Thursday, May 04, 2006

American Monasticism: Pilgrimage of the easy rider

Thomas A Kempis’ words on pilgrimage paint a tenuous picture for those with earthly concerns:

“Keep yourself a stranger and a pilgrim upon this earth, to whom the affairs of this world are of no concern. Keep your heart free and lifted up to God, for here you have no abiding city.”[1]

Yet I often wonder if this sentiment, this seeming impatience with mortality, doesn’t cause us to miss out on a great truth. The word pilgrim, by the way, comes from the Latin word meaning ‘resident alien’ and it can also mean “to wander over a great distance”[2], but a pilgrimage is not merely a journey. It is a journey precursored by mental and spiritual preparation, and those “intentions are necessary for a pilgrimage to be a pilgrimage.”[3]

While I think most spiritual seekers understand this to be true, that the value of a pilgrimage is not necessarily in arriving at a specific destination, I am left with some deeper level questions.

For example, we tend to think that the purpose of the pilgrimage is the journey – the change that such an ordeal brings to our soul and spirit - but what if it’s not?

What if it is the pleasure?

What if it is the pleasure of the pilgrimage that brings value into the journey? What if, in our efforts to be free of the temptations of the flesh, we have actually subdued the enjoyable parts of our quest in a vain attempt to be more authentically “spiritual”? What if we grow not just through trials and tribulations, but also through the incredible experience of joyfulness and happiness granted to us by God?

We tend to get so caught up in the tasks we have at hand, that we may have unwittingly reduced even a task less thing like a pilgrimage into something to be accomplished. Yet I think that the true worth of a pilgrimage is in the wandering and in the distance themselves, not necessarily just in the internal transformation that occurs, for it is in these wanderings that we are introduced to new experiences and in this distance that we discover the periphery of our identity.

I would like to offer that one common way in which we all make regular pilgrimages is through the internet. If truly a pilgrimage is marked by purpose and by wandering/distance, then certainly the internet qualifies for our meanderings online are intensely marked by both qualities. Furthermore, when we approach any medium – particularly one so open ended as the world wide wed – we are given the opportunity to make spiritual and mental preparation and, in doing so, create a spiritual paradigm for understanding this quest as divinely oriented.

Like the desert to which the Fathers ran long ago, the internet is not an entirely safe place. Full of pitfalls and snares for the unwary and the tempted, the internet has become the “country of madness”[4] and the “refuge of the devil.”[5] Yet sites like, and give us a glimmer of what things may be like in the future for those who would reorient the world of technological vice to one of hyperlinked virtues. These are examples of sites where you can post prayers or share concerns, where you can explore the motif of journeying inwards towards yourself and upwards and throughwards into God.

They are decidedly and deliberately spiritual.

I have spent the last several months developing two pieces of software.[6] The Prayground [] is an online experiential prayer exercise, designed to interface users with sacred readings, art, photography, and live audio mixing in an effort to embrace a multi-sensory approach to cyber spirituality. My hope is that spiritual seekers will use the Prayground – a free site – to experiment with such a pilgrimage and to take a few moments to try and discover what it means to intersect spirituality with technology.

Community W, on the other hand, [] is a clone that is designed to connect users one-to-another along the lines of shared interest and mutual practices online. It has a very low design profile, but a high functionality in terms of cross-referencing data and matching up people with other people of like mind. In this way, it almost resembles a dating service, though it is employed for less “intimate” results.

Of course, the church world is not the only realm in which the “journeying” motif of the internet is being explored. Sites like [] and [http://www. ] are gaining notoriety. Their expression focuses on the reclamation of Voice, which has been stolen from the people in our postmodern world, and the undying human interest in a good story. The Cluetrain Manifesto, for example, holds as one of its 95 Thesis that they “want you to drop your [business] trip, come out of your neurotic self-involvement, and join the party [of finding your Voice]”[7] showing that even in the business world there is an increasing awareness and value for the journey, and pleasure of the journey, that we all might take together.

Another form of pilgrimage that we might experience is memory.

In a world threatened by collective amnesia, Walter Brueggemann has suggested that one of the great fights of 21st century Christians must be the fight to remember all that God has done in service to, and providence on behalf of, His people.[8] Memory certainly requires us to journey backwards into the recesses of our minds, reliving some painful experiences as well as those memories that cause us to well up with joy and anticipation. Yet is it precisely this range of emotion that many minds have turned to during their physical pilgrimages to sacred sites on the earth.

In the Psalms of Ascent[9] we see this kind of reflection, and even a kind of longing, when the psalmist looks up to the hills[10] and recalls the days of apostasy where his people worshipped foreign gods. Those gods now seem close to the psalmist, and – thirsty and far from his goal – he longs for the easy worship of those old days. But quickly his stray thoughts are bolstered back to salvation by his memory – “my help comes from you, Lord, maker of heaven and creator of the earth” and he knows he can no longer fawn after quick solutions to eternal strife.

The more we begin to explore pilgrimage as spiritual formation, the more we can begin to understand that there are deserts other than those full of sand. There are places of liminality, places for wandering and distance, all around – and even within – us, and it is our great privilege to find them and to explore ourselves in them as we endeavor to draw closer to Jesus Christ.

[1] Tony Jones, The Sacred Way (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2004),149.
[2] Tony Jones, The Sacred Way (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2004), 151.
[3] Ibid., 155
[4] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999), 6.
[5] Ibid.
[6] It should be noted that Gabe Cooper is developing the Prayground and Dave Buchannan is working on Community W. Contact information is available upon request.
[7] Rick Levine, et. al, The Cluetrain Manifesto (Cambridge, Perseus, 2001), xxvii.
[8] Cf. Walter Brueggemann, Texts under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination
(Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1993).
[9] Commonly considered Psalms 120-134
[10] Cf. Psalms 121 NIV

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