Pilgrimage As a Way of Life: A Post by Prasanta Verma

This week’s post, by Prasanta Verma, is a review of my new book that’s releasing on Feb. 2. Enjoy this sneak preview; I’m grateful to Prasanta for writing it!

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Have you ever been on a pilgrimage? I must say I have not, at least, not a “deliberate” journey of such. I visited some beautiful cathedrals in Europe while in college, but they were not part of an intentional pilgrimage. What a different view I would have now, with some years of experience and growth behind me!

I just finished reading 3000 Miles to Jesus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life for Spiritual Seekers by Lisa Deam, and this book is expanding my view of our spiritual journey in this life. I most often thought of pilgrimage as a physical journey with a destination, and indeed, I am contemplating what such a journey might entail for me at some point in my life. But, as the title suggests, our spiritual journey can be a pilgrimage, too, and “a way of life.”

The early pilgrims that Lisa writes of, like Margery Kempe, Felix Fabri, and Pietro Casola (and indeed many others in their day), faced much hardship on their journeys to Jerusalem, encountering long delays, setbacks, illness, and even death. One did not embark on such a journey expecting to return roundtrip in a week; rather, those who left could be gone for many months, a year or longer, crossing mountain and sea, journeying on foot, donkey, or boat.

One of the more striking passages for me is this one:

“Saint Augustine paints a picture of someone a little like me in his Homilies on the Gospel of John. Imagine a person trying to cross the sea to reach home, Augustine says. This person spots her destination from afar; she longs to reach it. In fact, all of us have this longing, for in our home country, the One we love awaits. But how will the pilgrim get there? How will she survive the turbulent waters? How will any of us?…


“These words bring us to one of the great paradoxes of pilgrimage. On our journey, our every step and every water crossing takes us slowly but inevitably to the heavenly Jerusalem. Yet as we make this pilgrimage to God, we also make it with God. We are not left to find our way alone, for God is at once our destination and our means of reaching it. I never tire of sifting this beautiful paradox through my mind. For those on the spiritual journey, it is a comfort to ponder the mystery that the God to whom we travel is in the boat with us—perhaps is even the boat itself.”

How often on our spiritual lives, too, are we ridden with the toils of the journey and the long road, and forget that God himself journeys with us? Along each dark valley, rocky ascent, and slippery terrain, He is the companion who walks with a steady foot, a calming voice, and an assuring presence. We are not alone. He is in the boat with us as we face turbulent waters. He is walking with us in unknown valleys. We have a guide, a footpath, a railing, a leading hand—on the pilgrimage to Him, we walk with Him. What a beautiful thought and image that Lisa brings to life for us in her pages.

As we battle the difficulties and challenges of this life, however, there is yet even another enemy we must consider. Lisa writes, “For spiritual pilgrims, the greatest foes are the infidels of our own heart.”

Ouch. Let that one sink in deep. The truth of this one convicts me. Just thinking through all the challenges of life, we are also battling ourselves, and this might be the worst foe of all. Our spiritual baggage, our past, our pains, our wounds, our bruises, our rights, our justifications, our pride, our selfishness…we carry all these on our journey, weighing down our sacks, adding to the burden, and impeding our progress as much as any other obstacle. We must face the truth—and the hurdle—of ourselves.

While looking through the lens of pilgrimage to holy places, thinking of our spirituality as a pilgrimage and a way of life is a refreshing view. I am grateful.


*I paid for and pre-ordered the book, requested to join the launch team, and received an advance copy to read. This post is not being solicited by the launch team or book publishers, and I am writing my own thoughts and opinions out of my own personal experience.

Swimming with God

Imagine something with me. You’re in a ship in a raging sea, going somewhere important. Perhaps going on a pilgrimage. But it’s beginning to look like you’re not going to make it. The ship dips and lists. The sea is alive – a force against you. You pray to God to save you from destruction.

Doesn’t our faith often feel like this? Like we’re being tossed around by untamable wind and waves? Medieval theologians often compared the world to the sea. “All the ways of this world are as fickle and unstable as a sudden storm at sea,” wrote the Venerable Bede in the 8th century. And every soul must cross this sea on the journey through life.

So what do we do? Usually we respond with alternating displays of strength and alarm. We try to build a stronger ship. Bone up on our sailing skills. Lay in resources. And when the storm comes, we cry out to Jesus to pilot our ship.

Now imagine that the worst happens. Despite everything you’ve done, your ship capsizes . . . you fall into the water. And it becomes calm, buoyant. You realize that you’re floating. Swimming. Drinking water yet not drowning.

