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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Four Addresses in Santiago: 2 Pilgrimage and Truth-Seeking

Yesterday we began this series of studies by looking at pilgrimage as the offering of life. Our readings this morning introduce us to the idea that pilgrimage means discerning, sifting, refining. It is not a comfortable process and we should not make it too easy. It involves ordeal as well as satisfaction and fulfilment. That’s because pilgrimage is about truth-seeking: the truth about God, the truth about ourselves, the truth about the human condition, the truth about life.

I spoke last night about the first time I came here to Santiago. It was on a sabbatical journey my wife and I made from the medieval village of Vézelay in Burgundy. It is one of the four traditional gathering places in France from where pilgrims began the thousand mile journey to Compostela. We were lucky enough to have a little house there. From the Basilica of the Madeleine on the hill top, brass cockle shells set into the street pointed down the hill past our house to draw pilgrims southwards as they set out on the Camino. We decided to drive all the way across France and Spain, and to do it slowly and reflectively over three weeks or so, stopping at all the pilgrim churches on the way, saying our prayers, meeting pilgrims, meditating on the themes of pilgrimage.

(Before you tell me that it wasn’t a real pilgrimage, which some people were quick to do, let’s remind ourselves that we all came here on a jet plane. And let’s re-examine our notions of pilgrimage, that it is a journey with a purpose, with an inner dimension, intended to deepen our understanding and strengthen our participation in the journey we make through this world as human beings. I’m not saying that the means don’t matter. Walking, cycling, riding can be extraordinarily enriching and offer unique and unforgettable experiences. But I am saying that motive and intent are everything. In the middle ages, British pilgrims who could afford it wouldn’t travel across land with all its risks and hardships. They would sail to nearby La Coruna and do the last part on horseback. I see us as coming here in that spirit. A Pullman pilgrimage it may be, but if we look into ourselves in the spirit of today’s Psalm 24 and if we find there purity of heart, the journey will be as real for us as if we had done it on foot or on our knees.)

I mention Vézelay because of the Basilica that crowns the hill. The Madeleine comes from the same era as the great Basilica of St James here at Santiago, and Durham Cathedral for that matter, the period of Romanesque of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It was a time when the Camino was coming into its own as, this great flowering of art and architecture that spoke of the confidence of medieval Christianity in the face of Islam that was being driven out of Spain and southern Europe, and of which St James the Great had become the patron. The Portico of Glory is a majestic statement of this confidence, with its Romanesque sculptures on the great tympanum above the doors showing St James himself, and the tree of Jesse, and Christ in glory surrounded by the four evangelists.

Back to Vézelay at the other end of the pilgrimage. There too, inside the huge narthex, a church within a church, there is a noble Romanesque portal with an elaborate sculpture in the tympanum. Not Christ in glory this time, not the last judgment, but an entirely different theme. It shows the ascended, glorified Christ imparting the Holy Spirit to his followers at Pentecost, and through them, bringing light and illumination to the whole world. It’s one of the most missionary works of art from the middle ages. The message is: when you come into this basilica, open yourselves to the light and life and truth of God just as the midsummer solstice sunshine burns a luminous path right down the centre of the nave of that great church. And when you go out as a pilgrim and return to ordinary time, let that light of the Spirit who leads us into all truth accompany you, illumine the pilgrim way you are called to follow. “Your word is a lantern to my feet, a light to my path.” “We are walking in the light of God.”

I want to suggest that what links those two sculptures at either end of the Camino is the idea of Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. We could render that as the true and living way, or the living, walking truth. At Vézelay in that image of Pentecost, Christ in glory imparts the light that comes from the Spirit of truth, the light of the Logos which, St John says in his prologue, enlightens everyone as it comes into the world. Here at Compostela, we see that same light of truth in the glory of Christ in majesty, whose scrutiny searches and judges us all by his truth, and whose four evangelists symbolise all who bear witness to him as the embodiment of God’s truth.


Keep in mind those two images and the long pilgrim road that connects them as we explore today’s texts. I said that they focused on truth-seeking. I’ll begin with St Luke.

We’re used to seeing the second half of the gospel, beginning at the end of chapter 9, as a “travel narrative” because that is where Jesus begins to “set his face to go to Jerusalem” “when the days drew near for him to be taken up”. But the whole of St Luke is really a travel narrative, for Jesus is always on the move, never lingering anywhere very long. At the outset of his ministry, Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptised and having been proclaimed from heaven as God’s Son, the Beloved, is immediately taken into the wilderness to be tempted. It’s his first pilgrimage. It’s worth noticing that whereas it’s the Spirit who leads him there to begin with, it’s the devil who takes him up the mountain and it’s the devil who conducts him to Jerusalem and sets him on the temple pinnacle. Could it be that our journeys can be driven by a variety of agencies, and that discernment entails recognising who or what is impelling us to travel in the first place? 

