With an apology to John Bunyan

Something funny has occurred recently. The idea of pilgrimage,or journey, has become deeply ingrained in my mind. Ever since I started to think about pilgrimage my daily bible readings have ganged up on me, I can’t get away from the subject! It’s the Christian equivalent of buying a new car, the model and color combination of which you though was very rare, only to suddenly discover that countless other drivers have also chosen the same model and design!  

In my desire to escape pilgrimage I have employed the time honored Christian strategy of changing the Prayer Books I use. Surely different texts provide alternative insights, or revelations?

But no, they are all ganging up on me, around the one central theme that has been whispered into my heart. The Celts are up to it, so are the Benedictines and even the Anglicans, through the week day Lectionary. God, it seems, is ecumenical. 

So let’s have a look at some of the recent passages that I have been unable to avoid:

Today’s readings from the Northumbria Community (Celtic Daily Prayer) includes Jeremiah 6, 16 (just one verse, so the message can’t somehow get lost in the midst of a larger reading): ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the way is good,and walk in it.’

Or how about this from Sunday’s Northumbria readings,Isaiah 35, 8: ‘And a highway will be there, it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way.’

The Lectionary, meanwhile, provides us with Psalm 23, ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and you staff they comfort me.’

So it seems that walking along the Way of Holiness does not preclude walking through the shadowy side of life, or even encountering real, undiluted evil, but it does mean that on our pilgrim journey we are accompanied by Jesus. We may not always recognize His presence, but this does not mean He is not with us, tending to us. As today’s psalm in Saint Benedict’s Prayer Book stresses (Psalm 121): ‘May he never allow you to stumble! Let Him sleep not, your guard. No, he sleeps nor slumbers Israel’s guard. The Lord, is your guard and your shade; at your right hand he stands………the Lord will guard you from evil, he will guard your soul. The Lord will guard your coming and going both now and forever.’ 

Both the Northumbria Community and the Lectionary have, in recent weeks, colluded to stress the fact that the Lord meets us as we walk. The onus is on us to stand at the crossroads and look, before choosing to take the Way of Holiness, in the full knowledge that it won’t all be plain sailing, in fact at times our journey will be painful and, costly but, that we will be met by the Lord, or at least by one of His followers (i.e. us!).

On Sunday the New Testament reading for the Northumbria liturgy was Acts 8, 35 where Philip meets the ‘pilgrim eunuch’ and shares the good news of Jesus with him. Earlier in the month the Lectionary provided a wonderful reading from the prophet Hosea (Hosea 6,3 & 4) ‘let us acknowledge the Lord, let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear, he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth.’

Taking pilgrimage seriously is important for several reasons: First, it allows us to accept the obvious fact that our life experiences are something of a mixed bag. Secondly, it encourages us to focus on progress, rather than the fixed bipolar metrics of success and failure. Thirdly, it reminds us that our walk is never unaccompanied. Finally, pilgrimage liberates us from the responsibility for assessing our worth against a set of, in reality, fairly arbitrary outcomes. The success-failure model can, I suggest, exclude God for, it carries the whiff of being a highly individualistic. 

John Bunyan famously encapsulated some of these ideas in The Pilgrim’s Progress; a real Christian classic. My prayer is that I, no we, rediscover the notion of pilgrimage, otherwise all we are left with is narrow notions of success and failure (neither of which are Biblical categories). Success  and failure are however seductive concepts because they are both competitive and relative. My success implies your failure, for instance. Success and failure cannot accommodate the Benedictine idea of transformation of life, the Pilgrim’s Progress in other words. Finally, success and failure are both triumphalist. If we succeed we feel good (proud?), if we fail we feel bad (guilty, worthless?). 

in 1 Corinthians 15, 55 (thank you Benedictine Prayer Book!) St. Paul famously asks: ‘Where O death is your victory? Where O death is your sting?’

I suspect that the answer to this lies in our attitude towards the narrative of pilgrimage viz a viz the success-failure account of life. If we are truly on the Pilgrim Journey, a journey whose only meaningful metric is progress (where progress is all about an ever deepening relationship with Jesus), it is hard to locate death’s sting.

In the success-failure account, by contrast, locating the sting is very easy; it’s either in the pride of success, or the guilt of failure. It’s in the comfort of relativity and the exercise of power. It’s in the value of achievement over person-hood. It’s in seeing our significance in human terms rather than through God’s eyes. It’s in a narrow and highly muscular distortion of Christianity. 

So I need to apologize to John Bunyan for not taking pilgrimage seriously enough and, for preferring to live in the laziness of the success-failure prism. 

I need to chose the path on which I will walk. I need to accept that the garden is not always rosy, whatever, choices I make. But, having stood at the crossroads and made my choice I need to press on, knowing that I will be accompanied.

Are you on a pilgrimage?

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