How is this possible?

Perhaps because we’ve got it wrong. Perhaps Jesus does not pilot us through the sea but is the sea. Perhaps this is the way we make it through the waves.

Two female mystics of the Middle Ages paint this picture of our journey. The 14th-century Dominican Catherine of Siena prays:

Eternal Godhead!
I proclaim and do not deny it:
you are a peaceful sea
in which the soul feeds and is nourished
as she rests in you in love’s affection and union
by conforming her will with your high eternal will—
that will which wants nothing other than that we be made holy.

(source)

In this prayer, the sea becomes a figure of God’s gracious abundance. The soul does not have to survive the water in a ship. Instead, God is the water. He envelops us, and we rest in him.

We might even go for a swim in this sea. The 13th-century mystic Marguerite d’Oingt writes of a vision of unity she received:

The saints will be within their Creator as the fish within the sea: they will drink as much as they want, without getting tired and without diminishing the amount of water. The saints will be just like that, for they will drink and eat the great sweetness of God.

(source)

Marguerite envisions the sea as a source of living water that never runs out (John 4:10-14). It’s a source of nourishment, where the saints (that’s you and me!) taste the sweetness of God.

I love this imagery for the way it rewrites the usual script about the sea of life. In the words of Catherine of Siena and Marguerite d’Oingt, the sea does not inspire terror but represents the incredible generosity of God. It’s a way to conceive of being fully enveloped in God’s goodness. And it’s an image of peace and rest.

As we ply the waters of life, let us remember the vastness of God who, like the sea, is everywhere. Let us be assured that if our ship capsizes, we will not perish. Should we be tossed overboard, we can swim like fish in the sea that is God.

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This post is loosely based on one chapter from my forthcoming book, 3000 Miles to Jesus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life for Spiritual Seekers. It’s a sneak peak behind the scenes, because it contains a lot of material that didn’t make it into the book! Click here (my author website) for more info on 3000 Miles to Jesus.

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Friday Favorites is back after a break of several weeks. We hope you are keeping well and sane. This week, Prasanta Verma and I have some beautiful posts, podcasts, and videos for you. They include thoughts on navigating the pandemic in our spiritual and writing lives, suffering and the church, and the ancient spiritual practice of remembering our death. We hope these words bless you this week. Be well!

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Ask A Spiritual Director via Kimberly Pelletier and Samuel Ogles (Pandemic Series Part 2: How do I deal with people who think differently than me about this pandemic?)

Reading Hope in Trying Times with Barbara Brown Taylor via Writing for Your Life (thoughts on the pandemic, online experiences, and books)

Memento Mori: Memento Vivere via Raymond (Randy) Blacketer (remembering our death so that we can remember to live)

The Tender Way via Marlena Graves (God doesn’t cause our suffering, but uses it to change us)

Can the Church View Disabled Bodies as Jesus’ Body? via Amy Kenny (it’s time for the church to start treating people with disabilities as full members of the body of Christ)

Writing the Pandemic: Your Morning Walk with Sophfronia, May 1, 2020 via Sophfronia Scott (taking small steps in our writing lives during this time)

 

 

 

Setting the World on Fire

April 28 – Wednesday of last week – was the Feast Day of St. Catherine of Siena, the 14th-century saint, mystic, reformer, and Doctor of the Church. I wanted to post about St. Catherine last week, but I was swimming in book edits.

On Catherine’s Feast Day, I noticed the quotations everyone was posting, especially this one: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” This is surely Catherine’s most popular saying today. We see in it an encouragement to fulfill our destiny and bring our unique spirit to the world. Very good. Except this isn’t what Catherine said. Not exactly.

The quote we know is a paraphrase from one of Catherine’s letters to a nobleman named Stefano di Corrado Maconi, one of her disciples. For a long time, she tried to persuade Stefano to enter the monastery because she saw his spiritual depth. She also needed his practical help. In a letter, she asks him to use his influence on the Sienese government to support Pope Urban VI against the antipope (Clement VII). At the end of the letter, she says,

If you are what you ought to be, you will set fire to all Italy, and not only yonder.

Setting fire to Italy is no small thing. Italy was Catherine’s and Stefano’s primary sphere of influence. But she adds the words “and not only yonder,” by which she perhaps means the larger Christian world as well.

