For years when Christian theology was so paramount in my philosophical grid and understanding of the world, I was very much an “eclectic” believer, taking various portions of theology that happened to fit nicely into my then worldview and view of the Christian understanding of the world and our place and mission in it. That lasted a goodly portion of my 58 years on this planet. I find it hard to believe sometimes that I have graced this planet for this long. My Dad only lasted 59 years, and my father-in-law lasted 66 years. It just reminds me how fleeting life is, and how relative our “belief systems” are in comparison to what really matters in life. We make so big a deal about what people believe and whether they are right or wrong. For years I lived in this kind of grid, where people were in or out based on their belief system and answers to the tough questions. If you really are seeking to know the truth, then this pursuit of right belief, or dogmatic purity, just will not lead to life. Doctrine absent of divine encounter just waxes the heart old, and renders the whole enterprise as a cerebral exercise, a kind of philosophical grid of understanding. Devoid of mystical encounter, devoid of facing and embracing the “holy other”, it will not satisfy. It may take decades for you to discover it, but it will not satisfy, eventually that inner voice will get your attention.
It is hard to go back when you wake up from it all
Then something happened. I woke up as if from a bad dream, and realized just how different my life was from what I had read in the New Testament. My life, my life in what was considered to be “the church” was not at all like the New Testament church. Yet so much belief, so much practice, so much hard work, energy, finances and resources were spent, advancing an understanding of “church” and “Kingdom” that really did have much in common with the body of Christ revealed in the New Testament. The more the fog cleared, the more the senses became attuned to the distinctions and differences between life and what is religion, the more I realized that it was more of a power game, a control game, a world view that fostered and promoted a lot of work in the name of God, but it was really not very convincing that God was even behind all the expended energy and resources of all the work being done in his name. It was as if it was a make work project to justify your beliefs and you very existence on the planet. Much like the film The Matrix, once you take the red pill, and go down the rabbit hole, and you wake up to what is really going on, you really cannot go back to what was.
When all you know is gone
No matter how you try to go back, you can never recover that sense that what you once knew was even legitimate to consider and you had to live with the reality that if you went back, you were just trying to apease what others expect from you, knowing inside it was killing you because it was devoid of authenticity and life. If the thing never produces life and only causes frustration and grief and leaves you empty, then there is something wrong with it. It isn’t you at all. You are awake. You feel every nano second of the trauma, the deadening pain of the emptiness that no hype, on song, no wordy explanation can satisfy. It is all a con game to keep you coming back week after week. You know inside it isn’t so, so why pretend. Better to leave the emptiness, pull back, and just start to breathe, and unpack it all, and as you let each thing fall apart, embrace the silence and find comfort in the silence and the reality that you are not even alone in the silence. Someone is already there, loving you, embracing you, binding your wounds, telling you down in your deepest self that you are OK, and that you will never be alone. It is just an unfamiliar place because you have never been in this place before, devoid of what you had preconceived as normal. Your new normal is without all the religious verbiage and tradition you grew up in. You have few reference points or markers to go by. You are flying the seat of your discernment, that still small voice inside you that prompts you and moves you and leads you. That is all you have to go by. And, it is enough.
So what is a guy to do, moving on and embracing something new, something different?
I came to believe through my own Bible reading and study over the years, that the Bible carries illustrations of encounters with God, which inspire us and encourage us to journey with God ourselves. What we see from Genesis to Revelation, as example after example is the action of God calling upon and reaching out to people, with divine encounter through dreams, visions, auditory engagement, embrace, empowerment and life journey as pilgrimage that illustrate for us what it is to “walk with God” moment by moment. You never walk alone… God is ever present, and is with you. It is only your sense of knowing and awareness that gets in the way. I have come to realize that I never ever walk alone. Christ is always with me, ever before me. I am never forsaken and never alone.
