I recently completed a book by Diana Butler Bass entitled Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church Is Transforming the Faith (HarperOne, 2006). At one point, Bass addresses an issue that confronts the Church universal in our modern age: radical individualism. We can get nostalgic about the day when people thought more of community or the common good than themselves. But the fact is that from ancient days, human beings have alternately seen themselves either more as individuals or more as members of a larger body. In our nation’s history, for example, we can see a swung from the self-seeking era of the Roaring 20s to the selflessness of “The Greatest Generation.” In the case of the Church, I think we might understand this tension better and move to a resolution if we think in terms of nomads and pilgrims.
One of the dominating characteristics of life today is that of wandering – moving from experience to experience for the sake of experience alone. By its nature, wandering is an individualistic activity, with an occasional need to “network” or “hook-up” for a time to accomplish a specific purpose. Once the wanderer accomplishes their aim, they go off on their own again.
By definition, a nomad is one that constantly changes locations, moving from one place to another. Many nomads have some place that they may call “home,” which is usually where their family or childhood friends are located, but even if they go back there, they wouldn’t spend more than a little time. We might know people (sometimes in our own family or among our closest friends) that are essentially spiritual nomads. They may return to their church “home” from time to time to seek out one or another religious service, like a wedding, a funeral, or a baptism.
You can often spot a spiritual nomad by their attitude and their assertions about their freedom from religion. Most importantly, they serve as their own judge when it comes to matters of ethics, moral choices, and religious preferences. More often than not their real purpose is to avoid any need to defer to higher authority, or simply to avoid taking an established path. We have even comes up with a moniker to identify such folks, what church leaders often call the “NONES” – otherwise known as the “spiritual but not religious.”
Like nomads, pilgrims travel, but a pilgrim doesn’t merely wander. Rather, a pilgrim’s travels have a specific destination in mind. By that simple definition, any commuter might be considered a pilgrim. But there is more to being a pilgrim than merely reaching one’s destination. For the pilgrim, the trip itself takes on more importance than its destination. Pilgrims tend to travel slowly, deliberately, experiencing almost every step along the way. The pilgrim notices things and finds treasures any commuter would probably never see. The pilgrim meets others along the way who might just be traveling the same path. They begin to share stories, to debate ideas, and learn to support one another as they travel. By the end of the pilgrimage, these “fellow travelers” bond with one another as they share their vision in the hoped-for destination. In short, they form a common-union, a community.
It is interesting that in the earliest days of Christianity, being a disciple of Jesus was often referred to as following “The Way.” This is the heart of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s call to us to see ourselves as pilgrims on the “Way of Love,” a series of spiritual practices that have been tried and true for disciples through the ages. .
It is true that many NONES experience a genuine longing for spiritual experience. But in their longing they wander from one experience to another. Sometimes they become so frustrated in their wandering that they reject the quest all together. Pilgrims, on the other hand, travel a well-worn path – they follow a way that others have proven will get them to where they want to go. This is the role of tradition in the spiritual life. By linking people’s natural longing for spiritual experience with Christian tradition, the Church provides pilgrims with a way not only to survive but to thrive.
Far from condemning or fearing expressions of individual spiritual freedoms, however, we should welcome their expression as the first step toward spiritual renewal. Over its long history, those who have followed the Anglican path often find in a parish community a place where the contradictions of life (like freedom and tradition) are not rejected but celebrated. By inviting spiritual nomads to walk with us on our spiritual journeys, we might see how the power of God can transform nomads into pilgrims and give wanderers the purpose and meaning they ultimately seek. For this to happen, we must be willing to share our spiritual journeys (both the good and the bad) as we make our way through life. We need to allow others to experience how we make our way amidst life’s challenges. We can help others to experience the “interesting things” we continue to discover along “The Way.”
This summer take a daring step: invite others to join you on your own pilgrimage. T
ogether we may reach that destiny, which God has in store for all God’s children.
Source: Rector’s Blog