A few weeks after I had defended my PhD and graduated from the University of British Columbia, I bought a ticket to Barcelona. I had heard of many people having amazing experiences on the nearly 500 miles long Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route that gained popularity in the middle ages as a safer alternative to the Holy Land. In the last several decades, annual walkers of the “French Way” have risen to approximately 300,000. I love walking, but I have never done any long distance hiking apart from a hand full of overnight backpack trips. I want to walk the Camino for a lot of the same reasons that most people walk it. I have the time and the resources. I love to travel. I love Christian history, mythology and architecture. I am discerning my vocation within the church.

Of course, a pilgrimage is supposed to be more than just a long hike. Twentieth-century contemplative writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) wrote that “the geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out an inner journey.” My journey has been one of enormous privilege and blessing. Now, at the end of my education, there is no juicy job offer, no tenure-track position awaiting me; just the vacuous uncertainty of 50 or so digital black holes asking for three letters of recommendation. It is a frightening liminality; being in between my last moments of a very long career as a student, and my hoped-for profession of scholar and educator.

About a week ago, after wrapping up a course for the Forestry Department at UBC, and delivering my last midday meal to some high-rise office in downtown Vancouver for my part-time food delivery job, I packed up my truck and said goodbye to a beloved Vancouver community. As I have done many times before, I boxed up my possessions, mostly books, and hoisted a few boxes into the creaking bed of my small truck. On the morning I left, after saying what felt like weeks of send-offs and well wishes, I took one last look at the strange geometry of a familiar but empty room. Over the last week, I drove down the West Coast, staying with friends along the way. I am writing this in Oceanside, California, while I visit with family in preparation for my brother’s college graduation. I will catch a flight to Barcelona from LAX on Sunday, May 27.

Even though I leave this coming Sunday, I began my pilgrimage kneeling on the sanctuary steps of Saint James Anglican Church about a week and a half ago. After converting to Roman Catholicism in 2015, my long spiritual journey continues, and I have really fallen in love with the balance between progressive values and traditional liturgy of the Anglo-Catholic tradition that is alive and well in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver where Saint James is located. At the end of my last Sunday High Mass, the Rector gave me a simple pilgrims blessing, and the love, admiration and prayers of the parishioners buoyed my spirit.

Whenever I drive to Southern California, the first thing I notice when I summit the passes of the desert mountains is the smell. It is a smell that tugs at all of the memories of my formative years and if I were to describe it, it would be something like the smell of fresh rain on hot pavement. I love that the freeway exit signs and place names read like a catechism of the Catholic Saints. Just as we call the collection of states in the Northeastern United States ‘New England’, it would not be inappropriate to call the Southwest ‘New Spain.’ I only realize now that the tallest mountain in Orange County, where I grew up, was christened by the Spanish in honour of Saint James. Santiago Peak and Santiago Canyon were familiar words with invisible histories for me as a young Mormon growing up in Orange County. There is a certain “Catholicity” to the geography of Southern California, and I am only now becoming literate to the names and charisms of the many saints and feast days that dot the state’s many post-colonial place names. Having grown up in Southern California near Mexico, and having travelled in Latin America, it feels right to finally be paying a visit to the ‘Old Country.’

The last few months have been busy with planning the logistics of the trip, making lists of cathedrals and monasteries I want to visit, and assembling the proper gear for the walk. It is only in the last few weeks that I have begun to really reflect on the spiritual reasons I am walking the Camino apart from the raw experience of the walk. Traditionally, people undertook a pilgrimage as an act of penance, petition or gratitude to God. I am certainly taking my own sins, prayers and thankfulness with me on the Camino, but I wonder if there is something more my walk could mean or put out into the world. I am not expecting any grand revelations or mystical encounters, but what does the simple act of going for a long walk mean in such uncertain times?

As I drove a long stretch of highway between the city of Saint Francis (San Francisco) and San Luis Obispo, California, I listened to a three-part series from Radiolab about illegal immigration in the United States. The series explored how toughening border security in urban areas in the 1990s had pushed desperate migrants into the deserts, who must walk for days on end to reach the United States. The number of deaths and disappearances surged drastically. Prior to 2000, fewer than five migrant deaths were reported each year. After 2000, the number has reached nearly 200 each year. And those are just the ones that are found. As Radiolab’s guests argued in gruesome detail, a dead body does not last long in the desert, with vultures, scavengers and even ants quickly dismembering and dissolving the bodies into nothingness.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers took vows of voluntary poverty and privation and sought a kind of spiritual anonymity. Desperate migrants, who risk everything to find a better life for themselves and their families all have names, stories and people who love them, and yet do find spiritual solace in the privations of the desert. As I listened to the stories of these brave people seeking a better life, a life like the one I was given through no merit of my own, I could not help but feel somewhat ashamed of my privileged stance as a voluntary pilgrim. I am going to walk for leisure, adventure and spiritual insight; they walk for their lives and the lives of their families.

In addition to my own burdens and questions, the people and petitions I am carrying with me; I will also make space to pray for refugees and migrants. For the thousands of men and women who have no other choice but to walk. I know this will not contribute directly to solving these complex global problems and heartbreaking realities. But there is a small part of me that believes that in the midst of a broken world, the earnest prayers of even one person make a difference. I am praying with my feet on a path that has been travelled by thousands of people for over a thousand years. I am going for a walk.

