On this third Sunday of Lent we encounter two readings that focus our attention on life’s pilgrimage. The first reading (Exodus 17:1-7) reminds us that our journey through the wilderness of life is done in stages. The second reading (John 4:5-42) is a story about the spiritual pilgrimage of Jesus, a Samaritan woman, her friends, and the disciples. Everyone in this story was at different stage on their life’s pilgrimage.
Thirteen years ago, as I prepared for my first walking pilgrimage in Ireland, I asked three young friends, who had walked their own pilgrimages, for some advice.
I asked the first one what was the most important thing she thought I needed to know about going on a pilgrimage. “Well,” she said. “You’re not going “on a” pilgrimage. You’re already “on” pilgrimage. The moment you decided to be intentional about pilgrimage was the moment your pilgrimage began. Life is “the” pilgrimage,” she said. “Walking Ireland is just one stretch of the journey.”
I asked the second young friend what advice he could give me about hiking. He said, “Buy the best leather boots you can find. And don’t be cheap. Good boots will cost you something but in the end, worth every penny you spend.”
I asked my third young friend what was the most important piece of equipment I should take with me. “Silk sock liners,” she said without hesitation. “They don’t cost much but they’ll save you from getting blisters.”
Wisdom from three wise souls. Not only for walking my many pilgrimages, but also for gaining wisdom from the metaphors about walking the pilgrimage of life.
My first young friend taught me that on life’s pilgrimage, I will need spiritual guides. It doesn’t matter what age the guide is—what matters is that they’ve walked the way before. In the story of the Samaritan woman, we understand that Jesus will be our spiritual guide. But also in the story, the woman would become a spiritual guide for many of her friends. They followed the way of Jesus because she pointed them to the path.
I’m not very fond of being called a Christian. But I do want to be known as a person who is following the way of Jesus. So, I look for guides, mentors, teachers who know the way. People who will hold me accountable. Who won’t let me hide or avoid things in life. Six weeks ago, when my pilgrimage took a dramatic turn, I called some friends who I know are experienced at leading churches through similar situations. During this time, I need their guidance and wisdom to keep me on the path.
Regarding my second young friend’s advice, I did buy an expensive pair of leather boots and I haven’t been sorry one step of the way. What he also taught me was that there will be a significant cost that accompanies my spiritual pilgrimage. In the story of the Samaritan woman almost everyone in the story took some significant risk. Jesus risked his reputation as a rabbi by talking to the woman. The woman risked humiliation by telling her friends that she had met the Messiah. And the people that followed her back to Jesus risked their time. The disciples, however, didn’t risk anything. They took the safe route. Instead of asking Jesus why he had been talking to the woman, they asked Jesus if he was hungry. There wasn’t anything wrong with their well-meaning question. But without taking a risk that would cost them something they weren’t going to grow spiritually.
Jung said that if there isn’t an outward journey, there will never be an inner journey. A spiritual pilgrimage requires the risk of going somewhere and doing something. We may not go to Ireland and walk the Wicklow Way or go to Spain and walk the Camino, but by being involved in a ministry that makes us uncomfortable and that costs us something, there we will be on pilgrimage and growing spiritually.
And I also followed my third friend’s advice; I bought sock liners. The thin silk socks cost less than three dollars. But I’ve hiked a thousand miles since that point and I’ve only had one tiny blister. What I learned from her advice was that I need to pay attention to the small details that will be important in my spiritual growth. Jesus told the disciples, “One person reaps and one person sows.” Often times, I tell my spiritual director that I’m overwhelmed. He typically tells me, “Gil, say your prayers and do your little bit.” As Anglicans, people of the Prayer Book, we understand that our prayers shape our belief. In other words, how we pray effects how we act. By focusing our attention on our prayer life, we trust that we will actually live a life of prayer; meaning we will naturally be doing God’s work in the world; feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison, and embracing the stranger in our country (Matthew 25:35). Our prayer life will guide us into living a life of service. To paraphrase Jesus, one person does one ministry and someone else does another. We all do our little bit.
I don’t want to skip over this important detail and make the assumption that we all understand what a life of prayer looks like. We all will be drawn to a different way of praying. Some will take the Prayer Book and follow the pattern of praying morning prayer, noon day prayer, evening prayer, and compline. Some will pray just one of those services of prayer.
Some will pray one of the small prayers at the back of the Prayer Book. Some will pray the rosary, which includes the Our Father and the Hail Mary. Some will pray the Eastern Orthodox Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me a sinner.” Some will pray extemporaneously. The point is not so much the form of prayer. The point is that we pray with the intention that the prayer shapes the way we act. There’s a subtle but important difference here, prayer shapes the way we believe and act, not the reverse, which is belief shapes the prayer.
I was in Canterbury Cathedral in England several years ago. We happened to be there at noon when someone said over the intercom that it was the custom of the cathedral that everyone stop for a moment and say the Lord’s Prayer in their own language. I was in the undercroft standing near a tiny side chapel just large enough for four people to kneel at the rail. As I knelt and began praying the Lord’s Prayer, I realized I was kneeling on a stone kneeler, where the prayers of people for over a thousand years had worn out the stone. The prayers of the people shaped the stone. And that’s what our prayers do to our mind, body, soul, and spirt. We are shaped by our prayer. While this life of prayer will protect the tenderness of our soul from the burden of life’s blisters, it will also activate us to live a life of service.
Wise words from my young pilgrim friends. Listen to our spiritual guides. Be willing to pay the price of spiritual growth. And pay attention to the small details of life’s pilgrimage. Life is a pilgrimage. How we walk it will make a difference in our life as well as everyone around us.