1After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.
5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” 15When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
16When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
We’ve come to the final sermon in our series on Celtic Christianity, and today we’ll be talking about the concept of pilgrimage, the blessing of the journey. I’m reminded of the story of the woman who was planning for just such a pilgrimage, a long journey to a sacred place–in this case, to the holy city of Rome.
One day before leaving, she was at her local beauty parlor, getting her hair done. She shared her plans with her hairdresser, who said, “Rome?? Why that is one of the dirtiest cities you could ever go. How are you going to get there?”
The woman responded that she would be flying on Delta Airlines. “Delta?? They are absolutely the worst airline! And they have the ugliest flight attendants. Where are you staying?”
The woman told her hairdresser that she would be staying in the Villa. “The Villa?? Why that place is so overrated, and way too expensive. I wouldn’t stay there if I were you. What are you going to see?”
The woman shared her lifelong desire to meet the Pope. To which her hairdresser responded, “Why girl, you’d be lucky to even see him from a distance. Don’t you know everyone wants to be around him? You won’t be able to get within a mile of him.”
Well, a month went by and the woman went back to the hairdresser, hoping to break her of her bad habits. When she informed her hairdresser that she had just returned from Rome, the hairdresser said, “I bet your flight was bad.”
No, the flight was great. They had actually overbooked the flights and so I was moved to first class seating. And the flight attendant was the most handsome man I have ever seen!
The hairdresser frowned, and said, “Well, what about the Villa?”
Funny you should ask. The Villa had just completed a $5 million restoration. They were overbooked, too, so I was invited to stay in the owner’s personal guest accomodations–they were spectacular, and the service was amazing!
Once again, the hairdresser frowned, and said, “Well…what about the Pope?”
When I took the tour of the Vatican, one of the guards tapped me on the shoulder and said, “The Pope often entertains a few people now and then. Would you like to have a personal visit with the Pope?”
The hairdresser, now in shock, said, “I can’t believe it! What did the Pope say?”
He took one look at me and said, “My child…that’s the worst hair-do I’ve ever seen! Who fixes your hair?”
Sacred Journeys: People of the Road
The earliest followers of Christ–long before Celtic Christianity or Roman Christianity, or even before the term “Christianity” itself–the earliest followers of Christ referred to themselves as the “people of the way.” The word used for “way” was the Greek word ὁδὸς. It literally means “road.” When Jesus says in John 14 “I am the way, the truth, and the life” he’s using this word, ὁδὸς. So he’s saying I am the road. I am the journey.
So from the very beginning of our faith, this idea of journey was both a metaphor, and a very real act as well. Jesus’ ministry in the gospels take place against the backdrop of his long journey, the road from rural Galillee up to the heights of Jerusalem, the holy city. His final journey from Jerusalem to the cross, is known as the Via Dolorosa–the road of sorrows. In the time of the Apostle Paul, Christianity spreads across the Mediterranean via the Roman roads and highways.
And of course, the concept of “roads” is not limited to those over land. Boats play a significant role in the gospels (and today’s scripture passage), and in the spread of Christianity. In Old English, a poetic name for the sea is the “whale’s road.” So whether by land or by water, the “people of the way” have always been people of the journey–the inner metaphorical journey as well as the outer, literal journey. This was true for the earliest Christians, for Celtic Christians, and, I believe, for us as present-day Christians as well.
Pilgrimage and Peregrinatio
There are two primary types of sacred journey in the history of Christianity: Pilgrimage and Peregrinatio. The two words actually come from the same root in Latin, meaning “foreign” but they have evolved slightly different meanings.
A Pilgrimage, for our purposes, is a journey to a specific destination–a sacred place, a shrine, a cathedral, a relic. One usually returns from a pilgrimage, although hopefully changed and transformed in some way. When Amy and I went to Ireland this summer, after 24+ years of dreaming about it, imagining it, hoping for it since we were teenagers–this was a pilgrimage. Ireland is full of sacred places, cathedrals, shrines, and wonders, and we were truly transformed by our experience. And, of course (much to the relief of our three children) we came back.
Every year here in El Paso around Easter time, many people make a short but steep pilgrimage up to the top of Mount Cristo Rey. For some people, a trip back to one’s place of birth, or to one’s ancestral home can be a meaningful, spiritual pilgrimage.
Peregrinatio, on the other hand, is leaving behind everyone and everything to follow God’s call, journeying into a new, remote place–for an extended period of time, or permanently. Where pilgrimage is to a specific, known, place, peregrinatio is to an unspecified and unknown place–wherever God’s spirit leads.
Peregrinatio has its roots in the Bible–God’s call to Abraham, and later to the Children of Israel who journey through the wilderness to the promised land. It is Jesus’ call to his disciples, and John’s exile on the Island of Patmos.
For some of our military families, coming to El Paso–leaving behind family, friends, green grass, rain, East Coast/West Coast conveniences–leaving all that behind for this remote city in the middle of the desert is, I can imagine, a little like peregrinatio.
For Christianity, peregrinatio really took off in the 4th century, when all of a sudden, Christians went from being persecuted by Rome, to becoming protected as the official religion of the Roman Empire. This sounds strange at first: Why would Christians drop everything and go far away when they are finally safe and socially acceptable.
