and enduring effect on me. I am an "Interspiritual" in no small part because of that film and the Mahatma.

    1. The film "Gandhi" was released the week before I left and I was able to see it twice that week. That was what helped me to recognize the garden where Gandhi was assassinated just around the corner from our hotel in the first days of our stay in India. It's one of the films I can watch over and over through the years. I love your self-designation "Interspiritual." Thanks for writing, Tom!

    2. P.S. The house beside the garden had become a Gandhi museum, and his small, sparsely furnished room was on display. I purchased three sets of poster pairs there (his photo and a quote of his). I have one set, and I gave the other sets to my friends Linda Culbertson and John Boswell.

  3. On the topic of overall spirituality, I think both can be true depending on the Believer. I remember growing up in a small country Methodist church. The girl I took to my junior prom was a friend of mine from church. Before we left to meet our friends we were summoned to "mamaws" trailer just next door. Of course she doted over out outfits, and reminded us of good behavior among CHRISTIAN youth at such functions, I noticed her KJV of the Bible and asked to look in it. Such used document with pen notations, highlight marks, pages coming out of the seam, cover worn with use and reuse. She was a simple country lady in a simple country town, and she knew what it meant to be spiritual and she lived it out.

    As for spiritual pilgrimages, I am so for them. Mine have been confined to the Hispanic and Latino world with so much time studying Spanish in immersion programs in Costa Rica and Madrid Spain, serving on Christian missions trips in Peru, and adventuring away with my best friend to a "different" part of Mexico. But for me the spirituality came not from all the wonders in the animal kingdom, mountains, beaches, cathedrals, castles, and other architecture. It was in the people. The host family who slept 3 two a room so that I could have "my own room"--only the proper thing for a guest who is staying with you. The long conversations about religion and Latin American history with a church member in Peru with my critique of my Spanish skills. The lack of worry about time, and where to be next, and what 10 things come after that. The idea of being in the moment, enjoying the blessing of the friends and family around you, and taking in God's creation.

    1. Amen to all of that! As I think you know, Henri Nouwen better understood himself and God in that very environment and culture, helping him to slow down and experience true hospitality. Thanks for your comment, Wes!

  4. Phyllis Hart wrote: "You may remember that I have been all over the world, a moment that stands out, we were in a mud hut church in Zimbabwe, before the liberation, after service they gave gifts to each other - an orange, a handmade cane - then the JOY lady led in singing and dancing! I have forgotten many church services - but not that one!"