Mel's Healing Pilgrimage 2016

Links to the Camino de Santiago pilgrimages are on the navigation links to the right of the web page.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Climb that Tree and Find What You Seek

There was a time when I felt lost. I mean, really lost, and not like lost as I am in general today. I didn't enjoy attending my church because I would hear reinforcing messages that the way I was born, the way I was created, was somehow intrinsically maladjusted, bad, sinful. Not just any bad, but worse than the run of the mill sins that other people committed. And I was too young to even act upon these sins. These were just thoughts and feelings that I had inside and society told me to keep under wraps.

So I started to stay away from Church. I think a lot of people do that today.  They hear messages at their church that they don't like or disagree with and they stop attending. But how does one then differentiate that discomfort from making church all about themselves? What is to differentiate self-gratification in a human-constructed church from self-gratification from an ego-constructed sense of identity?

How does one leave a Church without it being about him or herself?

It took me a long time to come to terms with that problem. I'm still dealing with it, but have gotten further than ever before. Meanwhile, during the times I walked away, I still felt a hunger, a wanting, so I would sneak into church for silent prayer. This was at a time when I was out at university and I didn't want my gay friends to see me in church. Church hurt too many of them as well, and the explanations I'd have to give seemed to difficult to express. No I wasn't self-hating; I was hungry. No I wasn't actually still in the closet; I was seeking more from my life. Sure, I had made mistakes. Lots of them. And that's what made me feel like I needed to understand myself and my values ever better.

So yes I would sneak back into church. I was out as a gay man but closeted as a religious person.

The return to church in the past two decades has been life-sustaining for me. I have realized that I can't begin to live the life I'm intended to live without coming to the water when I'm thirsty. We are called into a place where we can be healed, where we can be the source of healing, where we are meant to be, and that calling is both internal and external.

We must respond to the feelings inside of us. We must move our butts to the places where we can put our values and life-meanings into action. Inside and out fully expressed: there is no more need for any closet. Instead, we climb the highest trees to see what's possible, to see the good in the world, and commit ourselves into the direction we were meant to go.

I think that it takes a great deal of reflection to decide that your spiritual journey may or may not need a church. Likewise, it takes some commitment to accept whether or not your journey includes a spiritual guide. Like a tour guide, you sometimes need others to show you the way. It's not that you can't figure it out on your own. It's just that you might want to get to your destination sooner, easier, with less wear and tear, so that you can enjoy yourself more fully. I've always avoided tour guides in my travels but have learned to understand my need for them when I'm immersed deeper in foreign languages and lands than I can handle. The same has applied in my spiritual life. It's taken me a long time to accept my need of church and spiritual guides, but once I set my ego aside, once I accept that my journey doesn't have to be over broken glass and bloody thorns, then I can yield to those who can help me get to the place I'm meant to be sooner, happier, safer. And in doing so, I make it clear to myself that it's in trusting others, in loving others, that I can find my way.

Last night, Stephen and I watched Les Miserables, the movie from a couple years ago. It's my favorite musical and though the movie has issues, the story line still brings me to tears. The contrast between Javert and Jean Valjean is marked, and yet they both sing the same melody when they come to their spiritual crisis. Jean Valjean's crisis is when he must decide who is the man that God intended him to be; Javert's crisis is when he confronts his moral world and finds no place for forgiveness. Both, in the end, are confronting the issue of Love unfolding, Love all-encompassing, Love made flesh. And at the end of the musical, my favorite line: "To love another person is to see the face of God."

We attended a cousin's wedding this weekend. Cousin weddings happen in my life more often than most, as I have 54 first cousins. And yet, sitting in the Roman Catholic church that I once walked away from, that I once felt outcast and excluded, I watched two people in love come together, seeing the face of God in each other. Trusting each other to help guide the other, to help each of them find their way in this life.

I close this blog entry with this coming Sunday's reading. Jesus promises to be there for us, if we reach out, if we love, we allow ourselves to be loved.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
                               Luke 19:1-10

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Take me, Take me as I am

I walked this Camino thinking that I might be posting, as I did this spring, nightly. Obviously, I did not. I spent much time thinking and contemplating, like before, but this time with a fixed group - All Saints Episcopal Church Pasadena's Transformational Journeys- traveling together as one. So some of the time I would have spent writing was spent sharing stories and breaking bread.

And increasingly, as the 10 day trip continued, I felt humbled. I didn't think of myself as a group leader per se. I was there to help guide people on their journey in my mind, to make it a safe space. A friend on Twitter posted yesterday :
Now that I think about it, a walking meditation group may not be safe. What will the church do if a member is injured or dies on a walk?
I responded
Pilgrimage isn't about safety
So though in my heart, I knew that risks are always taken when one goes on pilgrimage, I was serving these new friends of mine in a way not to create the journey, not to create the spiritual space, not to inspire, but merely to make that journey just a little bit safer, a little less frightening, a little less scary.

