Sunday, June 7, 2009

Benedictine pilgrimages and other oxymorons

Can Benedictines go on pilgrimage? I mean we profess stability, remaining with the same community all our life. What business do we have galivanting all over the globe? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, mostly because I am leaving for Rome on Wednesday for the “Benedictine Renewal Program,” a month of classes and sight-seeing centered on Benedictine and monastic topics. It is an incredible opportunity for a once in a lifetime experience and I want to enter into it deeply and be open to the gifts it will bring.

One way to do this is to see the trip as a pilgrimage. This has been a stretch since frankly the idea of pilgrimage has never made a lot of sense to me. What does going somewhere have to do with faith? Is God only present in certain supposedly sacred places? Traveling can be fun, enriching, challenging, but faith enhancing? I’ve never really been able to see it.

Of course my doubts are reinforced by the fact Benedict isn’t big on monks going anywhere. The Rule is deeply distrustful of any kind of travel as harmful to the soul. Benedict wants the monastery to be entirely self-contained so that monks aren’t wandering around seeing and doing things that will get them in trouble and lead away from God.

As if all this weren’t enough I am not exactly the world’s most adventuresome spirit. The idea of going off by myself, not knowing anyone, to a place where I don’t speak the language, from tiny little Cottonwood to the megalopolis of Rome, tends to make me queasy. I tend to prefer my adventures to be of the intellectual sort, not the kind that involve lost luggage, pickpockets, foreign currencies, and the skin problem known as “Rome rot.”

So all in all I am not exactly the perfect candidate for a pilgrimage.
But lately I have been reading a lot about pilgrimage (some of us have to understand things before we can experience them) and it is starting to make sense. Pilgrimage is a journey with many levels; it is simply the human journey of faith in an explicit tangible form. All of us are on the journey of faith, traveling toward the sacred.

To go on pilgrimage is to let go of control, of the known and comfortable, and to listen to the voice of God that beckons us to a new destination, to a place of transformation. In going on a pilgrimage to sacred places we are saying that our faith is a journey that requires us to face challenges, to go in the company of other seekers, to ask for help to find our destination. In other words going on pilgrimage is like living in community with addition of blisters and a passport.

So I am more or less ready, I’ve got my passport and tennis shoes, camera and guidebook and I’ll be setting off. I am going with three main goals: to be open and receptive to all that the trip offers recognizing God’s presence in everything and everyone; to give thanks for my Benedictine forebears and to remember that sometimes the journey is the destination.

In a month I’ll be back, with plenty of stories and pictures and when I am back the pilgrimage will continue in the company of this motley crew of pilgrims who live in the same place and whose pilgrimage is the on-going, interior journey toward transformation.

(I probably won't have internet access in Rome. Check back after July 15 for new posts and pictures!)