Stefano is to light this fire by being who he “ought to be.” But not on his own. Reading Catherine’s letter, it’s clear that Stefano should be who he ought to be in Christ. He needs to be filled with the remembrance and love of God and so embrace his true identity. He is to do this in two ways. First, he needs to stop monkeying around about his faith. Catherine quotes the time Jesus warned Christians about being lukewarm:

I, Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, write to thee in His precious Blood: with desire to see thee arise from the lukewarmness of thy heart, lest thou be spewed from the mouth of God, hearing this rebuke, ‘Cursed are ye, the lukewarm! Would you had at least been ice-cold!’

CatherineofSienaAnd second, Catherine urges haste. Stefano seems to be dithering in his support of the Church and in what Catherine believes to be his true vocation. She writes her letter to him with an urgency that I love. I read her words as if written to us today. The time is short, she seems to say. The day draws to a close. And I —you, we—are called to step into being who we are in Christ. Don’t be lukewarm! Be on fire for Jesus! Be filled with gratitude. God needs us, so let’s get to work. Now!

Being who we are in Christ is no small thing. It is, in fact, one of our biggest tasks in life. The world needs what we, each of us uniquely, have been gifted. It needs our God-given passions. It needs our fire. It needs us to illuminate our little spheres of influence, “and not only yonder.” But to set our Italys on fire, we need first to be filled with the fire of the Spirit. We can’t do it on our own.

It was only after Catherine died that Stefano embraced his vocation and became a Carthusian monk. How about us? Will we dither? Or will we embrace our God-given fire? Why do we delay? The time is short. The world is waiting.

 

 

LIVING IN PANDEMIC TIME: by Prasanta Verma

We’ve heard of kairos time and chronos time. Maybe, tongue in cheek, now we have “pandemic time”. Indeed, how do we define time during a pandemic? There is the slow, thick movement of monotonous days at home during quarantines. Simultaneously, there is the sense of urgency and flurry of activity at a hospital in the epicenter, where mere moments matter in saving a life. Time moves at both of these ends as well as somewhere in the middle, in the in-between. Maybe we are even naming our days “B.P.” for “Before Pandemic” and “A.P.” for “After Pandemic.”

Perhaps this is how we do name this strange time: an in-between time, a “pandemic time”. We are in-between what life used to be and what life will be on the other end of this particular stretch of time. In a sense, though, we have always really existed in an in-between time: we are constantly between any two tasks of a day, between morning and evening, between life and death, between the temporal and eternal.

Yet perhaps now we feel the existence of this middle state a little more keenly than we did before. We are distinctly more aware of this space of waiting, this “in-between” time.

I am reminded of the words of Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote in Walking In Water, “When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening.”

I ponder these words, “no time for “being.” Who was I “being” before? Who do I need to be now, amidst the pandemic? And how much of the running B.P. (Before Pandemic) was necessary, fruitful, helpful? Does anything need to change? Who do I need to “be” After Pandemic?

What do I need to listen to in the midst of social isolation? Who should I listen to? With the usual face-to-face meetings and group gatherings turned virtual or disappearing for a while, what am I listening to? What was I missing amidst the noise, during the other routine, the before routine? Even now, it is hard to stick to a routine with the lack of structure and all other activities put on hold. Yet, I am asking myself what am I listening to now, and what do I need to listen to after, in this in-between time?

L’Engle continues, “but BEing time is never wasted time. When we are BEing, not only are we collaborating with chronological time, but we are touching on kairos, and are freed from the normal restrictions of time.”

How freeing it is to consider that our “BEing time is never wasted.” Even as we are trying to balance working from home while children may be tugging at our knees, amidst the challenges of finding new routines, new work-flows, the lack of structure, and the new challenges and blessings of more family time, we are not wasting our days if we are truly being in them. Anytime we are truly being in our days is not wasted, pandemic or no pandemic.

“If we are to be aware of life while we are living it, we must have the courage to relinquish our hard-earned control of ourselves,” writes L’Engle. The unique factor about our situation is the encompassing nature of it, as the entire world has been catapulted into a new reality and we all experience it simultaneously, in varying degrees. This situation is occurring beyond our control and we are on the back-end, maneuvering our way through and beyond. While the people on this planet together share the uncertainty and trauma of this new state of being, we are also learning, each in our own unique way, how much control we did not have. We each have new boundaries, new norms, new paradigms, and we will all face a new state of being “after”. As we have never lived through such a pandemic, we have no fallbacks, no “way-back-whens”, no other comparables. We are walking into the future together, yet also separate, in our own aloneness and our own new states of post-pandemic being, with the lessons the pandemic taught us.

