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

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Four Pilgrim Addresses in Santiago: 3 Pilgrimage and Pain

In the first of these studies we looked at pilgrimage as the offering of life. Yesterday we explored the idea that pilgrimage is related to truth-seeking. Inevitably we’ve been coming up against the question, what is pilgrimage? What makes for good pilgrimage? One approach is to say that it is a journey with a purpose, a journey that is about discovering, exploring, participating, not merely observing. It’s a decision to travel so as to look at the world with a fresh awareness and to consider our place in it. We’ve seen how Jesus’ journeys early in St Luke’s Gospel seem to uncover this truth-seeking aspect of his formation, both in his childhood when he was among the teachers in the temple, and then again in the wilderness with a different kind of teacher, the desert that says: you shall not live by bread alone. Let solitude instruct you. Let these stones be bread for you, reveal your own heart to you, and the God whom you encounter there. Let them be your soul-makers and purify you. “Go into your cell, and your cell will teach you everything” said the desert fathers.

Pilgrims on the Camino often tell stories about how disorientation has felt like a desert. In the middle ages one of the most feared stretches was the crossing of the thick forests of the Landes in south-west France; another the Meseta in the north of Spain, an endless semi-arid plain that is punishing to walk under a fierce summer sun. Pain comes into things when you are a pilgrim. It’s rare, I think, for any journey of significance not to entail, if not physical pain, then the mental and spiritual sense of dislocation that comes from being far from home and safety. Very often it plays into the life-issues we bring with us on pilgrimage, especially when we undertake the journey precisely in order to understand it better and gain strength to face it with equanimity and courage.

I’m thinking of a married couple I read about yesterday, who had reached the end of their rope because of the sheer weight they were carrying on their backs. When a fellow pilgrim offered help, they told him they were carrying the belongings of a third person as well as themselves, their only child, the son who had packed his rucksack to walk the Camino but had died just as he was about to set out. His parents vowed to take his possessions into the Cathedral here at Santiago to offer up his life, give back that life to God, and then walk on to Finisterre to lay down this burden and lovingly leave it there at the end of the road, “the end of the earth”. 

And there’s the woman I knew about who walked the thousand miles from V├ęzelay to Santiago to try to make sense of the death of a beloved daughter to cancer. She was not looking for “answers” – how could she? – but she was seeking a way of living with a loss that felt like the end of the world. She kept a personal journal of the pilgrimage in which she reflected on how the ups and downs of the Camino, its pleasures and hardships echoed her febrile emotional state, the wild oscillations she felt between hope and despair, some days reliving memories with joy and gratitude, others experiencing only a blankness in her soul that left her without any feeling at all. She said that the walk had not taken away the pain but had helped her live with it more positively. She said she felt more ready to face the world, more courageous, and – yes – it had made her a better person. She was not a religious person, she said - how often do we hear that said! And we always know that there’s a “but” coming. Her “but” was that she believed that by making herself vulnerable by undertaking the walk, she had gained new insights about life and about herself. She had found solace lighting candles in pilgrim churches, sharing the common life of the refuges where she lodged, attending and being inspired by the pilgrims’ mass in the Basilica. It was a healing pilgrimage, she said. It’s a story that could be repeated a thousand times.

If pilgrimage is truth-seeking, then it is bound to be about suffering. Our readings focus on the relationship between pilgrimage and pain. Psalms 42 and 43 belong together as a single lament – who knows why they ever got separated? Here is a worshipper who cannot get to church. He is cut off from the sanctuary by some disaster that has overtaken him – sickness maybe, or the infirmity of old age, or most likely from the language of the psalm, persecution. He is overwhelmed by grief: “my tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’”. He has only his memories to draw on: “These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng and led them in procession to the house of God”.