Well, ironically, that was part of the problem. In the early church, becoming a martyr was viewed as a demonstration of great faith. Martyrs were revered and celebrated. Add to that the fact that some Christians were understandably suspicious of their newfound acceptance, and of the government that once hunted them.
And so peregrinatio, a journey to self-imposed exile, became the new martyrdom, the new way to lay down one’s life and sacrifice everything in order to follow God’s call. It was from this tradition, from all of these exiles and martyrs that Christianity reached the remote shores of Ireland, where Celtic Christianity was born.
And as Christianity grew and spread among the Irish natives, their own desire for perigrinatio took them (and their Celtic stream of Christianity) further and further afield to Scotland, to England, to Scandinavia, and finally back to the mainland of Europe itself.
Because Celtic Christians were those who had already journeyed far, leaving everything behind, or else were those who were preparing to do so, their prayers and practices emphasize (in the words of Grace Clunie, Sacred Living) “openness, flexibiilty, a perpetual faith, and an ultimate trust in the God of the Exodus and of new beginnings.”
This, of course, isn’t easy. There’s a story about a man who fell over the edge of a steep cliff, but after falling for awhile, manages to grab hold of a bush. As he hangs on for dear life, he looks around, sees on one, and finally looks up to the heavens and yells, “Is there anyone up there?” A loud voice from heaven responds, “Yes, there is.” Encouraged, the man asks “Can you help me?” The voice from heaven says, “Yes. Let go of the bush. You’ll be fine.” The man thinks for awhile, and then yells, “Is there anyone else up there?”
Into the Unknown
Journeys are an exercise in faith, a venture into the unkown. Even when the destination is known, what lies in wait on the road there is not. And that is precisely why journeys have such transformative power. When we are the most safe and the most secure, when we are the most in control of our lives and our circumstances, God, and God’s Spirit, has the least amount of room to work. Conversely, when we are in the midst of a journey–over the cliff, hanging on to the bush, anxious about our destination–we are much more likely to look around ourselves, and above ourselves, and ask the questions “Is there anyone out there?” and “Can you help me?”
In our passage from John 6, so far we’ve been focused on the words and actions of Jesus, as he feeds the 5,000 and walks on water. In a larger sense, Jesus is indeed on a journey, from Galillee to Jerusalem. In an even larger sense, one might consider the son of God leaving behind heaven to walk on the earth the greatest act of peregrinatio ever conceived. But today, in our two miracles from John 6, I’d like to flip things around and not consider Jesus so much as those who journeyed to follow him.
We read in verse 2 that “A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.”
For most in the crowd, this is a pilgrimage to see a holy man. Jesus takes them up the side of a mountain, and mountains in the Bible are always sacred places, places of worship. In Celtic Christianity, places like this are called “thin spaces”–where the boundaries that separate this world from the other world are permeable and porous.
The crowd that follows Jesus (except for the boy with the loaves and the fish) has obviously set out with little or nothing to sustain them on their pilgrimage, other than faith and hope in the one they follow. They arrive hungry, and they leave filled, transformed–not just physically by the food they have eaten, but spiritually, having witnessed the miracle.
But there are also some in the crowd who are on a journey of perigrinatio: The disciples, who have left everthing to follow Jesus, and who have no idea where exactly he’s leading them. After the miracle is over and the crowd leaves, it becomes dark for the disciples (there’s a metaphor in that) and they set out in a small boat without Jesus. The storm rises along with their fear of the unknown. But Jesus encounters them in the midst of their journey, and when they finally recognize him, we get this interesting verse:
“Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.”
What’s fascinating about this passage is that the disciples are NOT miraculously “poofed” to their destination by the act of taking Jesus into the boat, but rather immediately at the moment when they “want” to take him into the boat. The transformation that matters most is the one takes place inwardly, in their hearts. Only after this does the outward journey fall into place. And I think that’s important for us to remember.
Every one of us here today is on a journey of some sort or another. Perhaps your journey is an actual physical one. Certainly and at the very least it is always a spiritual one. Maybe you are just beginning your journey; maybe you are nearing the end. Maybe you are right in the middle of the waves and the storm in the dead of night. Maybe you’ve witnessed great miracles on your journey; maybe you’re still holding out hope for one, or even just for some kind of sign that God is there. Maybe there is a clear destination at the end of your journey, or perhaps you are just floating, following wherever the spirit may lead.
In any case, what I want you to remember, and what I think we can learn from our Celtic Christian ancestors-in-the-faith is this: Embrace the journey, and know that the road is a sacred place to be as well; a place where there are winds and waves and darkness, but also a place where Jesus comes to us on the waters. Embrace the journey, and know that the transformation of our hearts precedes (and even provokes!) the transformation of our steps, and our circumstances.
I’d like to close today with a poem by the Irish poet John O’Donohue. It was read to us on our first day at the Center for Celtic Spirituality, and I know it struck a deep chord with my wife, Amy. I hope it speaks to your heart, to your journey, as well.
For the Traveler
Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.
New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.
When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:
How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening in conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.
A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.
May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.
May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.