Pilgrimages: painful and dangerous deserts

Pilgrimages are like crossing a desert. They can be painful if taken seriously, and can even be dangerous. They are painful because they crack the shield of one’s comfortable certainty that things can only be done one way. In truth, nothing is one, except Faith itself; by comparison, the manners in which this faith ‘becomes flesh’ are countless. There are as many shapes and nuances of the faith as there are human beings. This is a painful lesson to learn, but it is absolutely necessary. Without this understanding, one loses sight of the personal nature of any spiritual experience. There are as many prayers as there are sighs, and there are as many sighs as there are human hearts. There is no rule on Heaven or earth to regulate the outpouring of love or pain of one’s heart.

Suddenly, ‘The’ traditions of your local region become just that: local traditions, creations of a certain historical and cultural context which reflect the faith. As a pilgrim, you unavoidably find yourself immersed in a different context, a different embodiment of the same faith – other customs, other ways to pray, other saints and prayers, all embraced by the faithful in that region with the same absolute conviction that these local expressions of faith are ‘The’ only expressions of faith.

Pilgrimages can also be dangerous and may lead (paradoxically) to a weakening of one’s faith. To some extend, this is a natural progression – when you grow in your faith, there is a moment when it becomes clear that what you previously held to be absolute truths are actually not. There are always other ways to express one’s faith. If you are weak of heart, this process of leaving your past behind may be a dangerous moment, and you risk losing your path while crossing the desert. However, if you take courage and press forward, the Spirit will lead you to a new understanding – a higher one, a more loving one, embracing the endless diversity of the personal ways in which we manifest our One Faith. When you leave behind the comfort of your home, prepare yourself for the dangers of the desert, but don’t lose heart: at the end of it all, God has already prepared a better, higher, more spiritual home for you.

21 responses

    • Dear John, thank you for your note. I shall find out when I get back to The UK and let you know!

    • Here we are, dear John! Laura sent us the answer: Tha Crìosd air èiridh! Gu dearbh, tha e air èiridh! (Christ has Become! In absolute, He has Become!)

  • You leave me hanging in the mystery of unknowns. I wish you were a story teller sometimes, describing events leading up to what you’re writing about. Reading between the lines…I’ve no idea how you landed. Are you better off spirituality or temporarily undone.
    (I expect you’ll say that all is in God’s providence).
    I believe in pilgrimage. It isn’t sight seeing or for anyone unwilling to be confronted by Heaven.
    (My Priest Fr Evan Armatas and Deacon Mark O’Dell are in Georgia right now also. I met you at the O’Dell home in Loveland Colorado)

    • Dear Bonnie, thank you for saying hello 🙂

      I am a monk, not a parish priest; I’m terrible at making sense 🙂 Seriously, I always found it difficult to speak of write ‘for the public’ – when you heard me speak in Loveland, you must have felt how difficult I found the whole experience. I find it difficult because I don’t really believe it is possible to say anything spiritual which can be applied generally, to everyone. I am a greta believer in personal experience, personal conversations, personal encounters and so on.

      To answer your question, you are right, I’ll say it’s all in God’s hands. What kills one (spiritually) may save one: the same experience, the same context, simply because it all depends on the personal response of each of us. Our response to an experience is much more important than the experience itself.

  • Father, a much needed word of encouragement at a difficult time of change in my life when the certainties of the early years of faith leave and the true struggle of this life as a pilgrimage becomes prominent.

    The basic understanding of any truth is always challenged when we learn it in a more profound or deeper way, we see this as we go through school as children and it is something that remains so as we learn in every aspect of our lives, we just do not like to admit it to ourselves.

    Eventually we may come to know what St Paul meant about being pilgrims and strangers on earth yearning for heaven, not the traditions we know but the fullness which lies behind them. Yet due to our tendency to hold on to the less important things our Lord has to shake us through things such as the experiences on pilgrimages or tragades in our lives to help us trust him not the things we construct.

    • I suppose we crave to find a created Heaven, expressed through a created ritual, because we ourselves are created beings. The conflict (the growth) is thus unavoidable, because God and His reality is uncreated and cannot correspond or be expressed through any created system of customs. These can only be shadows of His reality.

  • Tha Crìosd air èiridh! Gu dearbh, tha e air èiridh! ~ (literally) Christ has Become! In absolute, He has Become!

  • Father, your words (written or spoken) are always so timely and I give thanks to God everytime I open my email & find a message from you on your travels, what a blessing you are. You are always in my prayers.

