I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Lisa Deam’s reflection about inner pilgrimage in this time of pandemic.
Thanks to the pandemic, we’ve all become a little monkish, whether we want to or not. I’ll admit that the recent months of isolation haven’t always felt very sacred to me. As I continue to restrict my movements out of extra caution, I’ve deeply missed the ordinary activities of daily life, such as gathering with friends and writing in coffee shops. And I mourn the loss of larger opportunities. For example, a friend invited me to join a pilgrimage . . . just before the pandemic began.
Wrestling with the “new normal” of pandemic life, I’ve found it worthwhile to read the Christian mystics, many of whom did not travel because they were enclosed monks, nuns, or anchorites. Perhaps because they accepted a life of voluntary restriction, they understood that journeys do not always involve footsteps. These mystics are good companions as we sit on our sofas and dream of roads not taken.
One mystic who wrote about alternative forms of travel is the Augustinian canon Walter Hilton. In the 1390s, Hilton wrote a contemplative treatise that is today known as the Scale of Perfection. In a section of this treatise, he counsels readers to take an interior pilgrimage—that is, a pilgrimage in their spiritual life. Hilton asks us to imagine that we are on our way to Jerusalem, one of the farthest distances a medieval pilgrim could travel, and one of the holiest.
Our whole life is like a journey spent traveling this long and sacred road, Hilton says. In its own way, the road of life is every bit as adventurous as a physical pilgrimage. The road gives us new scenery and challenges each day as we take steps into the future God has for us.
Hilton’s counsel helped me the past few months, especially as spring and summer turned into fall and the Advent season approached. Advent and Christmas are my favorite times of the year, and they are usually marked by journeys, just as Mary and Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem and the wise men began their even longer trek there. This year will not see me imitating these biblical travelers, however. I won’t be able to take my usual pilgrimage to see beloved family and friends. I may not even be able to go the shorter distance to attend Christmas services at my church.
In my disappointment, Hilton reminds me that there are many ways to pilgrim. While outer journeys are meaningful, the inner journey is essential. Whatever restrictions confine me to my home, no ties bind my heart. In my spiritual life, I can still journey to Bethlehem to welcome the infant Jesus. And each day, I continue walking with him on the winding road of life.
This practice of spiritual pilgrimage guides me through the long days of pandemic and the equally challenging days of just keeping my faith alive. It’s important to remember that I am always going forward. Sometimes I use my imagination as I practice the inner journey. In the spirit of a pilgrim, I “see” and “experience” all kinds of terrain: steep mountains that require all my strength to climb, turbulent seas that toss me about, and vistas of heartbreaking beauty that restore my soul. Or, if I’m on my way to the stable, as I am this season, I follow the Bethlehem road. I descend into valleys, cross over the wilderness (there’s a metaphor if I’ve ever heard one!), and go up and down the hilly terrain of Judea before arriving, spent but exhilarated, to kneel like a shepherd before the child. These envisionings give me a sense of the spiritual journey’s adventure and the reward that awaits me at the end.
Yes, I might sometimes chafe at the walls of my temporary cell. But my heart flies, my spirit soars, and the feet of my soul are in motion. Far from being stalled, my life flows ever forward. I am a pilgrim today.
Lisa Deam, Ph.D., is the author of the forthcoming book, 3000 Miles to Jesus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life for Spiritual Seekers (Broadleaf, February 2021) and host of TheContemplativeWriter.com