Scripture: Matthew 17:1-13
(Following is the transcript of a homily delivered by Holly VandeWall on August 13, 2017. No audio is available.)
This year, as a professor at Boston College, I got the opportunity to teach a course called Self Knowledge and Reflection: The Experience of Pilgrimage. This meant I had the very rare opportunity to make students apply to get into one of my courses – 115 applied and 10 were selected in the fall. In the spring we prepared to walk part of one of the western world’s oldest and most famous pilgrimage routes – the Camino de Santiago.
Some of you were here about a month ago, when Hannah Brents talked about her Camino pilgrimage, which she did with a great stepping in faith into the unknown. Our pilgrimage was different (every pilgrimage is different) but ours involved a LOT of preparation.
We spent months practicing walking, discussing what gear to take (and more importantly, what to leave behind) and reading, and writing and talking about the Camino. We read philosophical texts about self-reflection, historical analyses of pilgrimage in general and the Camino de Santiago in particular, texts on encountering the natural world, and theological texts on discernment and meditation.
One of the important things we learned was that most pilgrimages are focused on the destination – Lourdes, Mecca, the Vatican, the Holy Land – and it doesn’t much matter how you get there – taking the train to Rome or flying directly into Jerusalem is totally acceptable. Santiago, however, is identified not just with a Cathedral thought to contain the relics of the Apostle St. James – but with “The Camino” a word which means “the road” or “the Way.” On the Way of St. James there are hundreds of churches – mostly tiny ones – and pathside altars and “albergues” – simple places set aside for pilgrims to stay. To be as cliché as possible – if you’re going to go to Santiago, the Journey is at least as important as the Destination. Completing the journey under your own power – on foot or a bicycle – is required if your pilgrimage is to “count.”
And so, after classes were over for the semester we all met up in Leon, Spain and together we walked 200 miles to Santiago. It was not easy. We encountered (collectively) terrible knee pain, major stomach distress, mild sunstroke, a hundred blisters and a possible bed bug infestation. But as one of the students put it “We all signed up to be uncomfortable.” And it was worth it. It was wonderful. Transformative.
In reading the reflections my students wrote about the Camino after our return I noticed that one book we read last spring was referred to again and again. Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal theologian who about 8 years ago published a book called An Altar in the World. She wanted to remind people that the insides of churches (or temples or mosques) might not be the only place to encounter the sacred. That the whole world is the house of God…but we’re just not used to noticing that. Because we’re badly in the habit of only expecting the sacred in one particular space, Taylor suggests practices – each chapter is a practice – the practice of paying attention, the practice of encountering others, the practice of walking on the earth, the practice of getting lost – that can jolt us out of our habits. Many of the students liked this book when we read it, but loved it after the pilgrimage, where they kept finding Altars in the World all along the route.
One student walked out alone one evening after a thunderstorm, and watched a rainbow form around the sunset. He wrote afterwards that
“With chills running down my spine, I knew this was a message from God saying that I was on the right path. I’d made the right decision to take part in this journey.”
Another said that “On multiple occasions during the Camino I felt this sort of tranquility... Whether I was standing at the top of a mountain feeling the strong breeze against my hot skin, or sitting at dinner enjoying a home-cooked meal while surrounded by a caring group of friends….I felt an overwhelming sensation of love and peace of mind that I attributed to a higher power.”
Many students had powerful encounters with the altar that is pictured on the bulletin. The Iron Cross is the highest point on the Camino route. On top of a mountain is a pile of stones, left by pilgrims for nearly a thousand years. Traditionally, people carry a stone with them as they walk the Camino, a stone that represents something they want to leave behind – a grief, a loss, a bad habit – and they carry it with them to the mountain and symbolically leave it there before completing the final week and a half of their pilgrimage. I think all of us had powerful experiences there. One student, who had lost a dear friend in a drunk driving accident said that
“as I walked up the mountain towards the Iron Cross …I confronted my true intention: to forgive my friend for drinking that night. When I wrapped his bracelet around that stone and placed it among all the others, it felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders… I actually felt as if weights on a barbell had been resting on my shoulders and someone had finally lifted them off my back. I stood up straighter and breathed more easily, but most of all I loved more deeply in that moment. In that moment I recognized the Iron Cross as a makeshift altar. It was if the transubstantiation was happening before my eyes... I was being enriched with the body and blood in those moments by the Iron Cross without the physical presence of wine and bread. Taylor says that “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.” From that moment on, I believed what Taylor was saying. An altar is simply a space to recognize God and his presence.”