 

Photos: Top – the Rood Cross at St James’ Anglican Church, Bottom: New Clairvaux Abbey, by the author

Review by The Revd. Lucy Price

Thomas Merton was a Trappist Monk known as Fr. Louis who lived between 1915 and 1968; Merton was an incredible writer and many revere him as a great spiritual master.[1]

 “And now my whole being breathes the wind which blows through the belfry, and my hand is on the door through which I see the heavens. The door swings out upon a vast sea of darkness and prayer. Will it come like this, the moment of my death? Will You open a door upon the great forest and set my feet upon a ladder under the moon, and take me out among the stars?”[2]

Reading the Epilogue to the Sign of Jonas: Fire Watch, July 4th, 1952 it struck me that Thomas Merton that leads the reader by the hand through his eyes as he walks the corridors of the quiet monastery. His writing oscillates between description of what he sees, hears, smells, and touches, and an inner dialogue that is prayerful in its wording. Each way of writing is distinct, yet together can be read as an ongoing prayer as Merton makes his rounds. In these pages Merton seems completely aware of everything around and within him, and a sense of the mystical presence of his being with God is conveyed. Is this prayer without ceasing?

Prayer can be defined as “…the act of petitioning, praising, giving thanks, or confessing to God…Prayer can be individual or corporate, audible or silent.”[3]

In 1 Thessalonians 5:17 St. Paul instructs to “…pray without ceasing,…” Jesus urged his disciples to “…pray always and not to lose heart…” (Luke 18:1).

Is constant prayer practical in our lives today? In the busyness of our individualist culture, where consumerism is never satisfied,[4] it is easy to cut ourselves off from God by getting caught up in the daily whirlwind of life, leaving our relationship with God wanting, struggling to make space for it.[5]

Jesus’ ministry was a busy one full of action, teaching, and travel! However, He took time away from the masses to be with God and away from the demands of those around Him.[6] Are our modern lives really so different?

Maybe it’s easy to constantly be in prayer if you’re a monk Like Merton was. How do we live in a prayerful way, when prayer has become (for some), just another thing on the to-do list?[7] Merton lived a life of contemplation and silence. We live lives that are full of noise, delivered by multiple forms of communication, through technology.

“Silence is a rare commodity… Silence has always had a significant place in the Christian life of prayer, as a space in which to listen and wait upon God.” [8]

People “hunger for silence,”[9] but what happens when we find it? When our technology is taken away and we are left with nothing else, what is there? The answer: ourselves and God.[10]

Should we all become silent hermits cut off from lite, taking Paul’s words on unceasing prayer literally? I don’t think so! Perhaps we might “understand ceaseless prayer to be not just verbal utterances, but … a continual remembrance of dependence on God for life.”[11]

This makes prayer a way of being, an act of intention in the work that we do.[12] “…a healthy life of prayer is based on good works where every single act is performed for the greater glory of God. Everything that we do then becomes prayer, including our work.”[13]

I think this is what Merton communicates in the Fire Watch, a way of being that is prayer without ceasing.

Instead of structuring our prayer around the many tasks and responsibilities of our lives, we can structure our day around prayer. If able to do this, gradually we may be able to cultivate an awareness moment by moment of the Spirit of God at work in us, and make everything we do for the glory of God.[14]

I do not think that this is a practice that can ever be perfected because of the human tendency (certainly in my own experience) to be taken up in the whirlwind of our busy lives. However the Merton shows us in the Fire Watch that what Paul instructs is at least possible, and something to strive for.

 

[1] Patrick Hart, “Editors Note,” The Merton Seasonal 40, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 2-3.

[2] Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas, harvest/HBJ ed., A Harvest/HBJ Book (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1953), p.360. 3 ibid., pp.349-362.

[3] Mark Allan Powell, ed., The Harpercollins Bible Dictionary: Revised and Updated (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011), p. 824.

[4] Sallie McFague, Blessed Are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), p.30.

[5] Bill Hybels and LaVonne Neff, Too Busy Not to Pray: Slowing Down to Be with God, rev. and expanded. ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998), pp. 125-126.

[6] Ellen Clark-King, Path to Your Door: Approaches to Christian Spirituality (London, England: Continuum International Publishing

[7] Paul J. Griffiths, “Pray Without Ceasing,” The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University (2009): 11-17, accessed August 20, 2015, http://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/92494.pdf.

[8] Kevin Hunt, “The Thurible, St. James Anglican: Notes from the Clergy,” The Thurible (Sunday, August 23, 2015): under “Email,”accessed August 27, 2015, http://www.stjames.bc.ca/?utm_source=The+Thurible+-+Sunday%2C+August+23%2C+2015&utm_campaign=Thurible+Jan+11%2C+2015&utm_medium=email&doing_wp_cron=1440731152.7276120185852050781250.

[9] Ellen Clark-King, Path to Your Door: Approaches to Christian Spirituality (London, England: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011), pp.6-7, Amazon Kindle edition.

[10] Ellen Clark-King, Path to Your Door: Approaches to Christian Spirituality (London, England: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011), pp.6-7, Amazon Kindle edition.

[11] Clay Smith, “’Aδιαλείπτως Προσεύχεσθε: Is Paul Serious?,” PRESBYTERION: COVENANT SEMINARY REVIEW 22, no. 2 (September 1, 1996): 113-20. p.114.

[12] Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, Harvest/HBJ ed., A Harvest/HBJ Book (New York: Harcourt-Brace Jovanovich, 1978), pp.385.

[13] Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes, “Final Integration in Thomas Merton,” The Merton Seasonal 40, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 59-60. p. 59.

[14] Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes, “Final Integration in Thomas Merton,” The Merton Seasonal 40, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 59-60. p.59.

Picture Credit (Accessed 16th May 2018): https://www.ndbooks.com/book/the-collected-poems-of-thomas-merton/