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Monk in the World Guest Post: The Rev. Dr. Gil Stafford

I am delighted to share another beautiful submission for the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Gil Stafford’s reflection on walking the many paths of pilgrimage.

I have walked Ireland, coast-to-coast. Alone. I’ve walked the Wicklow Way with several pilgrim groups. I have also walked a pilgrimage with my sister through the physical and mental handicaps of Prader-Willi Syndrome. I’ve walked to death’s doorway with my mom. I’ve walked the failed pilgrimage of being the president of a university. I walked the mid-life career change. Pilgrimages take many forms. Traipsing through the forest of life. Climbing over the mountains of adversity. Enduring the climate of challenge. Over the course of countless miles and numerous days, the desire for living life as a pilgrim is to gain enough wisdom to live life as monk in the world.

A pilgrimage, whether literal or metaphoric, is a journey with the purpose of deepening one’s physical, mental, and spiritual wisdom. Each step of the quest carries the potential for an interior awakening. A wisdom walker observes everything that’s happening to her with the eyes of an owl, seeing light in the darkness—anticipating a profound internal transformation that is about to appear. To go wisdom walking is to be aware of the 360 degree experience that bombards the senses, stretches the thoughts, evokes the feelings, and expands the imagination. Complete awareness fuels the process of integrating the pilgrimage experience into the mind, body, soul, and spirit where the gold of wisdom is found.

For years, I thought my mentors were wise simply because they were uniquely gifted and had lived longer and had more experience than I did. I assumed their wisdom came easily. These wise sagas assured me this is not the case. While age and experience gave them the opportunity to become wiser, they told me without the hard work of fully embracing their journeys, both good and bad, successes and failures, they would have little counsel to offer. You have to walk the miles to gain the wisdom. One of my mentors guided me into the world of Carl Jung, alchemy, and archetypes. Archetypes are the universal symbols and images of the unconscious shared by all cultures—father/mother, king/queen, warrior/shaman, countless others. Alchemy, in psychological terms, is the ancient art of exploring those unconscious symbols in order to expand consciousness, soul gold.

Jung was a soul pilgrim, a world-traveler. He was seeking to learn about the universality of cultural archetypes. Simultaneously, he was confronting his own unconscious, the anima, the soul. Jung has provided me with a framework to understand what has happened to my mind, body, soul, and spirit while on multiple pilgrimages. I see all of life as a pilgrimage—walking in the world as a monk.

My sister Dinah and I were having lunch three months after our mother had died. Dinah has Prader-Willi Syndrome, complicated by infant brain damage caused by high fever. She has a profoundly limited vocabulary. Despite her limitations she is a wise crone, connected to God like a mystical saint.

Conversations with Dinah are haltingly slow. She asks about the children. Cryptically naming them. She wants to hear every detail of their lives. Dinah is most interested in our grandsons—and my dog, Jesus Jameson.

She tells me her stories—one word, silence, then another, more silence. I ask a question. More silence. She ponders the next word. Somewhere in the little strands of conversation she told me she had washed her hair that day.

“Do you wash your hair every day,” I asked.

She nodded an affirmative yes, as if to yes, idiot brother, don’t you.

I suffered the older brother chagrin. “Do you style your own hair? It looks nice.” I was struggling to recover.

“No, Joey,” she said referencing her beloved caregiver.

“You have beautiful silver hair Dinah,” I said in truth.

She said without hesitation, “My momma’s hair.”

I wanted to cry, but stuffed my emotions.

Then she said to no one in particular except herself, “My momma’s hair.”

Long silence.

Then she said, “Momma no more.”

I looked away. Our mother was no more. We sat in pristine silence. It was as if the entire restaurant, the outside world, and God herself had stopped breathing in communal grief waiting to hear what Dinah would say next.

Then she shook her head as if to drive the thought of our mother being dead out of her memory. She looked at me and changed the subject back to the dog. Time to move on to our new reality.

Living life as a monk in the world is walking whatever pilgrimage you must face. For me, this kind of life is Wisdom Walking, the alchemical four-stage spiral process of pilgrimage. In my own experience, wisdom seems to come through life’s trials. Typically, during those rough circumstances, I’ve sensed that something keeps turning up my psychic heat. Indeed, something is. The energy created by the daily grind of living through trials, suffering, and grief creates a fragile and unstable phase of risky opportunity. I have struggled to know if this was something positive or something that I should run away from in fear. Jung equated the experience of rising heat during a painful experience, with alchemy. For Jung, the alchemist’s chemical work of trying to turn lead into gold is a metaphor for the maturation process, individuation, which is most often initiated by life’s struggles. He believed that to become a fully mature person, we must integrate all the elements of our life, all the pairs of opposites, the good and bad, light and dark, pain and joy, failure and success, male and female. This is where the gold of alchemy will be discovered. The process of psychological alchemy utilizes the heat in our life to create psychic gold—a lifetime of healthy deep personal reflection, exercising our imagination, in order to uncover a new and individuated, mature, way of living with our pain.

Whether we’re walking through a forest, waiting for treatment in a hospital, or processing our grief, by imagining life as a pilgrimage, I believe we can live life as monks walking in the world.”

Gil Stafford picture.2The Rev. Dr. Gil Stafford is the Canon Theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona; previously the president of Grand Canyon University, as well the university’s baseball coach, winning three national titles. Stafford’s publications include his latest book, When Leadership and Spiritual Direction Meet: Reflections and Stories for Congregational Life.

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