While we may be living in isolation these days, L’Engle reminds us that, “Our story is never written in isolation. We do not act in a one-man play. We can do nothing that does not affect other people, no matter how loudly we say, ‘It’s my own business.’ ”

As we stand in this in-between place of Before Pandemic and After Pandemic, we are not truly existing in isolation. While we may not yet be able to visualize the practicalities and realities of our post-pandemic world, we can be certain that even while we operate in social isolation, our stories and our “beings” are all woven together in a social fabric of connection and belonging.

We, as individuals, as nations, as a planet, are undergoing challenges to our previous ways of being. We certainly do not have all the answers yet for those realities, but one thing we can control is our own individual attentiveness to “being” present where we are. It may be months or years before all of the stories and truths learned from these days will be presented or even manifested. But for now they exist, simmering under the surface, breathing silently in these days of isolation, in these in-between days, waiting for the right time to be unveiled. Each untold story being written right now will have its own perfect time of being.

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Prasanta Verma, a poet, writer, and artist, is a member of The Contemplative Writer team. Born under an Asian sun, raised in the Appalachian foothills, Prasanta currently lives in the Midwest, is a mom of three, and also coaches high school debate. You can find her on Twitter @VermaPrasanta, Instagram prasanta_v_writer, and at her website: https://pathoftreasure.wordpress.com/.

 

 

I’ll Pass; Or, How to Age Like a Star

This week, I’m sharing an article I recently wrote for The Perennial Gen on aging like a star, with help from the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen. You can begin here and continue at The Perennial Gen’s website. Thanks for reading! And…shine on.

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Dedicated to Polaris, “a rapidly aging giant star”

 

The other day, I played a little game with my husband. I asked him, “What do you think? Could I pass for forty?”

He looked at me. Squinted a little. “Yes,” he said, and I think he was telling the truth.

“What about thirty-eight?” I pressed.

“Sure,” he said.

I should have left it there, but something made me continue. “Thirty-five?”

At that point he began to look skeptical.

This game with my husband was affectionate; we laughed and teased. But behind it lies a serious hang-up. The fact is, I play this age game all the time. I don’t always play it overtly, but I do it in my mind. Because I have small children, I reason, that surely makes me seem younger to people I meet. Because I choose my best photo for my social media avatar, maybe I seem more youthful online.

When I play this game, I’m not just holding on to youthful beauty. I also want to be relevant. Vibrant. Involved. I want to have something to offer. So I try to convince myself (and others) that I can pass for a woman who is younger than she is.

Read the rest at The Perennial Gen.

 

The Mindset for a New Year: A Post by Prasanta Verma

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

-T. S. Eliot

 

I am sitting in a room with about 70 other people, at a business conference, and the speaker transitions into a message of mindset. We are seated in six long tables on each side of the room, in a large conference center with picture windows overlooking a snowy hill with a half-frozen river at the bottom of the hill. A picturesque scene outdoors delights the attendees; indoors, the audience sits in rapt attention to the dynamic and energetic speaker.

We have two choices, the speaker says. She asks us some questions, poses a few hypothetical scenarios, and then asks us to consider what side we are on.

Abundance? Or scarcity?

As I sit listening, I thought I had already dealt with that particular mind-devil.

Hadn’t I already proclaimed that truth to myself? Hadn’t I already called out the lies of irrelevancy, worthlessness, and lack of confidence? I know the half-empty/half-full glass mindset.

Yet, the taunts of a hidden department of the scarcity mindset were peeping through, so tiny and barely perceptible, I almost missed it.

The difference, I realized, was the circumstance. I had dealt with the scarcity mindset on the personal level. Now, here I was, starting a new business, and recognized that troublesome voice lurking in my life, waiting for its chance to reappear. I had never started a new kind of business, and the monsters of depravity sought to destroy what I was building before I had barely begun.

The scarcity mindset was appearing in unwelcome thoughts such as, “There is no way you can do this.” Or, “You can’t succeed; you will fail.” And, “No one will call you, or hire you.” And other such negative thinking.

All of this is in stark contrast to the abundance mindset, which of course, says, things like, “You can do this.” Or, “You don’t have to be perfect, you just need to make progress.” Or, “You are here for a purpose and you are not alone.” Or, “You have something to offer. People will find you.” And so on.

I realized I had been living in the land of scarcity in regard to my work, though I thought I had slayed that particular demon.

The verse about “abundant life” came to mind, and it brought a new meaning, a new idea of abundance to me. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” John 10:10 (RSV).

The abundant life also applies to my thought life. I had not quite thought of it in that way before. My mind was living in a dry place, when a verdant and fruitful place was available to me. Moreover, the thief was still sneaking around, with intentions to destroy me.

As this new reality dawns upon me, I think it is a good way to begin a brand new year: with a mindset of abundance as opposed to scarcity.