One of the things I love about the scriptural passage we read today, about Jesus’ transfiguration – is that just few people go up with Jesus to the high mountain and there is a transformation – a dazzling change – and Peter says “it is good to be here! We will build an altar here in honor of this encounter with the sacred.” He recognizes God in this place and rejoices!
But of course, Peter wants to build a dwelling there – to stay on the mountain where the glorious experience happened. And I love that Jesus doesn’t even bother to say “No. Don’t do that.” He just tells them “Don’t be afraid.” And then they come down off the mountain.
Because we have to come down. We had this incredibly wonderful experience of pilgrimage and we felt transformed: lightened, elated, loved. And then we had to come home.
Anther student who was deeply moved at the iron cross noted that
“Despite the amazing weight that was lifted off my shoulders that day, I noticed that my bad habits started to creep back into my life upon my return home. I didn’t work to eliminate them from my life myself, rather, I trusted the experience I had at the iron cross had already done that for me. Despite my many triumphs on the trail, I believe my one defeat consisted of taking this experience for granted. Though the experience was a great leap in the right direction, it didn’t guarantee that I’d completely rid myself of these burdens.”
My co-lead on the trip, Tim, who leads retreats all the time, told the students something very wise and very important before we came home. He said that retreats give you this high – we go to the mountain top and gain new perspectives, and then we go home. And at home you will, absolutely, revert to your old habits. But the key is not to be so depressed by the coming down that you fail to notice that you gained a little. That you didn’t go down to the same level you left at, but you now live your life just a little higher up than before. And maybe more open to the next transformative experience.
One student went home resolved to say “yes” to more things this summer – to keep seeking new altars in the world. She reported this lead to “a lot of holy moments, and some that lead to regret, shame, and embarrassment.” But she reflected on how she could discern what to say “yes” to in the future. She asked herself:
“What characteristics are consistent among my Holy moments? Kind people, the shining sun, music. Many of my Holy moments included something new. Many, but not all, included other people. Although details vary, what was consistent was a foundation of kindness and a sense of adventure.
None of my Holy moments require spending a large amount of money. None of them occur at the expense of another person’s happiness. Notably, my phone, computer, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat are not in any of my Holy moments.”
Another student said she came home with what she called a “mindful packing list” of things she took home from Spain to Boston. This list included (but was not limited to)
“An openness to challenges and uncomfortable conversation.
The will to pursue things for myself even when surrounded by people who may distract me from doing so, because in order to love others, I first must humbly love and care for myself.
A desire to go outside of my comfort zone
The intention to avoid the distraction of material things that may pull me away from what is truly important
A greater sense of respect for opinions and beliefs of others that are different from my own
An immense feeling of gratitude”
That’s a pretty good packing list.
Perhaps my favorite image from the papers my students gave me is a conversation which I want to send Brown Taylor as a thank you present:
“My friend and I strolled through the fields, barely noticing the light rain falling on us. Birds were chirping and the trees were rustling in the wind; I felt fully surrounded by vibrant life. The sun peeked out from the clouds and a rainbow formed in the distance. We saw a few frogs hopping around in the creek next to us. We stopped. We had been talking about faith, and I was discussing my struggles to believe in God due to logical inconsistencies. My friend stopped me. He threw his arms out wide and exclaimed, “What about this? Don’t you think something made this? How could this, everything around us right now, be a coincidence?”
I stood there, soaking in everything around me, smiling. I was deeply moved, and I think he could tell. He turned to keep walking. “Just saying,” he said over his shoulder.
So now, home from Pilgrimage, this is my prayer for my students, myself, and everyone at United Parish. That we practice being more aware of all the times and places we might encounter an Altar in the World. That we take the time to stop and say “It is good to be here!” And that sometimes we get to walk with a friend who points out to us that we have just banged our shins against an Altar and we should really take notice. Amen.