Pilgrimage and Poetry

Sermon Sunday 15 December 2019

Lessons Isaiah 35: 1 – 10 St Matthew 11: 2 – 11

Prayer of Illumination

Let us pray.

Fire our imagination, Holy God, that we may hear and see You in new and unexpected places. Be to us a God of surprises; open us to Your Presence and leading. Amen.

The prophet Isaiah said, ‘A causeway will appear there; it will be called the Way of Holiness….it will become a pilgrim’s way.’

We are a community which takes its name from one of Scotland’s earliest saints. The sixth century Irish abbot and missionary, Columba, Colm Cille, ‘church dove’, founded an abbey on the remote island of Iona and from there helped spread Christianity throughout what is modern-day Scotland. Iona became the most important religious institution in the region for centuries. In the twenty-first century, over quarter of a million people make the journey to Iona each year. From the shores of Ireland in a curragh, a vessel made of animal skin stretched over a wooden frame, the saint and twelve companions steered their way to Scottish shores. Columba’s name is honoured by Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches throughout the world, including our own. St Columba wrote:

Alone with none but thee, my God,
I journey on my way;
What need I fear when thou art near,
O King of night and day?
More safe am I within thy hand,
Than if a host did round me stand.

For the entire history of Christianity, pilgrimage has been part of the fabric of our faith: from visiting the Holy Land, the sites associated with the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, to holy places around the world. The longest, most travelled and most evocative pilgrim route in Europe is the camino to Santiago de Compostela. In the 1980s, around 2,500 people made the journey each year across northern Spain; today that figure has grown to over 325,000 with pilgrims from nearly 200 countries. Pilgrimage is common to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, the Bahà’i faith, Sikhism, Hinduism and Taoism. We might say that we are here today, as Christians worshipping in this land, in this place, because of the pilgrimage made by Columba over 1400 years ago.
In the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, pilgrimage and journey are foundational: the exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt and, centuries later, the return of the Judean exiles from the city of Babylon to Jerusalem. Our Scripture passage this morning from the Book of Isaiah is a small part of the biblical literature written about pilgrimage. After decades of exile, the Jewish people dreamt of a Way of Holiness, a causeway, a pilgrim’s way through the arid desert back to their spiritual home, Jerusalem. Hungry for the peace, the shalom, that only a home can give, the exiles saw their way through the desert be transformed from a barren, lifeless, parched land into ground lush and bursting into flower. In the dryness of the desert, the people found living water springing up. The Jewish people believed that suffering and weariness would flee away.

What is pilgrimage? One writer has said:

A pilgrimage differs from a tour. It is a personal
invitation from God, comprised of [God’s] offer
and dependent upon the pilgrim’s acceptance. God’s
call may vary but the purpose remains consistent: it is
an individual summons to know God more fully. A
pilgrimage is a spiritual journey to which the pilgrim
joyfully responds ‘yes’ to God’s invitation.

For me, pilgrimage is a spiritual journey. It may involve a physical journey, though it need not. At its core, pilgrimage is a journey of the soul, the mind, the consciousness. It is an opening up of self to God in ways that are authentic and personal to us. As I begin my ministry here at St Columba, as we take our very first steps together, we set out on a pilgrimage, a spiritual journey: I shall learn from you, I hope you will learn from me and, together, continue to open ourselves to the Divine, the Mystery we call God, the Energy, the Life Force of the cosmos.

An important part of that journey is our engagement with the Bible, our appreciation of Scripture. For me, Scripture is a tapestry of poetry, mythology, spirituality, liturgy and fragments of history. The most important thing we need in reading the Bible is imagination. Carefully and beautifully woven together, our sacred text is theology written in different historical contexts; it’s not history, it’s the poetry of theology. Poetry is in the DNA of religion and religious language. If we go on holiday to a foreign country, to a place and people with a different language and culture, we expect not to understand everything; we expect to get lost. Not understanding everything and even getting lost is part of the fun of being in a strange land. And it is the same with the Bible and religion. One of our greatest handicaps in reading the Bible is that we are far too literalist in our interpretation.

The poet Billy Collins wrote a poem for his class as an introduction to poetry:

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a colour slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

If that is true of poetry, it is equally true of religion. As we embark on this stage of our spiritual journey together, I shall stress again and again that the Bible is to be read imaginatively, creatively and rarely, if ever, literally: drop a mouse into the verses; waterski across the surface!

As we reflect imaginatively on the desert causeway that blossoms what might we see? Perhaps the desert, the dry, dangerous wilderness is not necessarily a place in the Middle East but a time in your life: an experience of dryness, aloneness, a time when the heat-scorched ground of your soul brought anxiety, fear, shame or sense of failure. With the eyes of faith, it is in this desert place that we may begin to open ourselves to the blossoming rose, the ground lush and bursting into flower. In the dryness, we may taste the spring, the living water of God, of the Presence. On our spiritual journey, we are to be present to the Presence. Sitting lightly with religious doctrine, the spiritual journey is about encounter with the Holy.

In the Celtic anthology, Carmina Gadelica, we read prayers of the Hebridean people. One such prayer offered at the beginning and end of each day is this:

God to enfold me,
God to surround me,
God in my speaking,
God in my thinking.

God in my sleeping,
God in my waking,
God in my watching,
God in my hoping.

God in my life,
God in my lips,
God in my soul,
God in my heart.

God in my sufficing,
God in my slumber,
God in mine ever-living soul,
God in mine eternity.

We are the parish church of St Columba; a people of pilgrimage and spiritual journey. In our reading of Scripture, drop a mouse into the verses, engage imaginatively and, through mutual support, prayer and meditation, may we with the eyes of faith see the desert blossom and be open to encountering God each and every day.