But memory can be transformative. For one thing, it helps him to see that he can, indeed, sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, know and love God even in his desolation. “By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.” This is the pilgrimage of the imagination. If you journey in your mind and heart, you journey even if you can’t put one step in front of another. The desert fathers tell a story about a brother who set off on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The same day he came across a poor man who begged for alms. Moved with pity, he gave him all that he had, everything he had needed for this journey of a lifetime. He went straight to his father abbot to confess. “You did what was right” said his confessor. “You encountered God in that poor man. You have made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and have come back.”

The other gift of memory is to confer hope. The psalmist is tempted to think God has abandoned him. “I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?’ But then there is the great turning-round we come across so frequently in the psalm laments. There is what the scholars call a “certainty of hearing”. Three times the refrain brings a surge of hope: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” Out of his pain, the memory of past pilgrimage to God’s holy place brings the assurance of pilgrimage in the future.

Something like this is going on in the reading from Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple. Here again, the people’s separation from this place of presence is envisaged. In the characteristic Deuteronomic way, Israel’s misfortune and exile is seen as the direct consequence of sin. So the people must pray for forgiveness and reconciliation so that they may be restored. What is striking is the language of imaginative petition. “If they pray to you towards their land which you gave to their ancestors, the city that you have chosen and the house that I have built for your name, then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea; maintain their cause and forgive your people who have sinned against you”. Recall that in Deuteronomy, the people were to make the pilgrimage at the festivals three times each year, to “the place which the Lord your God shall choose”. So here again is a pilgrimage of the mind, a mental and spiritual movement towards the holy place from a state of separation. I wonder whether in both the psalm and this reading, the subtext is that to make a good pilgrimage, you must already be making it “in spirit and in truth” we might say, imaginatively. In both texts, it is suffering that triggers this inward and spiritual journey.

In the gospel reading, suffering becomes an intentional aspect of the journey. Early on in Luke, Jesus takes the three disciples up the mountain of transfiguration where he is disclosed to them as God’s Son, his Chosen. Immediately afterwards, he begins to teach them that “the Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands”. This is where Luke’s so-called “Travel Narrative” begins, with the portentous words “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9.51). It is the turning-point of the Gospel. From this point on, we know that Jerusalem is not simply the destination that awaits Jesus but his destiny. Today’s text is one of the three reiterations of that vital saying from the point in the journey where Jesus is approaching Jericho, so not far away now from the city and all that it represents. “He took the twelve aside and said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.’” (Telesthesetai, the same verb as tetelestai, “It is accomplished”, Jesus’ last word from the cross in St John. I don’t believe I’d noticed that before.) He goes on to speak about being handed over, flogged and killed; “and on the third day he will rise again”.

In St Luke, Jesus is portrayed as the pilgrim, as I said yesterday, making a journey with a purpose. That purpose in the gospel is his own passion, death and resurrection, a paschal purpose. And it’s very clear from the structure of the gospel that Luke sees discipleship as a participation in that paschal purpose, that cross-and-resurrection shaped pilgrimage. At the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah had spoken about the exodus Jesus will accomplish at Jerusalem (Luke 9.31), a word full of both pilgrim and paschal resonances. Immediately after that ebent, someone says to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go” and Jesus has to remind them that on this journey, foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Two others want to follow, but one first needs to go and bury his father, and the other to say farewell to his family. Jesus has to make it plain that from the outset, discipleship in the kingdom of God means dying to yourself and your involvements, taking up your cross as he puts it. It’s too hard for them – that’s the conclusion we’re meant to draw. But in today’s reading, the blind man who is healed and can see again now wants to follow him and he does, glorifying God. To see is to believe, and to believe is to follow and to follow is to make the journey Jesus made, even if it means the via dolorosa.

We need to understand this connection between pilgrimage and suffering. This year’s Holy Week was something of a revelation for me in this regard. I was in London, invited to give Holy Week addresses each day in Southwark Cathedral. That brought the opportunity to revisit favourite art galleries. I was drawn first to the Tate Britain and to an outstanding exhibition of Don McCullin’s photographs. To me as an amateur photographer, he is one of the greats who has influenced me the most – though the effect of gazing on these powerful images was to wonder how I would dare ever to take a photograph again.

