Historically, the Christian life was understood as a pilgrimage. It was common during the Middle Ages to go on spiritual journeys for various reasons; to visit holy sites that were purported to have healing powers, as an act of repentance and for forgiveness of sins, or to shorten time in purgatory for oneself or for someone else. There are still some pilgrimages today (such as to Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina where the Blessed Virgin Mary have been appearing and giving messages to the world). Unfortunately, the spiritual aspects of today’s pilgrimages have been tainted by the tourist industry.
The bible also abounds in pilgrimage imagery. Humanity’s exile from the paradise of Eden and the exodus of God’s people from Egypt to the promised land in the Book of Genesis, to the promise that there are many rooms in the Father’s mansion for His children and the vision of the New Jerusalem in the New Testament. The redemption of humankind by God is also a pilgrimage. God’s Son came into the wilderness of a sinful world to do the Father’s will. He travelled a life of suffering, deprivation, and death so we at the end of our earthly pilgrimage can enter God’s promised land. Meanwhile, God the Spirit descends upon, an often-stubborn Church so it can give back to the Father in the Spirit a life of charity, penitence, and intercession.
Therefore, it is not a stretch to say the Christian life is a pilgrimage. In his famous ‘Confessions,’ Augustine calls this pilgrimage an ‘odyssey of the soul’. The point of this odyssey of the soul is the conversion of one’s affections or desires. Augustine (and I believe Scripture says the same thing), believes the anxieties, insecurities, lack of meaning, hopelessness we struggle with comes from our inordinate love, and thus desire of anything that is not God. I say ‘inordinate’ because it’s not wrong to love your spouse, children, friends and enjoy the good things God has given you. But it is problematic when you inordinately love these things and thus more than God. Now, we all struggle from this inordinate love and desire for what’s not God. Even as I’m writing this essay, thoughts are entering my mind about how to manage my investments, what to make for supper tonight, should I play hockey tomorrow etc. The devil loves to distract us from paying attention to the ultimate Good, loving God. And he does so without us knowing he is! How many times does your mind wander while you’re praying to God? Mine sure does.
So how do we combat these distractions so we can walk on the right path of our Christian pilgrimage? There are many distractions in life that pull or push us off our path. Therefore, it’s important to consider how to avoid or combat these distractions. To start, consider how you spend your days, what habits, and practices you regularly engage in. Do you habitually engage in the spiritual practices of daily prayer, weekly worship, thinking about and act in ways to best assist your fellow man or woman? When at you have free time, do you spend it reading a good book or watching reality TV shows? Do your phone, tablet, and computer constantly distract you from praying and contemplating who God is? Are you proactive about what you read? Do you spend time reading Christian literature, e.g., C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Lives of the Saints, Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Sayers (she doesn’t just write mystery novels), and Christian mystics? But I also encourage you to read ‘quality’ literature such as T.S. Elliot, Dostoevsky, Tolkien, Elizabeth Goudge, Iris Murdoch, Charles Williams, Anthony Trollope etc. C.S. Lewis once said, for every modern book you read, read three older ones. Why? Because older books tend to be richer in questions about redemption, the difference between good and evil, the human condition, and the relationship between God and this world.
The habits your body engages in and how you use your time impact what you think and feel. We are socially conditioned creatures. What you think doesn’t come from nowhere. But the great Christian mystics (e.g., Evagrius and Nyssa), also teach us to consider what we habitually think and feel. Notice what I’m saying, habitually think and feel. Do you assume you can’t control what you think and feel? I’m not talking about mental health problems, although with the help of counselling, you can use cognitive mental strategies to control what you feel and think. Yes, uninvited thoughts somethings enter our minds. But we can do something about the thoughts once they enter them. How so?
I must admit, I’m still a novice in this area. But, considering some of my readings of certain Church Fathers (e.g., Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Evagrius Ponticus), I can offer one pointer. Engage in contemplation. What is contemplation? It’s simply talking to yourself about yourself as you’re praying to and worshipping God. The ‘as you’re praying to and worshipping God’ is very important here. You can easily go round and round in circles talking to yourself about what you’re thinking and feeling apart from praying to and worshipping God on Sunday mornings. Asking yourself the right questions and coming up with the right answers comes from being engaged in a robust worship and prayer life that includes reading/hearing Scripture, praying the Psalms, confessing one’s sins, praising God, hearing God’s Word proclaimed.
For an example, let’s consider what contemplation looks like in the Psalms. In Psalm 42, David says, why are you cast down, O my soul, and where are you disquieted within me? Here David is asking himself, contemplating why he is downcast. He realizes that it’s normal to be sad at times because the true joy that he thirsts after (Ps. 63.1) can only be satisfied at the end times (Ps. 103.5) when he is with God. But what does David do about his present melancholy? He reminds himself of what God has done for him in the past (Ps. 103.5) and despite what he is feeling, God is protecting him from his enemies (64.1) as God’s done in the past.
Notice David can talk to himself in this way inside, contemplate, and thus control his thoughts and feelings because of what he’s done on the outside, engaging in habiting forming practices of reading the bible, praying, and worshipping His Lord, God. In other words, David spends his time getting to know God and thus himself. Are using your time wisely, spending time with God, getting to know Him so you can talk to yourself about yourself? If not, what are you waiting for?