For some years I have played with the idea of SSM (unpaid/volunteer) clergy and their stipendiary (paid clergy) friends meeting from time-to-time in the upper room of a pub where we might experiment with – learn to hold – conversations. The working title for this gathering was to be ‘Chapter & Verse’. It would be an Undergroud Seminary of sorts. There’d be none of the popular ‘theological expert’ speaker stuff followed by questions; instead we’d seek new ways of sharing knowledge, learning from one another, caring for one another, seeking God and reading the signs of the times. We’d aim to retake theology back from the academy and the ‘experts’ (or at least from its specialised annexation from our lived lives) and seek to learn afresh what it means to be stewards of the mysteries of God as Paul rather invitingly puts it [1 Cor 4:1].
Murphy the dog
I knew about Montaigne’s Cat. Now, Murphy (the Dog) teaches me about prayer and living. Strange how these things happen. He lives entirely in the present moment; he never bears a grudge; he is capable of devoting his entire attention to a single phenomenon – a toy, a scent, a breeze, me. We go for a walk and he is light as a feather, free of earthly care. I almost shuffle along, unconsciously carrying with me the accumulated worries, regrets, anxieties of the tangled mind. Combining the walk with the Office of Evening Prayer I silently intone ‘O Lord, open thou my lips..’ but without much joy. Murphy jaunts ahead and every step betokens delight. His gait provides the response ..and our mouths shall proclaim your praise’.
Reciting words is not prayer
It is simply amazing how organised religion can bugger up prayer. It is not just the often sterile content. The sheer quantity of it is distressing. Endless, endless words.
I am an admirer of the American William Stringfellow (1928-1985). On prayer he writes: “The event of prayer, certain acts called prayer, the very word ‘prayer’ have gathered such ridiculous associations. That is not only the case with the obscene performances, which pass as public prayer, at inaugurations, in locker rooms, before Rotary luncheons, and in many churchly sanctuaries, but also the practice of private prayer is attended by gross profanity, the most primitive superstitions, and sentimentality which is truly asinine…. When I write that my own situation [during my illness] in those months of pain and decision can be described as prayer, I do not only recall that during that time I sometimes read the Psalms and they became my psalms, or that, as I have also mentioned, I occasionally cried ‘Jesus’ and that name was my prayer, but I mean that I also at times would shout ‘Fuck!’ and that was no obscenity, but a most earnest prayerful utterance” (A Second Birthday, pp. 99, 108-9).
And not unrelated, a recently found comment on prayer by A J Heschel: "The beginning of prayer is praise. The power of worship is song. To worship is to join the cosmos in praising God. . . . Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods" [my emphasis].
Be an everyday pilgrim
To be a ‘pilgrim’ means to be a traveller. The root meaning is ‘to come from afar’. And the direction of travel is towards a holy place.
Little harm is done, and often much good is found, in this traditional model of pilgrimage: of leaving our homes and our routines and travelling as an outward expression of our being travellers who are seeking to make God our destination.
And little harm, and often much good is found, in a variation on this established model. We could call it the ‘stay at home’ pilgrimage, but that would be to short-change it. Maybe 'interior pilgrimage': the simple decision to regard ourselves as pilgrims, and to see our everyday lives (at times humdrum, at times exciting, often somewhere between the two) as avenues of pilgrimage. And to see ourselves as embarked upon the adventure of moving towards the holy.
There is only one pre-requisite, and it’s a big one. We have to find a way of leaving behind the small world of our ego and its incessant preoccupations. That applies too, of course, to those geographical and blistered pilgrims pounding the well worn routes. To arrive at Santiago de Compostela, or Rome or Jerusalem with our egos still comfortably in charge means we haven’t travelled very far at all.
The best kind of pilgrim knows from the outset that in order to arrive she must leave something behind. And so it is with that part of ourselves which is endlessly preoccupied with itself and in the process is constantly defining, predicting, judging, whispering, acquiring, defending and expanding. This noisy and always fundamentally fearful part of our make-up has to be firmly patted on the head and told to go to its basket. And the first step is for us to stop identifying with this noisy voice, this ego, which we so often mistakenly identify as our essential self.
Pilgrimage viewed in this way can be undertaken within our usual routines, making them, miraculously, unusual. And it does not even have to be 24/7 as the jargon has it. If that seems too much, be a pilgrim every Tuesday and see what happens. Pilgrimage is a way of seeing differently, and of journeying towards greater awareness of God and God’s world and away from our rather small worlds of ingrained opinions and dubious certainties. It is, fundamentally, the way of following Christ in our lives. And it can be a tremendous adventure.
All Souls: lives remembered