    I have personally experinced a rather bad case of ‘spiritual flu’ while roaming lost in a ‘spiritual desert’….. Never a good place to be, but God has always been right beside me & brought me thru with a deeper love and, prayerfully a little more humble. Now in my 70’s I have come to realize that as humans we need a little pain (spiritually or physicially, to get us to slow down and turn our face and heart toward Him, to put down our heavy burdens and humble ourselves to Christ.

    As Laura said: “Gu dearbh, tha e air èiridh!”

    • Dear Ita,

      That is so very true. And yet, you know what is funny? Once you give yourself to God, there is no longer the need for you to learn anything, so there is no need for pain anymore. It’s a paradox, but even pain becomes something you no longer fight, because you know it’s there for a good (even if unknown, perhaps) reason. You just trust that you or someone else will benefit spiritually from your suffering. I’ve seen this again and again in the old monks in my monastery in Bucovine.

  • Christ is Risen! An awesome post. Both profound and utterly true. It takes a humble heart to say such things and a still humbler heart to embrace them. God bless your ministry and keep us – posted!

    • I so look forward to meet Kh Martha, dear father! Please give my love to Peter – I often listen to his music and I feel a strange connection to him. Do let him know and ask him to pray for me.

  • Christ is Risen! I’m from St Timothy Fairfield, Calif. You came and visited our parish. What a blessing you are. I love to get your emails on your path for God. My prayers are with you on your journey where ever you are.

  • Very true. We live in a Church where the Liturgy varies from Eastern Rite to Western Rite, Jurisdiction
    to Jurisdiction, even from parish to parish within the same Jurisdiction! Spiritual formation will be different in Churches and Rites that descend from Greek, Slavonic, Arabic, Old English and Celtic patrimonies.

    The temptation, when visiting one of these “other” Churches is to go, “What are these people DOING?”
    The temptation, upon hitting the “desert” of one of these local “pilgrimages” is to miss the fact that what is actually being taught and lived is the same Faith, the same Dogma, the same Orthodoxy.

    We don’t need to travel far and wide to make a pilgrimage: there’s a holy site, a place where the Lord of the Universe Himself comes to visit and dwell, in some brother Orthodox parish, even somewhere on the
    next block. And how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together!

    • You are right, dear father James. Things simply become more obvious when you travel to a different country because you are forced out of your comfort zone. When things happen in your home town, you remain connected with your ‘roots’ so to say – when you no longer have that to back you up, you feel disconnected and lost, and you are forced to engage (whatever way) with this new context.

      It’s a lesson one learns in a different country, but should apply it primarily at home, you are right.

  • Thank you for both the “founding” and “pilgrimage” posts. I realize that they are, as I read and reflect on them, and allow them to touch me, integrally related. I risk sharing the gift I am receiving through the gift of your sharing…

    The founder/tender of “the place” and “Lord of the Way” is God.

    The “place” and the “pilgrimage” are two dimensions of the same reality – home/rest/stillness – change and changlessness.

    The “place” and the “pilgrimage” are, at one and the same time, universal (the same for all) and personal (unique to each person and community).

    Both require trust and abandonment into the hands of the Living God as well as perseverance (grateful obedience) whether that be “going the distance” or “sending the roots deep” – cost what it will and lead/look like what it may according to the perfect purpose of God.

    Both set us free by being used by God to show us and invite us, each in its unique way, into the fullness of truth regarding sin and righteousness.

    “Place” and “pilgrimage” are the two hands of God’s deifying work in this world.

    • That is very beautifully said, dear father Thomas. Thank you for your comment. There is always some sort of balance in God’s work towards our salvation: there is joy, there is suffering; there are cries, there is silence. Similarly, there is a home, and there is a pilgrimage. When there is no balance, when our live loses either side of the two, we are in danger.

  • How so very true! Especially the last sentence! It truly resonates very deeply in my heart with my experience with the Celtic saints the past year! God bless your ministry! Christ is Risen! I do hope to meet you during one of my or your travels!

    • Where do you live, dear Kleio? I travel almost every weekend, fundraising. It is going very slow, so I shall have to continue doing this for at least two more years. Perhaps we shall meet – God always has a reason for putting two people in contact and He always has a plan: ALWAYS.

  • I live in Northern Greece, Thessaloniki, but I often travel to the UK. I am “organically” connected to Holy Cross Lancaster and father Jonathan Hemmings. It would be such a blessing for me to meet you sometime. In God’s time. I remember reading an article in Pravoslavie about Father John Muster, Priest of St Bega Church, Keswick Cumbria, wanting so much to meet him, and then I had this blessing on Bright Wednesday this year. May the Lord grant you strength for your travels and spiritual struggles.

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