In between the delicate spider webs, the soaring spires, the wide open fields, the rolling hills of forests, different people had blisters, and stomach issues, and sun exposure. Sooner or later, someone would wander far ahead or far behind. But the gentle rhythm of life in a pilgrimage walk keeps you moving and drives you forward, and you flow through and with and in that stream in community with others.

So as the days passed, I grew increasingly humbled that I had the opportunity to be a part of this journey with others. That in my own way, as someone who was there to care for the safety of others, I got to draw inspiration as they did, to find new insights into my own journey, and into my own failings.

I had another coincidence involving meeting someone from home. This spring, I ran into Nancy at the Cruz de Ferro. Well this time, my friend Ralph and I had been speaking this summer about his coming Camino. As it turned out, we ended up in Palas de Rei on the same night. He started in Saint Jean Pied-de-Port in early September and caught up with us on our shorter journey. I was thrilled to be able to sit in the Cathedral with him as he watched the botafumeiro swinging wildly from the ceiling. With both these instances, the Holy Spirit just wanted to remind me that we are never alone and that always walk with others.

My pack felt incredibly light this trip. Did I really pack that much less? I don't think I did. I may have packed more. But I felt strong and confident in body, which was quite ironic because I started the trip with a visit to Urgent Care in Madrid. You see, I felt I had a growth or something in my chin that I tried to attend to in Pasadena before I left but time ran out before my flight. So, I went to the Spanish doctor who gave me antibiotics which nipped the problem quite well. Physically, I felt fine, but I talked awkwardly (and unbeknownst to others perhaps, with discomfort) for a couple days. Everything got better with each passing day and soon I recovered.

The flowers had passed by this time of year but the weather was spectacular. Normally Galicia is rainy, but it never rained on us more heavily than a light mist for 5 minutes out of the whole week. This made my walk and the walk of others that much easier and made it easier to take photos.

Given this background, I was thinking about my three angels from the last camino. Thor, the one who saved me; Daniel, the one who showed beautiful love and life; and Silvia, the one who cried at the well. (I recounted their stories in Walking in the Kingdom of Heaven). I thought of my journey in life, and what I was doing on the Camino this time around.

Every day we did morning prayer and we tried to do prayers every evening before dinner. At first we did it in my room, but then we took it out into the open and just did the prayers in public. It felt so good. It felt right. We were keeping the spiritual journey focused with these prayers. And we prayed not in isolation, but with the world, as we prayed for the people in Haiti, Syria, and our community. As a Lay Eucharistic Minister, I brought some consecrated bread and wine with me and surprised them so that we could have communion on our Sunday walk and on our last day walking. I was moved that they were appreciative of this, as I was of being able to share with them the Eucharistic feast.

So with all that, yes, I grew increasingly humbled by where my journey was leading me. A hymn kept popping up in my head that I didn't consciously bring along but wouldn't leave me alone:

Take, O take me as I am
Summon out what I should be
Set a Seal upon my a heart
and live in me
It's a hymn from the Iona community in Scotland by John L Bell, of the Church of Scotland. I wasn't guiding, I wasn't leading, I wasn't pushing people along. Instead, I felt like I was just asking to be taken as I am, with the imploring plea that I become the person I was meant to be. And with the grace of love on my heart, may that love live within me. Not exactly the hymn you think a pilgrimage leader would have, but there you go, that's what was going on in my head as I went to sleep, as I walked over streams, as I broke bread.

I got home last night, tired and a little under the weather. Not surprising I suppose because after the Camino, I went off to a beach-filled rest in the Canary Islands then to meet with a friend in chilly Mainz, Germany. But I got home, had dinner with Stephen, and then glanced at this weekend's readings and had to smile.

The reading will likely be used at churches across the country to talk about sin, idolatry, and perhaps even the current election season. But I smiled because I thought it fit with this Camino oh so well. I find it hard to think of myself as a leader in spirituality, when I am on the journey as much as everyone else is. But perhaps, that's what the Holy Spirit is summoning out of me. Perhaps, I've got to accept that it's my brokenness that my personhood is justified.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Luke 18:9-14 NIV

Monday, October 3, 2016

Knock knock

Today's the feast day of St Fancis. As I walk on an ancient pilgrimage route that this man from Assisi once traversed, I wonder what the animals thought of him, his Italian words and prayers, his simplicity. I wonder if he delighted in seeing cows and sheep and chickens like we are on the Camino.

And I wonder how he laughed.

Did he tell knock knock jokes? Or tell groaners or "Dad jokes"? Or snicker at the folly of a fellow brother?

We may not think of saints laughing or crying or looking anything but pious and stern. Ascetic perhaps, or maybe suffering. But certainly not busting out in laughter much less busting a move on a dance floor.

And why not? They were human. They walked and breathed among us. Why must we expect others to sit outside of the human condition before we can appreciate their extraordinary gifts?

He may have walked the Camino in a group like I am. And I've certainly had my share of laughs in between the insights and prayers. Don't most?

I want to think he laughed when the goats skipped merrily along a wall. Or smiled broadly, perhaps saying "awwww" when a calf appeared beside her mother. Or swooned when a bird flew over a setting sun.

Because it is in that humanity, we too can walk with saints. And smile.