McCullin is famous for his photographs of some of the most terrible conflicts of our time. His name is indelibly associated with images of the Congo, Biafra, Vietnam, Cambodia, Beirut, Northern Ireland and Iraq. Even if you don’t recognise the name, you’ll have seen his work, for example that famous photograph of the shell-shocked US marine in Vietnam, staring blankly not at the camera but through it, beyond it into a personal void that is beyond imagining. I’d read McCullin’s autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour where he speaks memorably about his work in these calamitous war zones, his exposure to the worst human beings can do to one another. He writes: “Seeing, looking at what others cannot bear to see, is what my life as a war reporter is all about… Our knowing matters. These are sights that should, and do, bring pain, and shame, and guilt.” He talks about the need to bear witness. “You cannot just look away.” And about the pilgrimages he has had to make to record terrible things as part of his own journey of truth-seeking and to help us with ours. “I don’t believe you can see what’s beyond the edge unless you put your head over it; I’ve been right up to the precipice. That’s the only place to be if you’re going to see and show what suffering really means.”

The Tate was busy on the day I visited. But I was struck by what I can only describe as a kind of religious hush in the galleries where the exhibition was. You did not want to talk in front of these images, so filled with human darkness and pain, so powerful in their capacity to move us to tears. In Holy Week, it was like progressing slowly and prayerfully along the Stations of the Cross. It was to be brutally yet compassionately exposed to the suffering of Jesus in his people. I knew I needed to say something about it in my address that night. I wanted to ask where hope lay amid all this cruelty and pain. I also saw once again, as clearly as I have ever seen it, how religion, if it has nothing to say about suffering, has nothing to say.

McCullin himself to some extent responds to that question of hope. In old age he has taken to photographing landscapes. He says that while he can never “unsee” what he has witnessed, and does not wish to, his work now must be to calm his spirit. This he does by photographing the Somerset Levels where he lives. He does this to beautiful effect. It feels healing in a gentle and life-giving way. The images are still printed dark, with high contrast, as if haunted by the chiaroscuro, the light-and-dark journeys of a lifetime. But there is something of resurrection about them too, eucharistic even. “Waking up today” he writes “to a morning of birdsong, and stepping out of my back door, I spot the antlers of a deer emerging from the mist in my orchard. The light breaks through the cloud, striking the Iron Age hill fort like the fingers of God. And I find myself saying: ‘Thank you…whoever you are’.”

That brings me back to this cross-and-resurrection shaped pilgrimage Luke portrays Jesus as being on, and not Jesus only but those who walk with him like the blind man who sees the way ahead once more. Seeing, discerning, understanding are all part of being pilgrims, because they are metaphors of the truth-seeking we explored yesterday. But I want to suggest that they especially belong to that aspect of pilgrimage that immerses us in suffering. In our passage, Luke explicitly contrasts the disciples’ inability to understand that Jesus’ vocation is to be handed over to suffering, with the blind man seeing with the utmost clarity that his destiny is to follow Jesus to the cross – at least, that’s the implication of the way these two pericopes are linked.

It’s striking how Luke emphasises the public dimension of the suffering that awaits Jesus, and its violence. “He will be handed over… mocked… insulted… spat upon… flogged… killed.” Even a casual reading of the passion narratives shows how Jesus’ death, whatever else it meant at the time or came to mean subsequently, was the outcome of turbulent and violent politics. He was the victim of decisions made by the public leaders of the time, Caiaphas, the temple authorities, Pilate, Herod and the crowd as St Luke tells the story. Like the massacre of innocent men, women and children in McCullin’s images, the crucifixion was the result of power being wielded against the powerless. This pilgrimage of Jesus is that of a lamb led to the slaughter in the imagery of Jeremiah. And Jesus’ insistence on this point from the ninth chapter of St Luke onwards, that crux that follows the transfiguration, is meant to nail home the truth that for him and for the disciples, the vocation is to drink the cup of suffering of which the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane is the symbol.

