Samain Joe and SeoAh Moon
The pilgrim notion, layered over my pagan orientation, has begun to take hold. It makes so much sense, not sure why I didn’t latch onto it until now. Since I was young, I’ve questioned, well, almost everything. In the year after college, that would be 1970, I visited a psychiatrist, don’t recall why. He gave me an MMPI. Diagnosis? Philosophical neurosis. Odd, eh? 47 years of self-exploration later, I’d say the MMPI really meant, permanent pilgrim.
Some of us can find a spot on the path, say, Buddhism, Christianity, Transcendentalism, Islam, Judaism, settle in and deepen our journey within a tradition. Some of us abjure the path, say it leads nowhere, dulls our mind and clouding our senses. Others, and I know a surprising number who fit this, define themselves over against a tradition, choosing to be Not Catholic, Not Jewish, Not conservative Christian. I have a friend, let’s call him Frank, whose identity as an anti-Catholic colors all of his interactions.
There are some of us though who, for one reason or another, slip out from the covered path of our childhood tradition to walk in the rain. I began to question Christianity late, in early high school, but I remained under its covered walkway until my freshman year of college. Once the intellectual roof of that tradition got blown off I discovered I liked the rain. And, that the weather on the uncovered path changed, could be sunny as well as stormy.
I found my back to the Christian path not long after my diagnosis of philosophical neurosis. In fact, I’m recalling now that the psychiatrist thought returning to my childhood faith might help me with my “condition.” And, you know, I think it did. In an obtuse way. When I entered seminary, I didn’t know about Paul Ricoeur’s concept of second naivete. But I lived it.
Returning to the inner world of the gospels, to the flow of the Christian tradition over time, to the close study of both testaments, to contemplative and meditative spirituality reminded me that the way of the pilgrim was real. It was not an afterthought, but a way of its own. Yes, I could and did learn about how to approach sacred texts and learn from them. Yes, I could and did learn from those who loved the covered walkways of Christianity’s various paths. Yes, I could and did learn the awesome (and I mean this word in all its nuances) responsibility of caring for the faith life of others. But I came to understand, not long after the beginning of my ministry, that all of these were tools, not ends in themselves. At least for me.
Though the world of the scholastics was putatively over in the late middle ages, in fact it continues to this day in all those traditions that rely on sacred texts as their raison d’etre. Why? Because any time your learning comes from the words of others, be they ancient or contemporary, you have put a barrier between yourself and the sorts of truths that religions espouse. These words can be evocative, can be inspirational, can be vivifying for the spirit. They can be poetic, dramatic, regulatory, awe inspiring, yet they are always the perceptions of others, written in words that conceal as much, more, than they reveal.
Some of us, most of us, want to remain under a covered walkway whether that walkway is a particular faith tradition or the covered walkway of atheism, permanent skepticism. Either way, the sky is hidden and the path winds along in a direction, headed toward a destination defined by itself. This is soothing and can allow for a genuine in depth exploration of that path.
A few of us, for reasons probably unclear to us, find a covered walkway claustrophobic, confining. Even if we give ourselves over to such a path for a while we always find a spur that leads out under the open sky. I have walked under the open sky most of my life, with a fifteen year hiatus on the covered path of the Reformed tradition of Christianity. Since 1990 or so, really earlier, but this is the clear demarcation, I wandered out from under the protection of that path and have not looked back.
Right now I’m trekking alongside the Jewish path, its Reconstructionist lane. Mussar, kabbalah, even Hebrew itself, have much to teach. The culture, the civilization created by Jews over the millennia, is rich and cultivates responsible, caring persons. I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore its learnings in a wonderful community.
When I was in the Unitarian-Universalist movement, I found it, appositely, too eclectic, too rootless. It was like a garden with so many different flowers that there was no beauty, just many, many different blooms. To me. For the right person, it can be a pilgrim path, too, or even a covered walkway, but for me it lead in too many directions at once.
There were monks in the ancient Celtic Christian church, the blend of the auld faith of the Celts and Christianity that preceded Catholicism in the Celtic lands, that defined their spiritual practice as peregrinatio, wandering around. They went from village to village staying in huts. They had no permanent homes, no monastery. Like the staret featured in the Russian spiritual classic The Way of the Pilgrim, they were, in a real sense, homeless. Both Taoism and Hinduism have wandering adherents, too. Buddhist monks traveled the Silk Road.
I consider myself in their tradition, unattached to a religious institution, yet a follower of a mystical way, one that can express itself in the language of many, perhaps any, tradition, while remaining outside in the rain.