What is the universal symbol of September? The backpack. All children and teenagers in Michigan go back to school the day after Labor Day. Many churches now have ministries where backpacks filled with school supplies are given to children and youth who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford them.
Everyone has a backpack today, from toddlers, to the elderly, to military personnel, to commuters and travelers. Why didn’t we have backpacks 40 years ago? The modern backpack originated in the US in the early 20th century, but somehow it didn’t catch on in the schools until after my time, at least not in the backwaters of Pennsylvania. I have distinct memories of arranging all of my textbooks and notebooks like a pyramid so that they were easier to carry in my arms.
This summer my most prized possession was my red Osprey backpack, for I spent most of my time journeying. When people asked how I spent my summer, I told them that I was doing pilgrimage walking. I like to think of a pilgrimage as a journey of faith in order to discover the presence of God. Actually, all of life is a movement toward the heart of God. Each one of us is called to grow, evolve, and learn. We either change or die because it is not possible to remain the same.
In medieval times Christians made long pilgrimages in order to reach a shrine or holy site which often contained the relics of a saint. Having experienced a spiritual “high” at their destination, pilgrims would return home mission accomplished, with a renewed sense of fervor and call. By traveling to the pilgrimage sites of Lindisfarne and Iona I was certainly following in the footsteps of those who have gone before me. My study of Celtic spirituality, however, has led me to think that perhaps I was not on a traditional pilgrimage at all this summer. Rather, I was on a peregrinatio.
One of the distinctive features of the Celtic tradition is a love of wandering, or peregrination. There is a story of three monks who set off from the south of Ireland many years ago in a small boat without oars, rudder, or supplies. They let the wind of the Holy Spirit take them across the water for seven days before landing on the north coast of Cornwall. The 3 monks were then taken to King Alfred, who asked why they sailed away. They replied, “We stole away because we wanted for the love of God to be on pilgrimage, we cared not where.”
Peregrini voluntarily separated themselves from their family, land, and the comforts of the world in order to draw closer to God. Such intentional leave-taking grew out of the intense zeal of Celtic monks to travel throughout the British Isles spreading the gospel. The outward journey, often without a specific destination, was a symbol of a hoped-for inner transformation. The old Celtic Church spoke of the purpose of peregrination as “finding the place of one’s resurrection.” To find the place of one’s resurrection involved a willingness to be led into what one does not already know, repentance and restoration, dying to whatever was familiar, and finding new life.
Of course Celtic monks realized that one did not necessarily have to leave home in order to find the place of one’s resurrection. The metaphor of a journey speaks of the importance in our Christian faith of continual growth and movement toward the kingdom of God, even – especially when the way is not at all clear.
Although the 3 monks did not have provisions enough for endless wandering, I suspect they each carried a backpack. In order to find our place of resurrection in our peregrination through life, what do you and I need in our backpack?
Ashes for Repentance
What needs to be stripped away from our lives in order to find our place of resurrection? What pride, fear, insecurities, and obsessions prevent us from walking freely and joyfully through our days? John Wesley was very intentional about daily self-examination, convinced that our interior life works itself out in all aspects of our personal and professional lives.
I was in New Mexico in July as wild fires raged out of control 20 miles away. At night I could see ashes in the air with my headlamp, and in the morning the ashes would blanket the ground. I kept a ziplock bag of those ashes in my backpack for the rest of the summer as a reminder that hope rises out of the ashes. “Take, O take me as I am; Summon out what I shall be. Set your seal upon my heart and live in me.” (John Bell, Iona Community) Are you all set for ashes?
Glasses to see God’s angels
One day Gary and I walked 20 miles in steady rain along St. Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose to Jedburgh. Although we had each other and knew that St. Cuthbert was cheering us on, it was a long and challenging 10 hours. We praised God that 4 angels appeared that day to bolster our spirits: a local woman walking 2 dogs, who encouraged us; a storekeeper who apologized profusely for the lousy weather and gave us some candy for energy; a stranger who drove us that last mile to the bed and breakfast when our legs refused to go one step further; and the owner of the B&B, who dried our soggy boots and clothes, made dinner reservations for us, and turned up the hot water heater for our place of resurrection, the shower. When you journey, do you believe that the people you meet along the way are sent by God to help you, for you to help them, or both?
A yoga mat for flexibility
Life never turns out as we expect it to. The more readily we accept and even embrace the unexpected, the more we can delight in God’s serendipity and “accidental grace.” Just as 9-11 completely changed my renewal leave ten years ago, so I experienced numerous setbacks as a peregrinus this summer. All state forests were closed in New Mexico because of extreme fire danger, so our hiking, camping location, and white water rafting all went to Plan B. Flights were delayed, suitcases did not arrive, B&B’s were not quite what we expected, the weather was crazy, and itineraries had to be tweaked. Cheerfully going with the flow like the peregrini made it a lot easier to find my place of resurrection. Can you still find your place of resurrection when circumstances are beyond your control?
Bug spray for protection
During almost 3 months of hiking, I did not need my bug spray, so I left it behind during my last hike in Mt. Ranier National Park. I stopped counting at 50 mosquito bites. Peregrini travel on high mountains and deep valleys, in bright sun and dense fog, on stormy seas and calm lakes. How will you protect yourself from fears within and without? Are you cultivating the necessary spiritual disciplines to survive and even thrive during the tough times? Do faith, hope and love boldly lead you to your place of resurrection?
Trail Mix to Share
Many people like to travel alone, but often it’s nice to have a companion, even if you meet that companion as a stranger on the way. The challenge comes when you both walk at different speeds. If you walk too fast (especially in the rain), you’ll get chilled when you have to stop and wait for your companion. But if you walk too slow, you won’t have time to rest when you catch up with your friend. Be considerate of one another, honor differences, and share the trail mix. What role does community play in your place of resurrection?
Tums for heartburn
Every step of a peregrination is a cause for our hearts to burn with wonder and awe. Any place can become holy ground when we believe that the Divine can break into human life at a moment’s notice. “O Lord Jesus Christ, yourself the way, the truth, and the life, grant to us who shall tread in your earthly footsteps a sense of awe, wonder and holiness. May our hearts burn within us as we come to know you more clearly, love your more dearly, and follow you more nearly.” (Prayer from Iona)
You are God’s peregrini, convinced that traveling hopefully is a better thing than to arrive. (Robert Louis Stevenson) You are God’s feet, wandering the earth in search of transformation and new life for our world. Where are your places of resurrection? The highest mountain, the lake, Ground Zero, the homeless shelter, the food pantry, the communion table, your prayer closet, the classroom, the dining room table, the prison, the hospital bed, the angel you meet on the road? Godspeed on the peregrinatio, and don’t forget your backpack!