The history of Christianity is filled with mystical encounter and the language of spiritual journey with God
I know from my own life that “pilgrimage” has come to mean not just a sojourn to a holy site of some kind. Since the early Middle Ages there have been Christian pilgrimages to many sites which have been viewed as “holy journeys” such as the Way of St. James, a.k.a The Camino, and the Celtic sites and pilgrimages to the shrines of St. Patrick, St. Kevin, and St. Briget. In Spain there is not only the Camino, already mentioned, but pilgrimages to sites dedicated to Teresa Avilla and St. John of the Cross. In Italy you have the holy sites attributed to St. Francis of Assisi and St. Claire and St. Padre Pio among others. Every Christianized nation has their patron saints and pilgrimages associated with these saints, and not just in the Western branches of Christianity, but also the Eastern, the Orthodox churches have more than their fair share of saints and pilgrimage sites. But I am viewing the idea of “pilgrimage” within a broader context.
Daily pilgrimage with God is rooted in the biblical examples that are set before us
As I mentioned it above, I view life, our life journey, as a day by day pilgrimage with God. I find inspiration for this line of understanding from the Holy Scriptures themselves. From Genesis we see that Adam walked with God in the Garden, Abraham walked with God as did all the Patriarchs. You find God revealing himself over and over throughout the Old Testament, Moses, the judges, the prophets, David, Solomon, kings, queens, servants, slaves, to the New Testament, where you find the parents of Jesus and John had their own pilgrimage with God and holy other types of encounters where God spoke through angelic encounters, through dreams and visions. Jesus had ongoing encounters with his Father, whenever he separated himself from the crowds and disciples and went away to be with himself and his Father. Jesus modeled the kind of mystical reality and encounter that has continued to our own day. The disciples who became the apostles all had ongoing encounters with God and had the ministry of angels minister to them as they had encounter after encounter through dreams and visions, and prophetic revelations. This too continues to our own day. So, sojourning with God is a very private and personal ongoing relationship with God that has within it characteristics of engagement, encounter, mystery, mystical connection, which are all transformative for the one who is engaged in it with the divine.
Mystics do not look for validation through others or in group settings
My own sense and experience in the Christian mystical experiential encounters have all been rather private, even though I have experienced some powerful encounters with God while among many Christians worshiping God together in one place. But my encounter was my own, and not a common encounter with the group. That is precisely the point. These encounters though they may happen anywhere, and amongst many people, or no people at all, are all very private and personal encounters with the “holy other” and it is really a “wholly other” kind of dynamic at work. It is often hard to put into words all that is experienced. These mystical experiences are not experiences that most people have sought. Most have sought to love God and worship God , and then this mystical encounter has come about in the midst of this union with God that transpires in the realm of the Spirit.
When we read the literature on Christian mystics we read of the lives of common people who had a simple trust and vibrant faith in God, and God met them and encountered them exactly where they were spiritually and emotionally. In some cases these encounters continued over time throughout their lives, and in others, there were few encounters, but in each case there seems to have been ongoing fruit manifesting in the life of the person who experienced this kind of engagement with God. Their lives were forever changed.
I have had my own share of mystical encounters and I believe them to authentic, but I am not a pursuer of more mystical encounters. I just want to know God more and better. I just want to pour myself out in love and adoration to God, and walk with him day by day, and hear his gentle voice and do as I am asked to do. I am not looking for anything more than to know Jesus and the power of his resurrection in my life, day by day, moment by moment.
Living day by day with God and with our shared common humanity
When I think of moving outside the traditional and historical parameters of the institutional church, I wanting to do so for the sake of my own heart and life. While there are many who find sustenance and safety and belonging in the “Christian tradition” of their choice and experience, I myself find so such succor within the confines of the institutional church. It actually does the very opposite for me. So for me to be obedient to the voice of God that I am hearing in my own heart and spirit, I need to walk the “ancient walk of the pilgrim.” I need to imitate those of the Scriptures and church history, who journeyed with God moment by moment and lived a life of obedience to God and service to others. It is really that simple. You may ask, “How do you live life like that in a Post-Modern society?”
