Psalm 23; Philippians 4:4-9
“I began my pilgrimage on the first of January in 1953,” wrote the woman called the Peace Pilgrim. “On that day I became a wanderer relying upon the goodness of others. It would be a pilgrim’s journey undertaken in the traditional manner: on foot and on faith. I left behind all claims to a name, personal history, possessions and affiliations.”
Pilgrimage is a solo journey. Or so it seems. The deeper truth is only hinted by the Peace Pilgrim in her opening words. “On foot and on faith,” hint at the bigger picture, as does the Pilgrim’s Credo: “I walk in faith and hope.” That little word, “faith,” lets us know that we embark on the journey with resources and companionship, not always seen in the waving-goodbye photo, but which is nonetheless real.
My first memory of being drawn to pilgrimage was when I saw the movie, “The Way.” The film follows Thomas Avery as he makes a grim journey of angry grief to retrieve the ashes of his son who died in a freak storm in the Pyrenees while making his pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. Feeling completely lost to his job back home, he determined to walk the Camino in his son’s place, carrying his son’s backpack and his son’s ashes to scatter at the end of the journey. He walked angry and determined. Slowly he let in some of his companions on the road, found that they too had their own griefs and dreams. The journey was painful, but his anger at the world and his son’s death slowly began to subside, only to be shocked awake by the theft of his backpack – containing his son’s ashes and everything else for the journey. Desperately he chased the young thief, screamed to the world of his loss. It was an end for him. He had lost his purpose. But his scream had been heard. Later that day, the thief’s father dragged his shamed son back to the pilgrim’s hostel to return the pack, and invite the pilgrim to a street party. It was the turning point of the journey, when Avery learned that he was not alone, and there was much of the holy accompanying him – first in this one strong father with a sort-of-repentant son, then in the joys and stories of his companions. But it was a journey through the valley of the shadow of death.
Perhaps this is why I come to Psalm 23 to flesh out the simplicity of the simple phrase: I walk in faith and hope. Thomas Avery did not walk in faith and hope – not when he set out. He walked with the energy of anger at the universe! He did not lie down in green pastures, he didn’t even see the still waters beside the road, but when he came to the valley of the shadow of death – where he looked his own end of the road full in the face – he found he was not alone. And it was the beginning.
David, the biblical poet, was like Thomas Avery – a pilgrim on an unchosen pilgrimage. For David, he moved from cave to village to stronghold in the hills of Judea, on the run while Saul hunted him for his life. Yet he penned these timeless words out of that experience: “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” He could have said, “I walk in faith and hope.” This is a pilgrim affirmation. Blessed are those who discover its truth in the journey, and those who only see it looking back over their lives.
The presence of the Holy One, the Great Shepherd is enough. That is the pilgrim’s lesson. The only purpose of pilgrimage is to seek an encounter with the Holy, to open our soul to encounter with divine mystery. And so, in many ways the journey and the destination are one. For we walk in faith and hope, in the presence of the Spirit. With every step, we open our senses to signs of the Spirit. And when we don’t, we feel the gentle, or sometimes not so gentle poke of the divine shepherd staff getting our wandering attention.
On the pilgrim journey, we enjoy peaceful meadows, blooming with flowers and cooling green grass. On the pilgrim journey, we walk beside still water, places which invite us to drink, to step in and cool our feet, join the world’s creatures around the living water. On the pilgrim’s journey, we also walk narrow paths, climbing the hills, confining our way. On the pilgrim journey, we walk through the valley of shadows as well, where darkness hides our path, we feel lost and tremble with fear. Yet our shepherd follows us with goodness and love.
What are some of the shepherding aspects of pilgrimage?
First, the staff. The pilgrim walks with a staff. Why? Because it secures our balance, uses the strength of our arms to help our feet with the hard work. Shepherds are always pictured with a staff as well. They follow the sheep over rough terrain. They often need the help of a staff to manage. I would have probably avoided tearing my ACL if I had been walking with a staff to support my climb.
A shepherd staff is usually pictured with a hook at the top. This is to help retrieve a wandering animal from a dangerous perch or to grab a stubborn sheep back to the path. And the staff is also used as a prod. When the sheep move from one pasture to another, the staff helps keep the sheep in line, poking and prodding them into the path.
I wonder if shepherds of biblical times used herding dogs. I used to encounter the shepherds with their flocks moving them down the country roads to new pastures. The poking and prodding task of the shepherd seemed to be mostly accomplished by their herding dogs. So, when I think of this function of the staff, I get an image of an Australian Shepherd, circling, nipping at the flanks of an errant sheep, keeping it in line.
The rod or staff of the Psalmist would be first a pest and annoyance to the sheep, and only from the shepherd’s point of view, be a comfort, companion and protector. David understood the shepherd’s heart, so he could see how the staff was evidence of the shepherd’s watchful care.
Pilgrimage, with its intention to seek the Holy One, opens the sheep/pilgrim to feeling the nudges of the staff as guidance, a message to shift one’s wandering feet back towards God’s way.
How do we experience God using the shepherd staff in our pilgrim lives?
Considering the Shepherd of the pilgrim life, there is another observation which seems important. The shepherd follows behind the sheep. When I think of God leading us like a shepherd, I have always seen God out front. But the shepherd moves behind the sheep. I had never considered the meaning of the last verse of Psalm 23 this way before. “Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.”
It appears that the pilgrim’s journey is a solitary life. True, the pilgrim sets foot to the journey alone, with his or her own dreams, visions and hopes. And as soon as a step is taken, the movement begun, the Spirit of God is following right behind. It reminds me of the saying: you can’t steer a parked car. This is what I am talking about here. The pilgrim gets the action going, sets out with an intention to encounter the Holy One, often as unaware of the Shepherd as a typical sheep.
But the setting out makes all the difference. We WALK in faith and hope. We move. Faith and hope are the things which we use as compass. And the shepherd follows along poking and prodding as needed to keep us alert and to direct our paths. And that poking and prodding is always in lovingkindness, for that is the nature of the one we seek, the one who wants to be found, the one who guides our steps.
We walk in faith and hope – even when we walk through the darkest valley. Even the darkness can be God’s gentle herding.
We walk in faith and hope. As a congregation. This winter has been a difficult journey. At our congregational meeting last week, we took a sobering look at our financial position. It was unsettling. Yet the comments people made to me indicated that they, too, feel the presence of the Holy One in our midst. Some have identified that there is some movement of the Spirit. We can’t yet identify it. But if we open ourselves to the Divine Shepherd, we begin to see the series of challenges as ways of getting our attention, of getting us off our self-created paths to a way we had never seen, a fork in the road toward new, green, restoring pastures.
We walk in faith and hope, because we know the character of the shepherd. Even when the nip at our heels feels painful, a second look reminds us that we are being guided. I am filled with hope.
So finally, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things…. And the peace of God will be with you (Phil 4:8-9).
We walk in faith and hope.