A pilgrimage sermon by Teresa Ramsey

Image of black hole with a blue center, surrounded by starsDecember 1, 2019

The First Sunday of Advent

Good Morning Seekers family and good morning to my family here today, my husband Will. It has been some time since I have preached, yet I still remember the sudden anxiety attack that occurs upon taking the podium. Prayer helps so let us begin with a prayer: Holy One, please continue to bless us today with your presence. Please bless my words and ideas that, however lacking, they might fulfill your purposes and touch the hearts of those for whom you intend them. Amen

When I asked to speak today, I knew that the theme for this advent season would be “what do you see? What do you hear?” That was it. I had not read ahead the lectionary readings for the day. But, having returned from a 10-week pilgrimage that required walking 520 miles, I had seen and heard some amazing things that I want to share with you.  As usual, the Holy One provided a gospel reading in Matthew 24:36-44 that fits my story. I like to call such synchronicities “God winks.”

First, a word on pilgrimage.  There are many reasons that one might go on a pilgrimage.  Some of the reasons that Will and I went were -to go to a place of sacred and historical value, to be in  a thin place where the Holy One might be heard-to remember the ideas and events that shaped our lives -to be inspired and transformed -to have (hopefully) a mountaintop experience – to be removed from everyday life distractions -to perhaps experience more healing – to get guidance from the Holy One on the direction of our lives -to walk with the Holy One and -to leave behind what was getting in the way of our soul journey and -to receive guidance. I suppose you could sum this up in one of the metaphors from today’s gospel, we went to make sure that our lamps were full, and we had extra oil while we waited for the Bridegroom.

The gospel today from Matthew (and mirrored in Luke) starts the new church year as well as the season of Advent. At first glance the gospel then seems out of synch, why this message here and now about the SECOND coming of Jesus and not about His birth? The explanation it seems to me is what Stephen Covey in the Seven Habits of Highly Successful People would explain as we are beginning with the end in mind.  The end. The second coming of Jesus not the usual beginning, the birth of Jesus.  In today’s gospel, Jesus Himself tells us that He will return. He also tells us that no one knows when, it will be unexpected.  The point of the message was to stay ready for His return. Now, staying ready is hard, it is harder than getting ready. It is like having a clean house. Yes, but the next moment…… One reason for our pilgrimage was a readiness check if you will.

Okay, now I am going to explain about this pilgrimage using a sports analogy, a football analogy for you sport fans. I am getting old now.  I am reading books on the “second half” of life, but who am I kidding? I am entering, if not already in, the 4th quarter. The 4th quarter of my very own Superbowl, anyone who watches sports knows, the 4th quarter is the most exciting. If the team is behind, even WAY behind, it can still catch up and win. If the team is ahead, even WAY ahead, it can still lose. You really must be on guard in the 4th quarter. Now going a bit further down this metaphor, in my life, of course, I am the quarterback.  My coach (also THE head coach) is the Holy One (they are amused by my analogy by the way), allows me to call the plays.  But this is the final game and I can’t afford to lose it, so I want their advice. Wait, I have some timeouts I can use.  Yes! That is what this pilgrimage was for me, a time out to get direction for the rest of the game, to get the best guidance possible, if the coach was willing.  The Holy One did not hold back but offered ample guidance. More about that soon.

The destination of our pilgrimage was the Camino de Santiago in Spain. It had captured my imagination years ago. Yes, I saw the movie The Way, starring Martin Sheen, but it was more than that. The Camino has drawn Popes, Kings, US Presidents, celebrities and even St. Francis to walk it.  Is it as spiritual a place as people say? I am a Seeker, I had to find out myself.

I searched the history of the Camino. Camino de Santiago means the Way of St James (James is Santiago in Spanish). The St. James in question is James, the brother of John, a son of Zebedee, one of the twelve Apostles. His bones are supposedly buried here. I know, what?

A quick aside, I found that Catholic myths told and retold in Spain and elsewhere, require a certain naivete in order to be believed.  Such myths were used to meld spiritual purposes with political purposes and so motivate people. It works like this: a “miracle” occurs, or something of a religious nature is “found” or a “vision” is received that is a game changer.  So often these occurrences are tall tales that are so fantastical as to challenge the intellect. The timing of such occurrences is rather fishy as well, as they are reported just when they are needed to (coincidentally) solve the political need of the moment. Such it was with the “finding” of the remains of St James following a “vision” of a peasant. The body of St. James, after other miraculous occurrences of a rather fantastical sort, is then transported to and buried in Santiago.  This occurs during a time, the VERY time mind you, that northern Iberia (the site of Santiago) needs defense from the Moors. Now the citizens have a reason to care about defending northern Iberia.  Groups of Knights Templar are formed etc.

