Pilgrim in place
No, I have not confused Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’m referring to another kind of pilgrim.
Today is the 12th Day of Christmas for those who observe such things. I try, but somehow that observance becomes more difficult as the world begins its wind-up called “the new year.” People return to school and work, expectations start to rise, traffic patterns return to their pre-celebration insanity and winter settles in for the next few months of who-knows-what. And here I sit in one of my favorite landscapes, looking out the window at the sunrise that will not stay long because of a massive rain storm that is changing my plans for this time in the desert.
I cannot help but think about what the Celts have taught us about “thin places” when I am here in the desert. Jim Forest, in his book The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life (Kindle Edition, 2007), offers the best definition of a “thin place” that I have ever encountered: “A thin place is one where ordinary matter seems charged with God’s presence (Kindle Edition, LOC 1037).” And he goes on to tell us why we recognize a so-called “thin place”: “What marks any thin place is the time-stopping awareness of God’s presence (Kindle Edition, LOC 1040).” I have had the great good fortune to experience first hand many of the traditional thin places in this world, and also the great gift of understanding that a thin place can be anywhere, where as Forest suggests, my awareness of God is inescapable and overpowering.
As we come to the end of this walk through the Christmas season, however, I am thinking that, as we talk about “thin places,” we should also talk about “thin times”. For me, this season is often just such a time…we try to put aside our regular worries and activities, we try to spend time with those we love…maybe we spend a little more time in reflection and worship than we do in our day-to-day lives. Some are lucky enough to approach the whole season with an attitude of pilgrimage and retreat, journeying to one of the thin places that is meaningful for them and focusing on just the meaning of this season — love. Some of us just try to “pilgrim in place.”
In this time when I have declared myself to be in a pilgrim mindset and set before myself the task of living into the pilgrim’s way, I’m not convinced that I gave my best offering to God this season, but I do know that I have tried. And I have experienced some of what Forest calls the “translucence” that is present in a thin-place, where “an awareness of the holy often touches even the most skeptical and faith-resistant person (LOC 1042).” That translucence, my friends, is the knowledge of the subversive light that changes all things from within.
It seems to me that to live from the pilgrim’s heart within the structure of a modern life, we must embrace thin times as well as thin places. It is the thin times that will be more available to me than the actual thin places of pilgrim’s lore, because I can create them myself through reflection, prayer, and solitude. And so, as we move through this last day of Christmas and into the season of Epiphany (yes, it is a season, not a single day), join me as I stop occasionally and look for that translucent expression of God’s presence. It is all around us and in us, whether we are sitting at our desk or walking in the desert. We just have to look with the pilgrim’s eyes at that which around us seems so pedestrian. Walking, is after all, a most pilgrim activity, but not walking by itself. Walking, seeing, feeling, listening, loving — that is the pilgrim’s way.