The temptation story is the theme of the beautiful twelfth century sculpted tympanum over the left doorway of the Platerias façade of the Basilica here at Santiago. (Thankfully, that’s one part of the Cathedral that’s not covered in scaffolding.) No doubt you were preaching on this story in Lent. It has many layers of meaning, but a central one in all three synoptic gospels, is that Jesus is recapitulating the wilderness journey of the Hebrews after the exodus. But where they fell as a result of temptation, Jesus, the perfect embodiment of all that it means to be “Israel”, succeeds. Luke significantly inverts Matthew’s order of the last two temptations: here it’s the high mountain first, then the temple. Luke is the great theologian of the temple, beginning and ending his gospel there, so it’s natural that he would want to make it the climax of his temptation story.

And perhaps we shouldn’t miss the hint here that organised religion, represented by the temple, carries as many threats to spiritual integrity as every other temptation by putting the Lord our 
God to the test. You don’t need to throw yourself off a cathedral tower to do that. It’s striking how Psalm 24, an entrance liturgy at the threshold of the sanctuary, suddenly veers from a paean of praise to the Creator to a catechism of self-examination. “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts…They will receive blessing from the Lord.” Which is to say, without spiritual authenticity, “truth in the inward parts” as Psalm 51 calls it, without personal integrity as a pilgrim to the sanctuary, there is no entrance to the holy place, no worship “in spirit and truth”, and no disclosure of God’s glory. Every priest must ask himself or herself from time to time how organised religion must try the patience of our good and loving God! 

Peirasmos in this story means testing. It’s a much stronger word than temptation. Both here and in the Lord’s Prayer (“do not bring us to (or save us from) the time of trial”) the thought is of ordeals that we have to negotiate and pray to be kept safe through. That entrance rite in the psalm is a threshold ordeal that interrogates the pilgrim. The ordeals of every pilgrimage are a familiar and necessary aspect of it: the physical effort, the mental and spiritual stamina needed, the hazards of the journey – pilgrimage was never meant to be easy. That’s the whole point. Like the desert journey, a pilgrimage is an opportunity to rise above obstacles, face ordeals and find a strength beyond your own to overcome them. The Olympic Games of ancient Greece were known as agones, public festivals at which participants submitted to ordeals or agonies and demonstrated physical and mental prowess. “Agonies” indeed, but as every athlete and pilgrim knows, the necessary gateway to ecstasy.

What are the ordeals of pilgrimage for? I think Luke’s story of the testing of Jesus and in the background, the Hebrews’ wilderness journey, give the clue. It is, as I said at the outset, about truth-seeking. In the Hebrew Bible, the destiny of Israel is the issue. Who is this people Yahweh has loved and brought out of Egypt and made a covenant with, and promised a future to? Will they be loyal to Yahweh, keep his ordinances in response to the covenant, embody the covenant values and virtues of Torah in their life together in the land they will be brought to? These are questions already foreshadowed in our story from Genesis, where Jacob wrestles with a nameless adversary in the darkness and emerges limping but triumphant as the sun rises upon him. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” In token of which he receives a new identity and a new name, Israel, “prince with God”. The encounter has been life-changing. A new dawn has broken.

In the wilderness stories of the Pentateuch, the outcomes are not so happy. Again and again, Israel fails the test, stumbles at each ordeal, refuses to believe the promises that had been set before them. “Did you bring us out of Egypt only to have us die in the wilderness?” they demand of Moses. The golden calf is the symbol of apostasy, but all the stories are of relentless disappointment, disaffection, what the narrative calls “grumbling”. Whole psalms are dedicated to this depressing theme, such as 106 and 78, evidence perhaps that negativity did not evaporate when the Israel crossed over the Jordan. How different it is when Jesus makes the same journey. This time the story is of faithfulness, obedience and triumph. Already, Luke points forward to Gethsemane and the passion. This cup will not pass from him. But in setting his face to the cross and submitting to it as the obedient Servant of the Lord, he has overcome its evil. And that opens the way to resurrection.

The big question of the wilderness ordeals in the Hebrew Bible is the one that was asked at the place called Massah or Meribah, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17.7). It’s referred to in Psalm 95, the Venite: “Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness”. This was where the Hebrews railed at Moses for lack of water and he struck the rock. Exodus says that the name commemorated how Israel quarrelled and tested the Lord. I once stopped there on the way back from St Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai. My wife and I were being driven by Egyptians with a reckless disregard for safety on the torturous road that winds up the Red Sea coast of the peninsula. We were relieved to get out of that car. There’s a small spring and a handful of palm trees where you can buy drinks by the roadside while the trucks roar past. It’s an unprepossessing place that lives down to its reputation in the Bible.

