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Fear and joy on the pilgrimage.

Recently two colleagues and I were being whisked--rather quickly--in a minibus on the highway that runs through a pass in the snow-capped Zagros mountains between Isfahan and Tehran. It was the final hours of what had been a memorable, though also challenging, visit to Iran. In the bus with us was a delightful Iranian woman called Zahra who worked for the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue, which had hosted our visit to the country.

I had just received the request to speak on the subject of pilgrimage, taking account of the inter-religious perspective. So I asked Zahra if she had ever been on the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, which constitutes one of the five pillars of Islam--which is ideally required of all Muslims at least once in their lives. She replied that she had. I then asked what it meant for her, what her feelings were during this special time. She thought for a moment and then said, "I was full of hope, and full of fear." And then she paused and added, "fear of God." She went on to talk about how on the Hajj she--and others--felt a sense of being close to God and, in spite of the vast numbers that these days swell Mecca almost to breaking point during the time of pilgrimage, she also felt intimately alone with God, an experience that was both challenging and awesome.

Zahra's words have remained with me, particularly her comment: full of hope, and fear--fear of God. As we seek a spiritual underpinning for our intended Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace, a spirituality and a theology that will enable it to become more than simply a polite linguistic image, Zahra's mixture of hope and fear offers an unforgettable starting point. It is a good reminder of both how pilgrimage is an important phenomenon for many of the world's religions, and how we as Christians can draw from the wisdom of people of other faiths.

The Inter-religious Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage has been a thread in my own life. My first professional job was in Jerusalem, the city that is for many Christians and Jews the goal of pilgrimage par excellence. And my role was as course director of an institute that offered short courses to a wide range of clergy and seminarians who came from around the world to spend some weeks studying in Jerusalem. We didn't necessarily refer to them as pilgrims, but that was in effect what they were, and it was a privilege to accompany them on experiences that many found transformative and that would probably stay with them for the rest of their lives. And these days my family home in England is in a Kent village that grew up because it was on the route pilgrims took in the Middle Ages to journey between London and Canterbury.

Through my work in inter-religious dialogue, I have come to realize how deeply the motif of pilgrimage is written into the majority of the world's religions: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism--not to mention the religions of China, or the Bahais. In all of these, the tradition of pilgrimage is intrinsic to the fabric of faith. The spirit of pilgrimage touches the vast majority of the world's population: it has, for example, been said that the 2013 Hindu pilgrimage festival of Kumbh Mela held at Allahabad was the largest ever peaceful gathering of human beings in the whole of human history. Although the intended destinations for pilgrimage may be very different, there are essential similarities of spirit.

Macrina Wiederkehr defines pilgrimage as a ritual journey with a hallowed purpose. Every step along the way has meaning. The pilgrim knows that life-giving challenges will emerge. A pilgrimage is not a vacation; it is a transformational journey during which significant change takes place. New insights are given. Deeper understanding is attained. New and old places in the heart are visited. Blessings are received and healing takes place. On return from the pilgrimage, life is seen with different eyes. Nothing will ever be quite the same again.

Huston Smith, a historian of religions, suggests that there are four aspects to pilgrimage: singleness of purpose; freedom from distraction; ordeal or penance; and offerings. Once again these are common features of pilgrimage that transcend and link different religions. And I would want to add also that vulnerability' and the willingness to travel light are important parts of what it means to be on pilgrimage: perhaps for many Christians who now roam the Holy Land on air-conditioned buses it was easier to experience such vulnerability in the past than today--but vulnerability is still part of the pilgrim experience in many faiths in our world today, certainly in parts of South and East Asia, or indeed during the Muslim Hajj. It is notable that during the Hajj, all pilgrims are required to wear the same simple white garments as a sign of eliminating the disparity between rich and poor.

And there is one other feature of pilgrimage that is so central, it is sometimes easy to forget about--that is, the importance of place. Rowan Williams once said: "Place works on the pilgrim ... that's what pilgrimage is for." The physicality of place, which of course reminds us also of the physicality that is at the heart of our faith, needs somehow to be factored into the vision of our pilgrimage.

Fear and Joy

So as the World Council of Churches (WCC) plans its Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, these are some of the words and ideas that spring to my mind as reflecting the common pilgrimage experience that crosses the boundaries of different religions: place, purpose, challenges, transformation, travelling light, travelling with others (sometimes many others within the community of faith), vulnerability, singleness of heart, ordeal, and offering. And not forgetting also Zahra's hope and fear.

A few weeks ago I caused a bit of a stir in another staff meeting when we were discussing Pope Francis's letter, The Joy of the Gospel. I commented that I wasn't quite sure how easy the WCC found it to take joy seriously--if you can do such a thing. I was wrestling then, as I wrestle now, with how exactly we can define joy--perhaps part of the problem is that joy by its nature is undefinable. A friend of mine spoke of the uncontrollability of joy--the way in which God bursts out of himself. This is an aspect of God's love that is never content to be alone but is essentially fruitful--joy wants to set things on fire with itself, to make them rejoice. Joy makes me think about that the strange mingling of hope and fear--fear of God--of which Zahra spoke last week. Does that strange interweaving bring us close to the meaning of joy? Looking at Zahra's face as she said it, I certainly felt she knew something of the essence of joy. Joy therefore is surely an essential component of being on pilgrimage, as indeed the pilgrimage psalms of the Hebrew Bible make very clear. So however light we travel on our Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, we must not forget to carry the fire that enables us to be consumed by joy.

And there is one final thing. There is a lovely story told about Joseph Campbell, a well-known scholar of comparative religion: a woman approached him after one of his lectures and proceeded to tell him in great detail about her upcoming pilgrimage in the footsteps of St Paul. Every last moment had been planned with care, including the exact time of day she would visit each holy spot. At the end of her long recitation, Campbell took her hand and said, "Dear lady, I sincerely hope that your pilgrimage does not go entirely as planned." I wonder what a joyful Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace that does not go entirely as planned will look like?

Dr Clare Amos serves as programme executive and coordinator for the WCC's inter-religious dialogue and cooperation programme, and was previously director for Theological Studies in the Anglican Communion Office in the United Kingdom.

DOI: 10.1111/erev.12096
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Author:Amos, Clare
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Date:Jul 1, 2014
Words:1346
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