With God, I have abundance and life. I have more than enough, and I am enough. I do not know what the year ahead holds, but there is a place for scarcity and its words: in the past. Abundance is our inheritance; it belongs in the future. And that is a better place to dwell.

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Prasanta Verma, a poet, writer, and artist, is a member of The Contemplative Writer team. Born under an Asian sun, raised in the Appalachian foothills, Prasanta currently lives in the Midwest, is a mom of three, and also coaches high school debate. You can find her on Twitter @ pathoftreasure, Instagram prasanta_v_writer, and at her website: https://pathoftreasure.wordpress.com/.

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome, friends, to Friday Favorites, where Prasanta Verma and I bring you lovely links on spirituality, prayer, and writing.

In this season of Epiphany, we hope that Jesus reveals himself to you, perhaps partly through the pieces and podcasts below. Be blessed.

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What I Learned Being Silent with Monks via John Gehring (what happens when we perform the radical act of withdrawing and being quiet?)

More Than “Just Mercy,” A Path to Healing Racial Trauma (an interview with Sheila Wise Rowe and an excerpt from her new book)

Listening Without an End in Mind via Nicole T. Walters (living as a listener and a learner)

Still Life: Pneuma via Michael Wright (on pneuma, art, and spirituality)

3 Life-Changing Rules for Finding More Writing Inspiration This Year via K. M. Weiland (inspiring creative rebirth in the coming year and decade)

The Habit Podcast via Jonathan Rogers (in this episode, Meredith McDaniel shares the connection between counseling and writing)

 

On Turning in a Book

As some of you may know, I’m writing a book on medieval pilgrimage. It features mystics like Margery Kempe and Walter Hilton and lots of pilgrims, both known and unknown, who journeyed to Jerusalem in the Middle Ages. From these pilgrims, we can learn about our own journey of faith today.

I have some news about said book. A few days ago, I turned in the manuscript to my editor.

I feel all the things a writer usually feels. For example, elation. I did it! I just completed 40,000 polished words! And anxiety. Will my editor like it? What revisions will she want me to do?

But I did not expect to feel . . . grief. I miss the project that has been so much a part of my life the past ten or so months. I miss working with such wonderful historical material: researching it, shaping it, seeing it come together, finding the words to make it sing. I even miss the less glamorous aspects: looking up niggling details, double-checking facts, formatting endnotes. I miss the way this writing project weighed on my mind. I miss sweating bullets and wondering whether I’d be able to pull it off. I miss waking up on mornings when I had a whole glorious day to do nothing but work on this book.

I really did not want to turn in my manuscript. Which is why I held onto it and tinkered with it for about two months longer than I should have (don’t tell my editor).

pilgrims cross alps
Pilgrims cross the Alps in the prayer book of Bishop Leonhard von Laymingen of Passau, Walters Manuscript W.163, fol. 1v

I miss my project because, for me, writing is perhaps my purest expression of faith. It is where I bare my soul–first and foremost to God, and then to my readers. When I write about pilgrims’ journeys, I walk this road in my heart. In footsteps and stories and metaphors, I am pouring out my belief in this road we all take to our interior Jerusalem. My desire to reach this destination. My awe and fear over how difficult it is. My heartfelt cry that God would make the going just a little bit easier. I cannot express these beliefs in any other way than through the words in my book. Writing is a form of worship, prayer, and wrestling with the angel.

So, I’m a little at a loss this week. Happy, but out of sorts. Relieved, but scared. Resting, but feeling loss.

Fortunately, the journey goes on. I await the next steps . . . revisions and then getting the book into your hands so that you can walk this road with me.

May God grant each of us the grace to walk our portion of the road today. Travel well, perigrini.

 

 

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome to Friday Favorites! Our Advent theme continues as Prasanta Verma and I bring you poems, essays, and resources for this season of anticipation. Read and be blessed.

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The Image Advent Calendar via Image Journal (a daily reflection, piece of visual art, music, or other resource to accompany you through the season)

Perseverance * An Advent Epistle via Alicia Akins (a letter to encourage us as we wait and run)

Advent: Waiting in Hope: What Are YOU Waiting For? via Bob Toohey (why do we get so impatient in everyday situations like traffic lights? Advent may hold an answer)

Joseph via Mary-Patrice Woehling (an Advent poem)

We Are No Longer Alone: Do Not Forget You Are Loved via Emily Polis Gibson (a visual and poetic reflection)

Happy Birthday, Encountering Silence (the Encountering Silence podcast looks back over its first two years)