Text: Luke 9:57-62
We are in the season of Lent, the 40 days which fall between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday. Lent is a time of preparation for personal and collective transformation. We are exploring the eight spiritual practices in The Soul of A Pilgrim written by Christine Paintner. We are almost half way through.
We began with the practice of hearing the call and responding. We learned from salmon, their incredible migration traveling through the river, the ocean, estuary, and the river again and returning to their birthplace. They have the need to go on despite challenges and obstacles. We learned about the practice of packing lightly. We can’t travel far unless we know how to pack lightly. We learned from refugees – why and how they must travel light. We also reflected on our emotional bags – all the things and the people we have a hard time letting go of. And then we learned about the practice of crossing the threshold – how the children of Israel crossed their first threshold only to realize that it’s just the beginning of endless crossings.
Today is about the practice of making the way by walking. Like any other practices, this one requires a great deal of courage and trust. Pay attention to the phrase. It doesn’t say finding the way. It does say making the way. A well-trodden path, like a nice and soft trail in the park doesn’t require us to make the way. Unclear pathways and unpredictable roads do require us to make the way.
Think about walking down the street in spring-like weather when the snow starts melting in Winnipeg. The mixture of all kinds of elements – the remaining snow, thin ice, slush, water, dirt – makes our trip unpredictable and challenging. I once made a trip to get a sub sandwich. I didn’t think it was a difficult task and the route was always predictable: walking along Point Road, crossing Pembina Highway through the crosswalk, and coming back to the church. However it was quite a journey. Meltwater covered the sidewalk here and there, and the not-yet-melted-snow made the street icy and slippery. I had to navigate the wet and icy road, while avoiding any possible danger of being showered by cars passing nearby. Who knew that getting a sub sandwich could be so challenging? Turned out, it was worth navigating because it gave me a great satisfaction not to mention getting my empty stomach filled.
Tourists don’t have to make the way. Everything – where to stay, where to eat, where to go, what transportation to take and even what to say – is given, and that’s what they pay for. Pilgrims, on the other hand, must make the way, and that’s the beauty of taking on a pilgrimage.
I have experiences of both. I went to China for a field trip with a team of students and professors from a department of religious studies. We were travelling by air and land – on a train and a chartered bus. We visited many temples, historical sites, schools, mountains, and many other tourist attractions. The travel was both comfortable and safe. We were treated well, and the food was great. What do I remember most? I remember the group dynamics, and one particular classmate who became my wife.
After we got married, we went backpacking through France and Italy. Neither of us spoke the languages – French and Italian, and few people we met on the way spoke English, so we really had to depend on body language for communication. Except for a couple of times, we didn’t even eat in restaurants. We bought local foods from traditional markets in France, and carried them in our backpacks as we went our way. We didn’t stay in fancy hotels. One time, we were very happy to find a one-star hotel in Milano, Italy, and were surprised that the old cast-iron elevator was still working – I can still remember how loud it was. On the very first day of our trip we had an argument, and ended up touring Notre-Dame Cathedral separately, but our fight didn’t last – it was an unforgettable trip, and it made our relationship stronger.
What do I remember most about that trip? It’s not so much the places we visited as the people we met. I remember a very kind Italian lady whom we met on the bus, who showed us the way by getting off the bus and walking with us together. I remember the blessing that Brother Roger, the founder of the Taizé community, gave me by touching my forehead with his fingers. I remember the stationmaster couple and a young man from Bangladesh who gave us a warm welcome on our way to the sanctuary of La Verna, Tuscany in Italy. These personal encounters made the trip special and memorable.
What made the second trip different from the first was that there was a certain level of risk that required a great deal of trust. On the first trip, because we had paid money to a travel agency, we expected a certain level of security, relaxation and entertainment. We just followed the schedule. Everything was organized not by us, but by the travel agency. When there were any concerns, we told the local guides, and they did their best to fix the problem. We were tourists, after all.
But in the second trip, Ha Na and I had to organize everything ourselves. When something didn’t go well, we changed our plans. Nobody told us where to go, what to do, where to eat – we had to work things out by ourselves, asking for directions from strangers countless times, discerning and trusting, repeating the process of getting lost and finding our way over and over again. At the end of that journey there was a great sense of fulfillment that I didn’t feel in the first trip. I came back home with a deeper relationship with God, Ha Na and the world, because that time I had really been engaged in the journey.
Our faith journey is not a tour but a pilgrimage. It was not a longing for entertainment but a longing for home, peace and wholeness that motivated us to set off on this journey. We don’t have any agency that works on our behalf – the church is not a travel agency but a group of fellow-pilgrims. We have to engage in the journey ourselves, putting our heads together to find a way, asking the way from strangers. Not everything is labelled – we don’t really know where we will see Christ on our way. We have to expose ourselves to personal touch on the way, not disconnecting ourselves from the rest of the world, but connecting ourselves to one another and the world deeply and meaningfully. If something doesn’t go well, we need courage to change our plan and begin anew.
Most of all, we need to put our trust in the One who calls us by our names and leads us through. In the end, we will know it’s God’s longing for us that set us off on our journey, and it’s God’s love for us that has made us able to journey through, and it’s God’s grace and mercy that will bring us home.