This is my fourth pilgrimage season in Our Ladys Island and after 3 years in the place I still find myself reflecting on many practices that take place here that are part and parcel of the tradition of the place. We often do things because they were always done that way but fail to ask why we are doing them. Tradition is the living faith of the dead and contains life-giving truths whereas what we have far too much of is traditionalism which is the dead faith of the living. This is where we practice something but are not sure exactly why; its where what we do has become separate from the reason as to why we do it. A couple may request to have their child baptized but ask them why and they struggle to find an answer. Likewise they may ask to have their house blessed but if asked why they haven’t a clue. A teenager asks the parent, ‘why do I have to go to Mass,’ and all they get is ‘because you have to’ or ‘because I say so’, which is not a real answer and the child knows it.
All too often the wisdom behind what we do has got lost in the mist of time and it may take a bit of digging to uncover it. For example a long established practice here relates to the traditional pilgrimage route and why people have always walked the Island in a clockwise direction. Have you ever wondered why and what might be its deeper significance or even does it have any?
At the Opening Ceremony, while carrying the Blessed Sacrament around, I found myself pondering on this question. We were just so lucky to enjoy the best three hours of sunshine in the entire week for the 15th but there was a still a stiff breeze blowing from the SW that is the prevailing wind direction. This meant that as we set out from the left side we were almost completely protected from the wind by the Island itself. Then we came to the Head where it faced us full on and we nearly got our heads blown off. It was tough going for a bit until we again rounded the corner and it suddenly felt so different because the wind was now in our backs and acting like a supportive presence. It’s a journey that takes half an hour if you walk on your own and three quarters during the pilgrimage and it feels exactly the right length for such an event; no one is too tired and everybody seems to enjoy what is such a gift of nature.
What is really interesting is that it so perfectly reflects the pilgrim journey of faith that we are all invited to be part of. For adult faith to develop it needs to go through three stages and these are represented in the three sections of the pilgrimage route. The first stage of faith is unquestioning acceptance. The second is questioning non-acceptance and the third is awakening or enlightenment. The last is where genuine spirituality takes over from religious duties and our faith is practiced out of pure gratitude of spirit, no longer because we have to, but because we want to. In our Catholic tradition we have been pretty good at teaching about the first part while quite weak on the last two stages.
Reflecting on the different phases. The first we have all known, that of unquestioning acceptance. We were taught both at home and at school the basic truths of our faith. At least we knew that God made us, that he loved us and that he had a plan and purpose for our lives. A part of this belief was that we had something to fall back on when things got tough and that there was a God who could write straight with the crooked lines of our sometimes twisted lives. Likewise when we lost a parent or loved one, we had the wonderful reassurance they were safe in Heaven and still looking after us. The fact that it was important to say our prayers and attend church we didn’t question. We were living off the second hand faith of our parents and it was really important to have because it sheltered us from the harsher questions like, why do bad things happen to good people; is there a god or did we just come from nowhere and return to oblivion. Do our lives really have any meaning or purpose?
As in the first stage of the pilgrimage journey we are sheltered from the harsh realities of life. Unfortunately this is no longer the case for so many young people today who are being brought up as spiritual orphans with no protective ditch to give them shelter from such difficult issues. What do they have to fall back on? Who do they turn to when they lose someone or even break up with a partner? Is it any wonder that so many fall into the void of emptiness that they grew up with and self-destruct?
Even with all the supports of faith in place we still need to round the Head and face the wind head on. This is where our faith is tested, often like gold is tested in a fire to remove the impurities. This is where life’s painful realities strike home and we are forced to really question, who am I and what do I really believe in? Life’s crises come in many forms; loss of a loved one, health issues, breakup of a marriage, dealing with an addiction, old age, a faith crisis, depression, losing ones way in life. All of them we have to face head on and the only way out is through. The good news is that if we do face them and keep going they won’t leave us as they find us. Churchill used to say ‘When you are going through hell the important thing is to keep going.’
The suffering we experience serves a deeper purpose and can awakens our souls to deeper realities. It forces us to look inwards for answers and there we find resources and strength that we never knew that we had. What we begin to discover during this stage is that God is very personal and not at all up there as we though. This God is ‘the one in whom we live and move and have our being,’ as the Scripture say, and because his dwelling place is also in our hearts we find a deep reassurance that no matter what is happening in our outer lives, at a deeper level we know, ‘that all things are well and all manner of things will be well’. That’s to borrow a phrase from the great mystic, Julian of Norwich.
This is where we turn the corner and begin the homeward journey but now with the wind in our back. At this stage we have moved from religious practice to religious awareness and we are travelling with a deep conviction that what we once heard from others is now true for ourselves. We no longer need to believe we just know and while our bodies may be getting older our spirits are getting younger by the day. We feel as if we are being tenderly carried. This kind of spirituality is all about homecoming, where we are coming home to ourselves, to others and to our God. It’s been said that religion is for those who fear going to hell while spirituality is for those who have been there. Even the hell of being spiritually awakened is now looked upon with gratitude and even the prospect of death is no longer looked on with fear but more of a release into a whole new lease of life where our bodies can no longer contain the life that they hold and so need to be discarded. So next time you walk around the Island, you might like to reflect on just where you find yourself on your own life pilgrimage of faith.