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.