I’m excited to finally host Dr. Amy Oden here at the church for our Mildred Strokey and Blanche Miller lecture series. I’m also excited for the great lunch that Bruce and Sheila Powers have planned for us—Bruce is going to be working for days on our Brined and Smoked Turkey—and Sheila is also providing some great sides and some rolls from Duffy’s. The topic of Dr. Oden’s lecture will be “The World’s Holiest places” and will be accompanied by a slide show. The topic is one that Dr. Oden consulted with the National Geographic Society. It also made me think of a section of a book that I have been reading this Lent from which I drew the name of my sermon series, Pray All Ways: A Book for Daily Worship Using All Your Senses. In that book, Edward Hays writes a chapter on pilgrimage as a way of “praying with our feet.” Journeying to a place considered sacred by generations of people is certainly a powerful experience. The labyrinth that we have set up at the church is a time honored spiritual practice of mimicking a pilgrimage, and can also lead to some worthwhile insight. By the look of the guest book, it seems like several people have found the labyrinth meaningful. I’m glad and especially thankful for those who helped me get the labyrinth set up and taken down each week: The Calls, Greg Willis, Danny McBee, and the members of Narcotics Anonymous.
What kind of pilgrimages have you made in your lifetime? No doubt many who have been to Europe have included places of deep import to our faith tradition in your tours. I know the most impressive places I was able to see in my own European travels were all churches—St. Paul’s in London, St. Peter’s in Rome, Notre Dame in Paris, San Marcos in Venice, The Duomo in Florence, The Church of our Lady in Munich (right next to the famous Glockenspiel). Some of the other places of pilgrimage have less world renown and more personal allure. I was invited on a pilgrimage to the tiny Monastery of Saints Antony and Cuthbert by a Greek Orthodox hermit and iconographer I saw at a class one time while I was attending Oxford. Though the amount of time I spent at the monastery was relatively small (a few days) the spiritual impact of the visit was huge. On another occasion, I ventured up a steep mountain in Bogota, Columbia to visit a tiny church that pilgrims would make their way to during Lent with rocks in their shoes as a penance for the year’s regrets and sins. Many times, there is a particular object of devotion at the sights of pilgrimage, such as relics. Sometimes there is a particular activity associated with the sight of a pilgrimage, such as bathing in the Ganges (as we’ll see on Sunday).
I would include in the list of pilgrimage sites some of the great natural wonders of our country. If we approach the “God made sanctuaries” of our National Parks with the same sense of devotion and sacredness, the experience of visiting these places can stir our souls with the same power. I’ve had the awe-inspiring privilege of visiting Sequoia, Joshua Tree, Grand Canyon, Grand Tetons, Great Smokey Mountains, Garden of the Gods, Muir Woods, Carlsbad Caverns, Everglades, White Sands, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Monuments and Parks, and many more beautiful state parks around the country. I remember on one occasion at Big Sur State Park in California I had the strange and holy experience of seeing a dead beached whale. At Sequoia National Park, I stood in the presence of the largest living organisms on earth—Trees that have been living since the days Jesus walked the earth, and inspired John Muir (one of my favorite “modern prophets”) to say say “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” I would agree with that statement.
In any case, I look forward to hearing more about some of the great holy sites around the world that inspire millions of people to make a sacred journey to bask in the Divine presence. Since God pervades the entire world, this can be done anywhere, but sometimes it is in the going that we open ourselves to that presence.