I would suggest that a “life of pilgrimage” has the following elements:
- An attitude of living in the moment. Jesus demonstrated a life of living moment by moment, and stopping to embrace that particular moment. Nothing was a coincidence. Everything was viewed as holy and beautiful and to be lived. Compassion and love was expressed in each moment and each situation and context where Jesus encountered people. He embraced each moment for itself. I believe that when Jesus spoke in the Gospel of Matthew, and said “do not be anxious for tomorrow” he lay down the principle of living life in the moment, in the day. As a Christian pilgrim, I have come to realize that the past cannot be changed, and the future does not yet exist. I can only take care of the present, the “eternal now”, and we cannot change the future, as it does not yet exist. I can only take care of the moment I am in. So I need to just live life to the full in the moment which we have and not worry or fret. As a pilgrim I just live life to the max as I am able, in that moment, and I must choose to embrace it, the good, the bad, the ugly. All of it is life worth living to the full.
- Looking at life as encounter. I find that when I look at the life of Jesus in the Gospels, he lived a life of encounter, encounter with his Father in intimate times apart, one on one, and he lived life of encounter in human relationships, one on one, small clusters of two or three, and in small groups of a dozen, and then larger encounters where they were merited or imposed on him. Jesus lived a life that had at its core engagement and connection with people. Encounter was the byproduct of a life that committed to engaging with others. He was not afraid of being alone, or separate from others or situations, but neither was he afraid to engage with others. He saw and understood the importance of relating with other people. He loved being with people. His life is a perfect picture of what it is to be comfortable in engaging with others and embracing the reality of encounter. As a Christian pilgrim, living my life hearing God’s voice, and obeying his voice, often leads me to a life of encounter with people. I encounter people in my work day, in my recreation, and in unplanned moments, and just like Jesus, I see life as encounter, to be lived in the moment, and to enjoy the encounter and the fruit of it in my life as I just go with and experience it in the moment.
- Being comfortable in our own skin. In each encounter, Jesus was himself because he was comfortable in his own skin. Jesus knew himself. To embrace a life of true encounter, you need to know yourself, your inner core, your inner reality. As you know yourself and become more aware of who you are, and you are comfortable being alone with yourself, and your heart is settled on that, and you are at peace with yourself and with the world around you, you come to understand just how “one with God” you truly are. You realize your own identity is not lost, but is truly found in the one-ness you have with God and in God. Jesus knew this intimately and it affected all the engagements and relationships he had with other people. In my own life, as a Christian pilgrim, I need to be comfortable in my own skin and become fully aware of who my inner self truly is, and that the reality is, you and I are loved by God just as we are, and so, we should embrace who we are as fully as we can, and become more and more comfortable in our own skin. God not only loves us, he likes us.
- Recognize the reality of the power of religion. Jesus saw what religion had become in his own society. He knew of its power and influence and control over the people. His sharpest critique and judgments were expressed toward the hypocrisy of the religious establishment, more so those who wielded religious power over the people as task masters. Jesus understood that the religious devotion of people should flow from the heart to God and to others. He demonstrated his love for the Father through his love for people. This was Jesus’ own confrontation against the religious establishment, that this very establishment made serving God and others onerous and difficult for people who already had difficulties and challenges in life and the judgments of the religious establishment did nothing to alleviate or remedy the lot of the people in their own predicaments. So the challenge of Jesus to the religious establishment of his day is as real in our own day. He calls on us to love people, help the poor, the outcast, the widows and orphans and to stop judging other people and to cease from our determinations of who we consider to be in and those to be out. Jesus today is as concerned about the attitude of the heart as he was 2000 years ago. We need to be the same, and realize that organized religion can have a positive impact on society, but it can also have a devastating impact on society. As a Christian pilgrim in this world, where there are more religions than you can shake a stick at, I am called to love God and love other people and not judge or criticize and that goes the same for my attitude toward organized religion too. I have my opinions of the matter of religion, and at the end of the day, it is my opinion. As a pilgrim, I am called to just carry on, love God and love people, even in spite of religion.