The St James Camino route across Spain (and other alternative Camino routes across Spain) were developed shortly after the “discovery” of his “remains” in the 8th century; and was said to follow in the footsteps of St. James. The route was developed to bring the faithful pilgrims across Spain to Santiago where he was buried. In the 9th century, King Alfonso II of Spain himself made the journey. Subsequently other Spanish Kings developed the routes and infrastructure to support the pilgrims. In the 12th century the first guidebook to the Camino, the Codex Calixtinus,[1] was written. By then, thousands of pilgrims were headed to Santiago each year, as many as 250,000 per year. Presently, the pilgrimage across Spain from any of the many routes has become quite popular again and more than 500,000 people a year travel some or all the Camino.  Many books have been written about people’s experiences along the Camino. I had to find out what was there and how it would affect my spiritual journey. I wanted to keep an open mind and see what happened.

The very first lesson was delivered before we even started walking. I learned from other pilgrims that on the Camino, each person makes certain choices about their walk, their pack, the length of walk per day etc. that are no one’s business but their own. “It is their Camino” was the phrase. I could claim this privilege for myself but must respect it in others. This paradigm saved me a lot of headspace because I no longer felt the urge to judge the choices of my fellow pilgrims. I decided that the Camino was just a metaphor for life and that this rule could be carried over.

On the Camino, social standing fades. The usual clues such as clothing and jewelry, cars or houses, even occupation, were not apparent.  We were pilgrims, each of us, no longer Doctor or waitress or retired, but pilgrim. We came from all over the world and shared the road. “Buen Camino” or good walk we called to each other. “Buen Camino” the local citizens would say to us as we passed. We received respect for the fact of our journey, our attempt to travel this road. Nothing more was required. Another metaphor for life that I could use.

At first, the Camino taught me some simple lessons.  For example, the best views require a climb. It is hard or even harder to hike down a steep hill as up, just when you think you have reached the end of a climb, you haven’t, there are no easier, softer ways, sometimes you can’t see something until you are right on top of it, and you really can’t anticipate what is ahead based on what was behind.  Then came the harder lessons, I was exposed to certain truths about myself because I was hyper aware of my own thoughts during the long walking hours.  I really “heard” them on a conscious rather continuous basis. I learned that I am superstitious…. every time Will said we are almost there, at the top, or…., I knew we weren’t just because he said that.  I also became aware that have a lot of angry thoughts. I mean a LOT of them. For example, I am still angry at the Catholic Church (I was raised Catholic). I also noticed that I react a lot to what I see, and I make up stories to explain whatever it is I am reacting to. For example, I “saw” troubling things.  Church after church boarded up or locked.  “Art museums” made up of sacred art taken from local monasteries now available to be viewed for a fee.  Churches that were museums.  Churches that were now hostels. Churches that you had to pay to light up and see.  Churches that were falling apart and boarded up. Clearly, the age of high church importance in Spain was over. The church services we attended were attended by handfuls of mostly older women and a few men, an occasional grandchild. Had the church died? I wondered. I began to make up reasons for what I saw and then considered, perhaps the Holy One could tell me.

Thus began the heart of my experience, the falling away of the wall I (?) put up between me and the Divine.  I know that some of you do not have a personal, experiential experience of the Divine. I do. Alcoholics Anonymous provided clear instructions to guide me to such a relationship.  Still, that “conscious contact” with the God of my understanding is spotty.  After a few weeks on the Camino, weeks without news, chores, books, electronic and phone conversations eyc., the real conversations with God began. Over time, the separation melted away and they walked with me and talked with me. This was my mountaintop experience.

There was so much I needed to talk to the Holy One about. At first, I talked and talked to God without listening, my usual habit I discovered.  Then I listened and heard Them respond, over time in intuitive thoughts.  I was told that the anger I held was a choice of my own and I could choose differently but I was loved just the way I am.  I didn’t need to be so serious, that was also a choice, but I was loved just the way I am. There was a theme here, repeated many times….and of course I need repetition to “get” anything!

The Holy One told me about why I need not be so angry with the Catholic Church. They pointed out that Saints were holy people and religion didn’t get in their way.  The Catholic Church was the church of St. Francis and St Teresa, and it did them no harm.  It may also have been the church of other humans, even priests and popes, who did bad things as well as good.  The church itself didn’t cause the bad actions; people did. My anger was my choice, but I could reconsider. I was still loved. Oh my, what a lot to contemplate.

