Monday, 4 January 2010

When one more step is a step too far

The way the stories of the nativity are told, they are full of journeys. There is Mary’s trip to see Elizabeth for companionship in pregnancy, the journey to Bethlehem to be registered and for the infant to be born, the journey to Egypt to escape Herod and later on to Nazareth to keep below the political horizon, and of course the journey of the magi to find the holy child.

And our stories are often full of journeys at this time of year. In our case, my son’s arrival from Germany was delayed by 20 hours and Air France lost his luggage for 10 days. Numerous family members across three generations came to visit from York and Lancashire, and this year the accounts of their travels were coloured with anxiety about the weather. And today, all my sisters and I are meeting in Lancashire to discuss the care of our elderly mother, though I will be travelling furthest for this occasion. And there will be similar accounts of the journeys made by you and yours over the holiday period, which will take in every detail of what went wrong or the signs of grace and blessing that made them a joy. On the whole, these are not life-changing journeys, though you can’t always know when you are setting off which trips will change things for ever and which will merely take you to another place.

The image of the journey is much used as a metaphor for the life of faith and for life in general. I have myself given sermons on the spiritual journey at this time of year. There are times when the metaphor works really well. I can remember a long wait once at Amsterdam airport, reflecting on how life is like waiting for the next plane. But the metaphor does have its limitations, and I would say on the whole that it is over-used and risks becoming a cliché. It becomes a problem as an image when one feels stuck and the sense that we should be going somewhere in our faith becomes another stick to beat oneself with. It is a problem, too, for people whose spirituality is centred on stability, on staying in one place and experiencing the height and the depth of that domain. It is a problem also because it tends to be used about my spiritual journey, rather than about the shared experience of a community.

It seems likely that different personality types respond more favourably to different images of the spiritual life, perhaps to artistic images such as a dance, for instance, or a picture or a symphony. Another series of helpful images centres on growth, seeds, trees, blossom and fruit.

The metaphor matters because it helps to shape the way you make sense of your experience. I have travelled with the spiritual journey metaphor for a long time, but I am beginning to feel that it won’t do any more. My hope for this new year is that I can find a new way to conceptualise my relationship with God and my calling to serve and that it becomes a little less about me.

Meg Gilley is a parish priest working in former pit villages in County Durham.

Posted by Meg Gilley on Monday, 4 January 2010 at 5:50am GMT | TrackBack
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Thoughtful post, like the previous one from the same priest (whom to the best of my recollection I've only met once but whose husband I know quite well).

Three comments:

(1) The journey metaphor is hard-wired into all the Gospels, though particularly into Luke-Acts: 'the road to Jerusalem', 'the road to Damascus', Christianity itself as 'the Way' (better: the Road), texts themselves as 'roads', etc.

(2) I entirely agree that it can be diminished into 'all about me', or 'journey to Christ', with nothing thereafter, whereas all this - really - is about process.

(3) I was personally disappointed by the standard of 'liberal' musings about Christmas and thereafter, at least as exhibited on this blog. Both these posts from MG were more nourishing. Roll on women biships!

Posted by: john on Monday, 4 January 2010 at 7:37pm GMT

Meg's story of journeying and its relationship to the Gospel, reminds us of the fact that our total life here on earth is one of pilgrimage. In other words, we have a beginning and an goal.

Part of that journeying, for me, has been a growing realisation that the Christian enterprise of faith is all about setting people free from prejudices and fear. This, surely, was the main agenda of Jesus in his incarnate life on earth? His challenging of the 'status quo' in religious culture was one of the reasons for which he was hated and killed by the religious leaders of his day. However, he did rise from the dead, and his liberating Spirit is still working in the Church!

We have to be very careful - especially at this point in the history of our Anglican Communion, that we are not returning to the sectarian culture of the Crusades - not this time against the Muslims particularly, but not excluding them either - in which, in some areas, the emergence of LGBT's and women's claims to acceptance by the Church; are resisted, to the point of militant hunting down, exclusion and (in Uganda) death).

My own pilgrimage has moved from feeling rejected by the Church to becoming one of its ministers; from agnosticism about women's ministry, to the realisation that in Christ their is neither male nor female; from the acceptance of an exclusive religious attachment to Christianity, to an awareness of God's image and likeness in every human being. All of this has been the result of an ongoing process of spiritual and cultural enlightenment - a journey of Faith, from the point of my Baptism into Christ, towards my ordination, and recognition of my responsibility to Christ and all God's human family.

Each step of my journey has been both difficult and rewarding. My next step? Who knows, but I am aware that it will not be lacking in excitement.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Tuesday, 5 January 2010 at 10:23pm GMT
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