The Camino has its own history that echoes the politics and violence of the passion. If you go into the south transept of the cathedral, you’ll see a twelfth century Romanesque doorway that once gave on to the medieval cloister. In the tympanum above the door is a fine carving of St James. He is seated on a horse like a Roman cavalryman brandishing a banner with one hand and a sword with the other. This is Santiago Matamoros, James the Moor-slayer, a son of thunder indeed. You can see him in baroque style above the high altar. Along the length of the Spanish sector of the Camino you come across this image of him, as often as not trampling over a defeated Muslim, commemorating a vision that was said to have been seen at the Battle of Clavijo in 844 when St James appeared on a white charger to give victory to Christian King Ramiro the First against the Saracens. And this reminds us how the pilgrim route in the north of Spain was the nucleus of re-Christianised Spain, what is called the Reconquista, the expulsion of Islam over seven centuries from medieval Spain and its reclaiming for Christian Europe. And that links it too with the attempts in the Middle Ages to reclaim Jerusalem from Islam in those most terribly misnamed adventures call the journeys of the cross, crusades.

It’s a history that should trouble us, this weaponizing of pilgrimage in pursuit of territorial ends. It seems to propel us back into our own troubled times when Islamists murder Christians at worship on Easter Day in Sri Lanka, and a far-right extremist murders Muslims at Friday Prayers in New Zealand. You don’t expect when you set out as a pilgrim to find yourself implicated in a history that feels so contemporary. And however much you feel that St James is a fellow-traveller and friend on this pilgrimage, you can’t help being repelled by the naked triumphalism with which he is depicted as the patron saint of a Christianity that is historically embroiled in a religious conflict that has been responsible for untold suffering and death down the centuries.

Pilgrimage requires us to think carefully about our assumptions. With this history of Reconquista and its politicisation and bloodshed as the background, the Camino can never simply be about our personal journeys and the beautiful moments we crave. No, it forces us to take seriously the public context of pilgrimage as history and as present reality. We shouldn’t be surprised at that, for the same is true of the passion narrative itself, and how the cross has also been weaponised in different eras as an instrument of subjugation and control. Postcolonial readings of missionary activity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have linked it all too clearly with empire and cultural appropriation. How we think about mission today can never be divorced from the social and political givens which are the context in which we bear our Christian witness.

So the Camino makes us think about the diverse, multicultural Europe of which we are part, how we set about the gospel imperative to reconciliation, how we begin to heal the memories of centuries, how we befriend those whom the iconography of the pilgrimage depicts as Christendom’s implacable enemies. Few tasks seem more urgent in the fractious sentient environment of our own day than addressing relationships between the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Our theme today is pilgrimage and pain. Jesus’ foreshadowing of his passion reminds us that suffering will always be a dimension of pilgrimage. The Camino presents us with it in a strikingly vivid – if unexpected - way with its stories and images of conflict because of the politics of previous ages that were not our own, but of which we are the inheritors, however unwillingly. It poses the inevitable question, is healing possible? If so, what is our part in it as pilgrims who are walking this road with the Jesus who is destined for the cross?

It may seem ambitious to ask the question, how, given its history, the Camino could transform our vision of the world and inspire us to play our part in bringing healing to our fractured world. But maybe today’s reading from St Luke offers a clue. It comes at the end, where Jesus has given the blind man back his sight and told him, “Your faith has saved you”. In what I find to be one of the most moving moments of the Gospel because of its joyful spontaneity, Luke tells us that “immediately he regained his sight and followed Jesus, glorifying God; and all the people when they saw it, praised God”. The clue is that this healed man, this new disciple who leaps up to go with Jesus glorified God. He gave thanks, praised God for the transformation that had happened to him. It’s a marvellous instance of eucharistia, the gratitude that always lies at the heart of the experience of redemption and the new beginning. But this is a public act of thanksgiving, so public that others cannot but join in, as Luke is careful to tell us. In other words, the activity of glorifying God becomes in itself an act of bearing witness. There is a story to be told and an experience to be shared. Those very acts of telling and sharing are, as we would say today, missional. They have the capacity to alter perceptions and touch lives. As a result, bystanders themselves become participants, glorifying God in their turn.