I asked the Holy One about all those churches and if they were sad about the conditions of the churches and the religious art and was surprised by the answer. No, they were not sad because these things had all   served their purpose. The purpose of that art, those churches, those relics had been for the Holy One and the individual craftspeople to co-create. The joy of using the gifts to contribute is the point.  The fact that some mighty works had resulted was incidental. Wow.  That answered a question that I had not even been able to put into words which was what was the purpose of the work I had done during my career?  I had experienced moments of pure joy co-creating social programs, passing laws, drafting rules, managing people using all my talents.  Yet, I wasn’t famous or rich and few knew or remembered my contributions. Yes, it felt true that the purpose was to co-create with the Holy One something using all my talents.  The purpose had been fulfilled and what resulted later couldn’t take that away. I smiled remembering the work we did together, the joy of it. Yes, it was enough. As for the churches and the shift away from using them, why should it matter to the Holy One? They live in people, not churches, although they can be in people in churches, they can be on the mountain top, the woods, the wind, etc.

I saw that time changes things, all things and in some surprising ways. For example: a Visigoth village could be later built upon by the Romans who build a fort there.  Still later, a church may be built over it and later something else.  The Holy One welcomes change.  “Behold, I am doing a new thing! Now it shall spring forth. Shall you not know it?[2] I asked the Holy One about my current calls.  There were three areas of my commitments that I questioned and needed guidance. I was assured that one had ended, one had not, and that a new call was coming. I was told nothing (yet) about the third call…. So it is.

We saw a hundred or more churches on our walk and several gorgeous cathedrals.  We attended services for pilgrims at some of them.  The services were touching. We pilgrims came from all around the world, so we spoke many different languages. Few of us were fluent in Spanish. The clergy would often invite us to do the readings in our own languages.  It is amazing to hear the readings done in different tongues.  The services often included a time when the pilgrims were called forward for a special blessing and some words of wisdom delivered in Spanish. I was surprised by the number of my fellow pilgrims who came forward during such events.

A pilgrim obtains a booklet known as a “credential” at the beginning of their journey. They are also given a large scallop shell that is attached to one’s backpack to indicate that one is a pilgrim. Each day, a pilgrim obtains stamps or “poste” in their credential from the churches, cafes, lodging, etc., along the route. At the end of the pilgrimage, in Santiago, one must present one’s credential to be examined before a certificate is issued to certify that the pilgrim has in fact completed the pilgrimage.  Such accreditation is highly valued. I have a couple of our credentials available in the skylight room so you can look at them if you choose. No two stamps are alike.

As you know, my Mom passed away a few years ago, yet I feel her spirit still with me. When I enter Catholic churches, I often find a statue of Mary and nearby a place to light a candle and say a prayer.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the patron Saint of ‘bad” mothers, because mothers so often pray to her for intercession. I lite a candle in memory of my mom and said a little prayer. Gazing at the statues of Mary, I remembered how much I prayed to her for intercession when I was a young girl.  My teachers, mostly nuns, adored Mary. I did too.  Mary was to me my “good” mother.  I missed her.  The Catholic church adores Mary. Other churches not so much.  In my anti-Catholic anger I had left Mary behind. I was sorry that I had done that. I told her so. She was gracious about it and welcomed my return.  I need the divine feminine. This is my Camino.  Mom is smiling at this.

My Camino didn’t end when we reached Santiago de Compostela, though reach it we did.  It did, however, morph back into a less intense, more again walled off a bit from God time. Still the memories and lessons continue to feed my spirit.

My Camino was an example of the hero archetype such as is found in literature (think the Odyssey). The hero starts out not knowing his true identity as the child of royalty. The hero leaves home to go on a quest, must overcome obstacles in the quest to achieve certain goals, and returns home having found his identity. He then “sees” home as if for the first time.  I went on this journey not fully understanding that I am the child of the most- high God.  I undertook to slay the dragons of materialism, resentment, separateness, and ignorance of self.  I have returned to see this home, Seekers and to see Jesus as if for the first time.  Now, the challenge is to incorporate what I have learned into everyday life, to stay ready and to be watchful.  This is the new Camino.  I hope you will join me on the walk. Buen Camino.

[1] Liber Sancti Jacobi: Codex Calixtinus. Santiago de Compostela: (publisher not identified), 1944.

[2] Isaiah 43:19-21. NIV

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