During the pandemic, most people have been cut off not only from traveling to distant places, but for many months, we were cut off from even visiting our family or friends in their own home – even if it was right next door or across town. Most of us cancelled plans and vacations, or simply gathering in any form – for work, worship, or playdates. Someone coined it “the burden of disappointment”. That is why this worship series, “travel as a spiritual act” caught my attention. There is a longing for many to go on vacation – to literally vacate to “get away from it all”.  We’d all like to travel on pilgrimage to far-off places to be a Nomad, a pilgrim, a seeker, a Sojourner.  But in reality the yearning for most of us is about making any vacation more soulful, more spiritual, finding ways to connect more deeply with God. Perhaps its helpful to remember that holiday is derived literally from “holy day”). How do we set time apart to make it more holy? 

It can be easy to romanticize places other than home. But the truth is we don’t need to be in a different zip code in order to experience a meaningful vacation or holy day or pilgrimage and because of life’s limitations, this can’t always be a reality. That doesn’t mean that we can’t follow the longing of our hearts. It’s still possible to be a local pilgrim and make a spiritual journey close to home—or even at home. We can cultivate the concept of pilgrimage-in-place. Learning to abide in God’s presence wherever we are so that our joy may be complete. Resting in the nature of God and the spiritual journey itself. All you need is a desire to deepen your faith. In this sense we can think of our whole lives as a pilgrimage. We are each on a journey continually returning to God, knowing that our journey ultimately is coming home to God.

This series, “travel as a spiritual act”, is not necessarily about traveling to far-flung places. It’s about opening ourselves to God’s presence wherever we are. We can take little journeys to “spiritual places” close to home or even at home. It’s not that God is hard to find, or that God even needs us to seek the holy in certain places. God is always with us and waits for us to open ourselves to God’s leading and presence at any time, any place. What I have discovered is that any place we go, whether a pilgrimage to church for a few of us this morning, an art museum, a hiking trail, a grocery store, can be a spiritual place. We just need to be ready for those sacred encounters with the divine and open our hearts. 

I find that my heart can be closed one moment (usually in traffic), and in the next it suddenly opens.  I remember a hot, hot day in Issaquah 15 years ago, standing in a long line at Costco on a hot, summer afternoon with the throngs of other hot, grumpy shoppers. Eventually, Angie & I decided to divide and conquer because we also needed, had to have, a stracciatella & pistachio gelato, which was only served at the Costco in Issaquah. I debated whether we really needed the gelato because the line was long, and I was hot, tired, and grumpy. But gelato was calling and I stood in another long, hot, grumpy line of people. Marcus Borg wrote: “When I stand in a supermarket checkout line and all the people I see look kind of ugly, I know my heart is closed.”  I was definitely leaning toward the closed, hardened heart. But ahead of me were two little girls who didn’t know each other. One little girl said to the other: “Hi!  My name is Chloe. I’m three. How old are you?”  The other little girl responded:  “I was three last time. Now I’m four.” In an instant, my heart melted, and it didn’t matter how long the line was or how hot it was, because ALL of the people in front of me transformed into beautiful children of God by this one little transforming moment of connection and sacred, holy encounter.   

We don’t have to travel far away to begin living like a pilgrim. We don’t have to visit every grand cathedral to live like a pilgrim, for as the author of Revelation 21 writes, that God, the holy one, is the  Temple. And in ch.22, “The angel showed me the river of the water of life with the tree of life on either side of the river, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” What powerful imagery to imagine the river of God, the river of life, running through our lives, with the trees bringing healing to our lives. And the river of life is right here, right now. 

 The pilgrim knows they don’t have to journey to a far-off land to experience God; the Sacred can be found in our ordinary circadian rhythms each day with a little awareness and intention to discern where the Sacred is already present. To live as a pilgrim at home, we simply need to see our lives unfolding as a journey, and to see our role as “seekers of the sacred”. When we infuse our journeys with meaning and intention they become sacred. 

John O’Donohue – “Ideally, a human life should be a constant pilgrimage of discovery. The most exciting discoveries happen at the frontiers.  When you come to know something new, you come closer to yourself and to the world. Discovery enlarges and refines your sensibility.  When you discover something, you transfigure some of the forsakenness of the world.”

Some of my geographical discoveries during the pandemic occurred because a few of us took some intentional walks together right in our own backyard – some places I had never been to before. We walked the Nisqually Refuge, the Spine Trail at Pt. Defiance, Chapman Park, and Spanaway Lake. In the midst of walking in God’s creation – marveling at trees and foliage and wildlife, listening to sounds of nature, we also had opportunity for mundane chitchat that led to deeper sacred conversations. 

To create a mini-pilgrimage right at home or next door, Lacy Clark Ellman, a Spiritual Director  in Seattle, says you simply need to apply the 3 elements of pilgrimage: 1) time set apart to honor an intention or desire, whether it is a weekend, a day, or even an hour. 2) engagement with your Inner Self, and 3) Sacred Encounter connecting with God.

How do we prepare for such an inner pilgrimage? I want to offer this video clip of Rick Steves from the interview with Tammy Gieselman of GBHEM, where he talks about intentional travel, or traveling on purpose. He talks about writing in a journal over 40 years ago.  

PLAY VIDEO CLIP

Phil Cousineau in his book “The Art of Pilgrimage” writes: “The process of writing a letter or writing in a journal leads us to the truth of our evolving journey”.

Writing letters or even writing in a journal seems to be a lost art these days. But it can actually be a beautiful spiritual practice to reflect on your life because it helps us to notice God’s leading and God’s presence in our lives. We can make our pilgrimage-in-place more sacred by our willingness to tune in to one’s inner self and helps us process all that has been going on in our external world. If you commit to this pilgrimage-in-place for an hour or a day, commit to some time in reflection by writing or finding a cozy spot, allowing your mind to wander to abide in God’s presence. 

On Lacy Clark Ellman’s website, on the homepage, she writes:  Do you long to turn your travels and daily life into a Sacred journey? If so, then welcome home, Pilgrim. If you’re a seeker who is prone to wander, it’s time to begin the journey. 

Our intentional Pilgrimage-in-place can be a sacred journey – a movement that brings us toward the divine. May we Become centered, rooted and grounded by abiding in God’s love and grace. Let us Ask the deeper questions and Name our deepest Longings as we open our hearts to connect with the divine. Amen.

Our Prayer hymn is about the River of God flowing in our lives here and now – The river of God is teeming with life And all who touch it can be revived – Those who linger on this river’s shore Will come back thirsting for more of the Lord – So let us run Along the banks of the river to dance with laughter giving praise to God.