The pilgrimage began with a longing to be in the wilderness of the Rocky Mountain National Park, to go in search of the wild creatures of that kingdom, the elk. Along the way I also found the Saint Catherine of Siena Chapel near Estes Park, Colorado. It looked like a European cathedral made of stone. A mid-October snow covered its roof on the weekend of my visit. It was closed to visitors. But I wasn’t too disappointed.
The pilgrimage was never about visiting old, empty buildings anyway. I know many people through the centuries have made pilgrimages to such empty buildings around the world, in search of a Spirit who was once present there. But I have to say that is not the kind of pilgrimage that speaks to me. I am not drawn by what used to be. I feel called toward a very alive Spirit moving in places around the world this very moment. And I experience that Spirit in the natural world, such as in the wild creatures, just like I do in daily gatherings and visits with people.
Standing a few feet away from a massive wild creature who takes no notice of me, is not impressed with me, and who could ram me out of his way in a second, if I get too close, is exhilarating to me. It’s hard to explain why. There is majesty in God’s wild creatures, who are free to just be. The pilgrimage was largely about seeking to inhale that kind of freedom, to breathe that cold, clear air, and to learn again that I too am a wild creature who is free to embark on the new adventure of each day.
Life in our American culture can be inhibiting, stifling, and crushing to anyone who feels a bit different and who doesn’t want to just fit in with the status quo. Groups of every size and shape and purpose create unconscious norms of behavior. I guess it starts in school when kids like my grandson have their behavior graded every day. He receives or loses rewards based on how well he conforms to being quiet, still, and good. He is six years old, in kindergarten for God’s sake, and already he is being stifled to keep from being a problem to teacher’s who have too many kids to manage. So what is he supposed to do with all of that boy energy to keep from bursting all day long? God forbid that he should want to inhabit his body and feel the precious gift of Life flowing around and through him.
Like it or not, human groups accidentally stifle our creative energies throughout our lives. Unspoken messages arise in most every group you know about proper behavior, beliefs, attitudes, moods, and even feelings. Norms are created and altering those norms threatens people. Churches are often some of the least creative places I know, as “but we’ve always done it that way,” (meaning for the last few years), challenges every creative urge to try something new. But a spiritual life doesn’t have to work that way.
Yesterday our small spiritual community from the Parker Memorial United Methodist Church took a pilgrimage to the Audubon Park. We celebrated Mother’s Day in relaxed clothes, sat in folding chairs, and shared open conversation on a warm but breezy Sunday morning under giant oak trees and hanging moss. We sang a few songs, shared prayer requests and prayers, reflected on two poems and a scripture, tasted communion with bagels and grape juice, and told stories about moments we had recently experienced the presence of Spirit flowing freely in the world.
That story-telling was so inspiring. By sharing their unique experiences the community demonstrated the multitude of ways God’s Spirit flows into and through our lives, if we have eyes to see and the courage to name that flowing. We were on a different kind of pilgrimage yesterday.
We only traveled six blocks from our usual church building to create a sacred circle in the park. But we were also breaking free from the constrictions of being inside a building with air conditioning, needing an organist, or depending on a sound system with electricity. Several people spoke of their pleasure in trying something new. Faces were openly joyful. Sharing was spontaneous and valuing of each voice, including new guests, which meant we trusted each other and didn’t have to control the outcome. In this sense, you could say our worship was wild and free.
The pilgrimage of your choosing could be to distant places, like mine to the Rocky Mountains, or to nearby places, like ours’ to open sharing in Audubon Park. Your pilgrimage could even be to gather with a small group anywhere for spontaneous sharing from souls who were born to be wild and free, like the elk in the mountains or a boy in kindergarten. Just answer the call of Spirit to burst free of constraints, to blow where you will as She does, and to be on a pilgrimage to a place where people are free to seek Presence in their midst. Room for joy will open in your soul.
For more stories like this see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture, now available as a Kindle book.