This was the return journey of our pilgrimage to Sinai, the leg that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as the outward journey – and yet it poses spiritual questions of its own.  They are for another day. At Massah, I found myself pondering not only my own mortality on that road, but how it was one of the earliest places of truth for Israel after they had crossed the Red Sea. So soon had the exhilaration of being brought over given way to despondency and complaint – not much longer than it took for the crowd’s Palm Sunday hosannas to turn to the crucifys of Good Friday.

Massah means testing, Meribah dispute. Both names are theologically significant in a place of truth. Any place of truth. I first came across that phrase in a book by Michael Wilson published in 1971, A Place of Truth: a Study of the Role of the Hospital Chaplain. I find it a rich and resonant kind of language to use. A hospital is a place of truth because of necessity, all pretence and falsehood has to be unmasked if the professionals are to do their proper work, healing is to be possible and patients are to be cared for. It’s a theatre of ordeals, trials that are both clinical and emotional, of crises, both physiological and mental. In the most profound sense, healthcare of any kind is a truth-seeking enterprise. The medical process we call triage has the sense both of test and dispute: testing symptoms against agreed criteria; disputing in so far as symptoms need to be calibrated and prioritised against one another and the resources that are available.

In a book by the Freudian analyst Irving Yalom, Behind the Couch, he describes psychotherapy as truth-seeking, a kind of detective work. P. D. James has written about her novels in this kind of way, saying that detection is the pursuit of truth that re-orders and stabilises a world thrown into chaos and confusion by murder and violence. The links to ordained ministry are obvious. Our churches should be places of truth, candour, emotional honesty and spiritual intelligence. Public ministers are to be exemplars of truth-seeking. Which is why reflective practice is not only worth cultivating but essential if we are to make any lasting difference to human lives. It’s heartening that the seven Nolan Principles of Public Life which public sector leaders now have to sign up to when they take office are heavily focused on truth, transparency and personal integrity: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and example.

I believe we should see pilgrimage as truth-seeking in precisely the same kind of way. At Massah, the journey of the Hebrews came to a crisis that posed the existential question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” And this, I think, lies behind the devil’s taunts in the temptation stories: “if you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread; if you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the temple”. That fatal “if”! Is the Lord with Jesus or not? Does he believe so himself? “Jesus Christ Superstar: do you think you’re what they say you are?” The synoptic gospels are clear that this kind of self-questioning, this facing of demons if you like, is necessary if Jesus is to embark on his ministry with a confident sense of his own calling. In Luke it’s particularly striking that no sooner has the Spirit driven Jesus into the desert and he has emerged triumphant from the test, the next scene has him in the synagogue at Nazareth opening the scroll and reading the words, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”. That same Soirit who drove him out into the desert. Back to Vézelay, the starting point of the Camino, and the tympanum of the risen Christ with the Spirit of the Lord upon him, and the wind from God blowing through him into all creation bringing life and light and truth and love.

I want to see in all this a pattern for our own pilgrimage, this Camino we are on together. If we are serious about our humanity and our discipleship, we must not evade the challenges of Massah and of the wilderness. “Is the Lord among us or not?” “If you are the Son of God…”. They compel us to ask what the truth about our identity is, our vocation, our destiny. What does it mean to say that we are God’s people? What is the relationship he looks for with us? What is he leading us out of and towards? 

The literature of the Camino is full of stories about ordeals, testing and truth-seeking.  Not all pilgrims are people of faith, but very many undertake the pilgrimage because they want to address personal issues of various kinds: bereavement, an unexpected diagnosis, a crisis such as unemployment, addressing a sense of alienation from the natural world, a need for adventure or solitude or deepening friendship. It can be very moving to listen to pilgrims talk about why they embarked on the walk, what they are discovering about themselves and what they hope for out of it.

One of the best books I know about the Camino is by Nancy Louise Frey, Pilgrim Stories: on and off the road to Santiago. She is an ethnographer who lives in this part of Nort known as Galicia. Her approach is to observe and describe rather than to evaluate. One of the phenomena she notes is that of disorientation. People who live what are on the whole stable, settled lives can be profoundly disorientated as they get into the walk and begin to feel the strangeness of this way of living on the move, not nomadic exactly but detached from the familiarity and security of life at home. She talks about the movement from disorientation to reorientation, reconnecting with life, with our inner selves, with other people, with God in new ways as the walk continues. She is saying that pilgrimage transfers us into a liminal world of thresholds where nothing stays in place for very long, except the experience of the journey itself, and the people you are with, and your own personhood, and a destination that is not as far as it was yesterday; and for people of faith, the presence of God. If you have read Walter Brueggemann on the Psalms, you’ll recognise this language from his three categories that divide the Psalter into psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. Which is to say that many of the psalms, including all the collective and personal laments, are songs of the journey that are truth-seeking of which a great many ask the Massah question, the wilderness question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Think of the agonising questions we find in two of the best known. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalms 22, 137.)