- Seeing each day as a holy day, is a gift given to me by God to be lived and embraced and enjoyed. One of the difficulties in “leaving the old world behind” is that you have to leave it all behind, especially when what you are leaving behind, is all the spiritual religious world and understanding you have come to know and understand. As a Christian pilgrim I have come to see what Paul spoke of in Romans 14 when he addresses how Christians should approach holy days and feast days, his reference to how Jews observer the Old Covenant holy days, and the implication is that we ought to treat each day as a holy gift from God. This does not mean sacred and holy in how we celebrate and commemorate, as much as holy in our attitude to the day we are living in. As a Christian pilgrim, every day is sacred and holy, not just the “Lord’s day” as I once observed it. As a Christian I now find it is no longer a burden to not observe Sunday as I used to at one time. I can sleep in, and enjoy the day. I can have coffee in bed with my wife, and relax and enjoy God and the day he has given me to rest in him and to renew myself. I can apply this to any day and my attitude toward the day actually affects how well I embrace it to the full, and how rewarding I find the day and all the encounters I have with people in the moments of that day. It is a most enjoyable day to embrace each day as a unique gift from God. It demystifies the “Sabbath” I grew up in, when I was within the religious system.
- Creating my own sacred elements to enhance my journey in God and in life. I find that at one level, as a Christian pilgrim, I see all things in my day as sacred. My friends and coworkers at work are holy representations of the image of God in my life, and a constant reminder of the diversity and beauty and creativity of God. When I see God in them, it really removes an attitude of criticism and judgment and opens up more dimensions of God in my own life. I find too, that when I prepare meals I find them to very much be sacred and special, even if there is no “ritual” attached to it. How I prepare it, and who I prepare it for, really brings a centering within me, and a joy and delight to be able to serve others and in my serving others, I come to see and know the delight of God in my life and his blessing and presence. Celebrating with friends and family really highlight much of the sacred reality that shows just how much God’s Presence permeates every strata of my life, and that I am no alone at all. He is very much present in every little thing I do, and in every conversation, and in every act of kindness and love shared with another person. How I act and behave in these moments and encounters with others are indeed very much holy and expressions of devotion to God.
- Experiencing freedom one little moment at a time. I finally realize as I embrace my past and deconstruct my past, and let go of elements, one element at a time, and I surrender it and give it to God, I am released from the past attachment and need to that element, and down within my spirit in my heart of hearts I experience a new awareness of freedom, freedom to be the pilgrim of Christ I am meant to be, freedom to be fully one with God, and freedom to just “be” and relax and embrace that moment where freedom becomes fully alive in that element. I have found that those elements released, are never the same thereafter, and there is a real sense of peace and well being that comes over and takes over that part of my heart and life. The thirst for knowledge is not the thirst for books, or the intellect. It is that thirst to truly know intimately. The Koine Greek work “ginoskow” means to “know” as in the “sexual union” of man and wife, an intimate oneness and union of two becoming one. For me to “know God” means becoming one with God in spirit and in truth. This is where true freedom leads, it leads to more unravelling of what we once thought to be truth, to discover deep within it, at the core, is a knowing of God that had up to that moment had been unknown. It goes past intellectual understanding, and past words being able to comprehend and understand and pass on this “inner knowing,” and “inner freedom.” It culminates with that sense you just “know that you know that you know,” and no person can talk you, reason you out of that truth knowledge of God.
Living a life of fullness and joy, a gift from God
This is the fullness of joy that comes in embracing the life of a Christian pilgrim on a life journey of daily and momentary discoveries of the heart of God, revealed in ongoing daily encounters with circumstances and people. We are never alone. God is ever present. God and humanity together, and God is working all things together for our good. How he does that is up to him. All I know that he is more than able to make all things reconciled to him in and through Christ Jesus, the savior of the world, the only mediator between God and man and creation. It is a wonderful gift to be alive, to know God and love him and to love and engage in life with others made in his image.
Peace and grace
~ Samuel M. Buick