Packing to go
Several of us “pilgrims” are connecting on social media platforms life Facebook and the virtual classroom web portal of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, OH, comparing notes about our frantic efforts to wrap up details, pack, and otherwise prepare to go. We’ve been joking back and forth about how preparing for a “sabbath” rest is such hard work that it makes you feel like you need a sabbath rest. But it did make me stop in the midst of my own preparation to ask the question: why do we live this way? Do we have to? Do we think people expect us to be frantic and busy? Could I ever ask the church secretary to hold calls because I was praying – other than in a meeting called for that purpose?
We started our pilgrimage at the pre-Israel two day seminar held at a Catholic Retreat Center near Dayton called the Bergamo Center. They brothers there have created some outdoor spaces that do something to you that no amount of guards and signs could compel: they make you settle down, be quiet, and become reflective. The main space is the grotto, the cave like rock structure with its statues, places for candles and for kneeling. When we first encounter it, everyone in the group automatically falls silent and then speaks in hushed tones, as if a service is in progress. Perhaps there, in that outdoor space, there is always a service in progress.
The brothers have a rich vegetable garden and a labyrinth made entirely of wild grasses and wildflowers. They have also made a couple of other structures out of branches and plants that I cannot describe; it seems almost whimsical. It reminds me of the kinds of shrines a native American might make, both in nature and of nature, without any object that is referential and no obvious way to interact with it, except to look; but again, it does have that effect: you stop, grow quite, and look.
Why does it seem that the Catholic tradition pays more attention to sacred space than the Protestant? Is the tradition of the Reformation which highlighted the role of Word over Sacrament to blame? Was the course correction of the sixteenth century an over-correction? Was it, like one of my seminary professors suggested, a trading of the “smells and bells” for the “verbal derby”? In any case, it seems pretty consistent: get a group of Protestants together and take them to a space that Catholics have tended, and the Protestants get all quiet and reflective.
Perhaps we know that now, and thus all the literature on Christian Spirituality pouring out of the Protestant tradition these days. Now we read about St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa in our own books. It would be embarrassing not to know who the desert fathers were and not to have read Henri Nowen. In fact, good Protestants should probably feel guilty about not reading enough about the lives of the saints, and immediately put it on the to-do list to go buy the books and – what? probably lead a group discussion about them so that we can be seen to be busily doing something.
I served as a missionary in Central Europe for over a decade during which I saw lots of American missionaries come and go. Some were old some young, some came to teach others to do humanitarian work – but nearly all of us shared this one characteristic: we were busy. Sometimes our business made sense to each other; sometimes not, but we were busy people. That characteristic, I learned, is part of our culture that we take with us wherever we go. We are Americans; that’s what we do.
Well, I have the disease. It is really hard for me to sit still. I feel like I have to do something constructive: make a blog entry, for example. But that is exactly what this Sabbath journey to the Holy Land is all about. The trip has been structured intentionally NOT to be a break-neck see-it-all tour of every known site of interest but rather a paced pilgrimage that has its own open spaces for the Sacred. My question is: will I take my American cultural characteristics with me to Israel? Of course I will; but will I be able to drop my guard of business enough to benefit fully from the sacred time and space? That is what I am hoping. Someday we all stop this hamster wheel turning anyway, as Ted Kennedy did today; as former brothers of Bergamo have done. Let it not be the first time I slow down.