So St Luke portrays Jesus as the pilgrim, making the same spiritual journey that his own people of Israel made in the wilderness. In the marvellous cloister of the Benedictine monastery at Santo Domingo de Silos not far from the Camino, where the monks sing plainsong better than anywhere else I know, there’s a touching twelfth century sculpture of the risen Jesus dressed as a pilgrim, complete with hat, staff, and the emblem of the scallop shell on his scrip. As if to say, the Lord is always on the road towards crucifixion and resurrection, always on the road with each of us, wherever our own journeys take us. That’s the theme of the Emmaus Road story in Luke 24 that I’ll come back to on the last morning. 

For Jesus, for Israel, for us, it’s the same experience of making a life-changing journey. It brings the same ordeals, the same tests of whether we trust that God is among us, whether we have the resolve it is going to take to be faithful to the end, whether we even believe the pilgrimage is worth making at all. Pilgrimage, if we undertake it with all our being, strips the spirit bare. It exposes us as the human beings and Christians we truly are, our motives, our ambitions, our loves, our appetites, our false selves. It is tough. It is painful. And yet, as the wounded surgeon plies the steel, we know it to be healing too, a pilgrimage of grace, a transforming journey that can change our lives, and on which we shall one day look back on with gratitude.

No-one captured the truth-seeking realities of pilgrimage better than John Bunyan. I used to say that Pilgrims Progress is a book all English Christians should read often. I now want to include the Welsh in that too. The journey of Christian and Faithful to the Celestial City is one of those texts that, once read or heard is never forgotten. I quoted from the last page of it at a memorial service recently, that marvellous passage where Christian crosses the River of Death “and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side”. I could barely get the words out, I was so moved. But that triumphant sense of homecoming only makes sense if you’ve experienced the ordeals and adversaries along the way: the Slough of Despond, the Hill Difficulty, the Valley of Humiliation where Christian fights with Appolyon, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the city called Vanity Fair, and that dangerous cleft in the hill just by the last river where he learns that there is a road to hell at the very threshold of heaven.

All our troubles, said Pascal, come down to our inability to sit still in a room. The antidote is to keep on walking. Solvitur ambulando said Augustine: whatever it is, it’s as we walk in obedience before God that clarity comes. It took “forty years long” for the Hebrews to cross the wilderness and reach the Jordan. The story they told about the journey was of how God remained faithful to them in spite of their disaffection and idolatry. Jesus waits on God in the desert for the appointed forty days, “the Son who learned obedience through the things he suffered” says Hebrews, in his time of trial among the sands and stones of the wilderness, and then again in Gethsemane and at Golgotha. Arthur Weighall, the archaeologist who excavated in the Egyptian desert in the early twentieth century, said. “the desert is the breathing-space of the world, and therefore one truly breathes and lives”.

There are the two sides of all good pilgrimage: waiting obediently on God, and finding him to be faithful to his covenant even at the most testing of times. This is how we pilgrims learn to know ourselves and to know God. A good pilgrimage is always an image of the whole of life, all the agony and ecstasy of being alive, being human, being Christian. And finding that we are “more than conquerors through him who loved us”.  This is the truth of pilgrimage, because it is the truth of human living.

Some of you may know of Daniel O’Leary, a catholic priest and spiritual writer. Last year he was diagnosed with a terminal cancer. In an article for The Tablet entitled, “Coming Home too Soon”, he wrote candidly and movingly about his journey towards death. “I’m falling into an abyss of uncertainty. On the surface, and well below it, my life is profoundly changed – and sometimes it’s a terrible hell of darkness. How do I survive? Do I pray? I have not asked God for a miracle, or to cure me, or to shrink my tumour. Only to open my heart as wide as it will go.” It takes courage to make such a journey at all. I want to come back to the link between pilgrimage and suffering tomorrow. But I want to conclude with what O’Leary says about the journey he was on. “In a weird kind of way, I feel I’m trying to exorcise out of me before I go, all that’s deeply flawed and hidden in my make-up, all that is inauthentic and false; to smash the wall of pretence that lies at the sick heart of my inherited clericalism, spawned by a sick institution, Maybe now, at this very last minute,, if, like the thieves, I take it, is the chance to say with Jesus, “It is consummated”…. This is the dark and deadly night of my soul that I will embrace, that I must embrace; it is God’s greatest incarnate gift of self that lights up, so surely, my way home.”

He died soon after writing, truth-seeking to the end.

Santiago, 14 May 2019
Psalm 24, Genesis 32.22-31, Luke 4.1-13

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