Here, I think, is where pilgrimage has such potential. Bearing witness seems to me to be everything. When you make a pilgrimage to Auschwitz or the Holocaust memorial of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, you are told why you have come. “You are not here to observe” they warn, “still less to be entertained. You are here to remember and to bear witness. If this is a burden you do not wish to carry, better that you don’t cross the threshold to begin with.” Well, it’s too late for us to turn back. We are already here in Santiago as pilgrims. And I’m suggesting that if this pilgrimage is to mean anything, then we are here to remember and to bear witness. What is it that we need to bear witness to?

Let me make two more suggestions as we conclude. The Camino exposes how Christian Europe has roots in violence and bloodshed. But the twentieth century rediscovery and reanimation of the pilgrimage has become closely associated with the new Europe - borderless, transcending national boundaries, looking for convergence and even union. The Camino has become a powerful symbol of integration and of healing the wounds of memory, not least as recently as the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. Nancy Louise Frey's book Pilgrim Stories, from which I've already drawn, explores how in practice the pilgrimage can be a witness to a holistic vision for our continent in which diversity, inclusion, peacemaking and hospitality are part of our own commitment to build a common European home in response to centuries of fracture and conflict. Here in Spain, we may think of ourselves as far from home, but we are still at home here in Europe that is not someone else’s continent but ours.

A second idea draws on what  I was reading while preparing these talks, David Wallace-Wells' recent book The Uninhabitable Earth: a story of the future. It is as sobering a read as the title indicates, not calculated to help you sleep at night. He outlines the science of climate change, its probable effects on the planet assuming that a temperature rise of merely 2 degrees will be impossible to attain before key climatic tipping points later this century, and the politics of how the world responds to the climate emergency, or fails to. You may meet pilgrims in Santiago who are walking the Camino to draw attention to the urgency of this crisis, the degradation of the environment, the protection of species and all the other consequences of this era in planetary history that we are learning to call the Anthropocene. Pilgrims speak about how the Camino re-connects them to the natural world, inculcates a reverence for life, draws attention to the threats we face. This too is an aspect of bearing witness, and I'm sure you won't argue the point that our churches need to be publicly committed to it.

The cross and resurrection are both Jesus’ destiny, and they shape the character of the journey itself, as we see in today’s reading. And that is always the fundamental gospel reality we bear witness to, wherever we are, whatever journey we are making. But especially when we are on this intentional pilgrimage of the Camino. In terms of pilgrimage and suffering, we bear witness to the reality of pain in the world, the brokenness of human life, the cruelty and abuse of power that maims and destroys people, often in the name of religion. And alongside this, there is whatever personal pain we bring to the Camino, and how the experience of pilgrimage has enabled us to find words to talk about it, share something of our human experience in the way that bereaved woman did whom I spoke about earlier.

But then there is how the Camino has touched our lives, maybe even transformed them as it did for the blind man who followed Jesus on the road in St Luke. It will no doubt be easier to tell our personal stories than a public one. Yet there is a public story to be told if we would play our part in redeeming the Camino of its troubled history, at least in our imaginations and how we choose to speak about it. This too is bearing witness to the cross and resurrection in the life of the world and how we reach out in warmth and hospitality to faith communities from which we have been alienated by history.

When the simple act of going for a walk sows seeds like these, who knows what fruit could come? If we tell the story and bear witness to both the pain and the mercy, death and life, cross 
and resurrection, who knows how God may turn out to be glorified? In this diocese you are learning to articulate your vision as “Telling a joyful story, growing the kingdom of God, and building our capacity for good”. This is pilgrimage. This is Christianity 

Santiago, 15 May 2019
Psalms 42-43, 1 Kings 8.46-53, Luke 18.31-43

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