On a crisp golden autumn day some years ago, a prior-student-turned-friend and I went kayaking on the Willamette River. We talked of her lost faith and my enduring one. She used the word “fidelity” to describe it. While she couldn’t imagine returning to a life attuned to God, she missed the rooting and grounding she perceived came from my life-long attentiveness, my obedience to staying with the journey. Of course, my experience and understanding of God has been transformed over the years--what journey doesn’t include landscapes and weather changes, challenges to overcome, meeting other sojourners (friendly and unfriendly), that lead to different ways of understanding?
Fidelity is a good word—choosing to stay deeply rooted and grounded in a God who loves and holds me, while mysteriously also breathing my every breath, feeling my feelings, experiencing life as me. This God demands nothing of me yet asks everything of me.
Years ago, I thought conversion happened at some moment in time when one stepped from darkness into light and stopped being lost. Now I experience conversion as a pilgrimage that is less about making one’s way toward God, and more about maintaining a willingness to stay intentionally attuned to God as I paddle the river. Often enough fidelity requires I leave off paddling and float wherever the current takes me.
Metaphor aside, I am taken by the intention of a 500-mile pilgrimage that includes blisters, fatigue, sore muscles, crankiness and crowded inns. My spiritual director has just begun a three-month pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, so pilgrimages are on my mind.
Arthur Paul Boers walked the Camino journey and wrote about it in The Way is Made by Walking. He said pilgrimages—that is, literal ones—have the power to rework us and to call us to change our way of living.1
I wonder if, when we give ourselves over to a long pilgrimage, even if not one that requires flights, passports and a long absence from ordinary life, we can more easily pay attention to what gets pushed into the background.
One of my spiritual directees takes an annual week-long solo backpack trip. She chooses someplace desert like, rocky, a bit dangerous. It generally involves falling down, scarcity of water, and potential encounters with poisonous snakes and mountain lions. She always returns a bit bruised, yet filled, restored, grounded and above all, grateful. She confronts herself out there, and something mysteriously divine occurs that doesn’t occur as easily back home. I find it noteworthy that gratitude marks her primary response.
If we are fortunate our life journey is long. Boers speaks of pilgrimages as giving us opportunity to ponder our mistakes and shortcomings along the way, to face truths about ourselves, to let the hard parts of the journey be a crucible.
Given that literal spiritual treks might not happen for most of us, in our fidelity to staying attuned to God, I wonder how we might yet experience what pilgrimages provide? I’ve been pondering the prayers, postures, places, and actions that put me on a river where I can be carried. Centering prayer has been one for about five years now, but so does our hammock in the woods, attending to the new and full moon, and Mary Oliver’s poetry.
The harder task is to find prayers, postures, places, and activities that allow the crucible to do its work. To find practices that invite me to use the hardness of the journey to be transformative. Confession has been useful, with my spiritual director most often acting as my guide. Journaling that faces into my shortcomings has also been fruitful, noting where I lack generosity, admitting where I have wounded others directly, and am complicit in other sorts of wounding. Examining whom I need to forgive and from whom I need to seek forgiveness.
Fidelity involves searching out both the soothing river and the challenging trek, metaphorically and literally. Often enough, in the process we discover that grace flows into the crevices of our soul both on the river and in the desert.
Yet, what if the journey isn’t primarily about us, even if it is for us?
It’s the one who has practiced fidelity while drinking deeply of grace that most easily extends compassion to fellow sojourners, who carry their own private pains, questions, wonderments, and sorrows. Ancient Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandra is credited with saying, “Be compassionate, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”
Perhaps gratitude flows more easily out of an experience of God’s love that enables us to participate in loving what God loves. To extend kindness when not expected. Maybe even when we don’t feel its merited. This ability to love what God loves comes from awakening to the grace-filled love out of which we were born and our need for ongoing grace, which yields gratitude and loving-kindness, and becomes the contour of our long obedience.
I like to imagine that such loving-kindness, born out of gratitude and a long and deep attention, changes the world more than we imagine.
1. Arthur Paul Boers (2007). The Way is Made by Walking. IVP, Downers Grove, IL.