The pilgrimage of life

Pentecost 6
Zechariah 9:9-12 – Psalm 145:8-14 – Romans 7:15-25a – Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

It is good to be back after a couple of weeks away visiting my mother in Bordeaux and also taking some time to find quietness and beauty in the Pyrenees on the border between France and Spain, taking the opportunity of this holiday to visit a place which had loomed large in my imagination since my childhood.

Typical of their generations, my grandparents did not travel abroad for their holidays, but drove across France following routes punctuated by hotels and restaurants recommended by the world famous Michelin guide.  One summer, they had driven through to the Pyrenees and brought me back a print from a place they had visited: St Bertrand de Comminges – a beautiful medieval cathedral in a picture postcard heritage village.  I had no idea when I would be able to go, but this was fulfilled this summer when I was able to see it for myself and reflect on the faith of those who had built it and maintained it since the turn of the first millenium.

Under the instigation of a couple of Bishops named Bertrand, the village – nestled at the top of a mountain – became one of the high points on one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela and the place thrived.  It is a little quieter today.

Pilgrimages have been important experiences in the lives of Christians, because the time away from ordinary life, the companionship found on the way, the physical challenges, and the spiritual discipline of the journey all contribute to helping us grow as Christians, ground our faith in reality, and through conversations and shared experience with others, build us up as followers of Christ.

Cathedral pilgrims who went to Iona a year ago, or to the Holy Land, or those who have been on retreats or quiet days, will recognise the movements of the heart and soul involved in all this, and the transformation and peace that such endeavours can bring. Our spirits yearn for it.

Whilst my recent journey was only a mini pilgrimage – I knew when I set foot in the Cathedral of St Bertrand de Comminges, when I prayed by the shrine of St Bertrand, that I had come to a place full of meaning which brought some completion, and I was glad I had undertaken that journey.

In these past few days, and until this Sunday afternoon, the Cathedral has been providing the opportunity, for those who wish, to experience a Labyrinth walk – a spiritual exercise that goes back to medieval times and has provided a way for those unable to travel to enter into a pilgrimage experience.

You may have seen images of labyrinths, the most well-known of them being at Chartres cathedral, dating back to the 12th century.  There have been many others in many cathedrals and churches over time.

When you look carefully beyond their many lines, you will notice that there is only one way to the centre, and only one way – the same way – back out.  Walking a labyrinth is not an exercise in deductive power to find the nearest exit.

Instead it is a gentle path that leads us towards its centre, which can be a metaphor for the heart of God, the Church community or even our own soul.  Walking it helps us to go inwards as we consider significant questions of faith and life, and helps us to gently return to your day once we have reached our goal.

Those who choose to step along its path are invited to settle your minds and souls and bodies, and be ready to notice what happens as you step along the way.

You may bring with you a question, a concern, or simply have an open mind, ready to recognise insights and wisdom along this sacred ground, as you walk slowly with mindfulness, step after step.

After following its twist and turns, the centre of the labyrinth can be a place of catharsis and fulfilment, a place where an answer may be given and received.  The place of encounter with the Divine or simply a place of comfort and safety in which to rest.

From that point, the return journey is one in which you are invited to reflect on the experience, what you have learnt, how it has transformed you, and how you will take it with you back into your life and the ways in which you live out your Christian commitment.

This spirituality which brings together our whole body as well as our minds and souls can be particularly helpful as we consider the many encouragements but also contradictions that we find in scriptures, especially in texts such as those we heard this morning.

St Paul, in his letter to the Romans, paints a bleak picture of himself, but one which we might recognise for ourselves too.  Because I am sure we have all, at times, done the things that we hate instead of the things we want.  We have aimed for the good and ended up doing the bad.

And we have then scratched our head and wondered how that happened, why we failed when we thought we knew exactly what we should do, and how it is that we were not able to stop ourselves while knowing perfectly well that the outcome would not be good.

We may understand and love the laws of God in our minds and in our hearts, but we are prone to fail and often remain captive of our own selves, our egos, our desires, despite aiming higher.

If it was true for St Paul, it is doubtless true for us.  And for Paul, as well as for us, the only rescue comes from God through Jesus Christ, the God of infinite love who forgives us and seeks to keep us on the right path and whose Holy Spirit will prod our souls onwards.

In our Gospel reading from St Matthew, we heard a much more soothing message from Jesus. As we wrestle with our uncertainties, he calls: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’.  ‘For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’.

The promise of rest for our souls is compelling, and meant to be so – because for Jesus, faith is not complicated even if there are ample opportunities for arcane discussions among theologians on what faith means and what we believe in.

We can find fault in both John the Baptist’s fasting – he must have a demon.  And with Jesus eating and drinking – a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners – the oppressors and the untouchables.  But can we stop judging and learn from their example instead?

To love God, and to love our neighbour as ourselves sounds pretty straightforward, and yet we can make it so complicated.

Jesus points out our inconsistencies, the ways in which we always look for something else, something harder, not the easy option that is offered to us.  He reminds us that ‘wisdom is vindicated by her deeds’ – in the end, we are not recognised by what we do and how we do it, but by the fruits that we bear in the world in our contribution to building God’s kingdom of love peace and justice one act at a time.

This is the value of pilgrimage – because as we step along the road towards our holy goal, we are stripped of the trappings that we have acquired along our life, and are confronted with humanity on equal terms.  Bleeding feet, conversations with strangers, simple food shared, marvelling at nature and human ingenuity, and praising God for all. That is Holy Ground.

And in one sense, this mirrors the life of Jesus, criss-crossing Galilee with his group of fellow pilgrims, aiming for Jerusalem at the end of a three-year journey.

In body and spirit, we can somewhat share in that experience in the labyrinth walk, until we too can embark on our next pilgrimage, where at the end of each day we will be glad to hear the words of Jesus:

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’.


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