written and preached by Rev. Richard Chrisman
April 29, 2012
Psalm 63: 1-8, Ephesians 2: 1-10, John 20: 19-23
“When the soft sweet showers of April reach the roots of all things,
refreshing the parched earth, nourishing every sapling and every seedling,
then humankind rises up in joy and expectation.
After the waste of winter
it is delightful to hear birdsong once more in the streets.
The trees themselves are bathed in song.
It is a time of renewal, of general restoration.
That is why good folk then long to go on pilgrimage.
They journey to strange shores and cities,
seeking solace among the shrines of the saints,
to find a cure for infirmity and care.”
We can lose our way at any point in life—early, before we find ourselves, late, after we thought we knew ourselves, or at the famous mid-point when the identity crisis hits. Dante began the Divine Comedy, “Midway in the journey of life, I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.” It can happen any time, secure in our roles but exhausted from our obligations. It certainly doesn’t help if there is too much drugs, too much money, or too much performance pressure, either occupational or sexual.
Perhaps best known is to lose our way from disappointment with life, or from one big disappointment in life that comes with personal loss, a loved one, a job, our health. We can be surprised at the disappointment we feel when we meet our life goals but find they weren’t high enough. One dowager heiress was asked upon her death bed if she had any regrets. Her answer was, “only my economies.” We are less able to admit to disappointment with religion, but that happens, too, when we are let down by the church. Some respond by leaving. Others outside, many others, respond by not approaching. Still others, locked into church routines, proceed on automatic pilot but have lost the spirit.
Where to turn? What to do to find our way again? Disappointment is the bruise left by the blow, the tender ache left once the sin is history. Is there any balm for it?
Strange how we can feel that pang of disappointment most in springtime. Maybe that’s why one poet wrote that “April is the cruelest month, mixing memory and desire.” But yet another poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, found April much more hopeful, when the physical rejuvenation prompts stirrings of a spiritual one. “When the soft sweet showers of April reach the roots of all things, then humankind rises up in joy and expectation. That is why good folk then long to go on pilgrimage,” he famously wrote in the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales.
This story about a group of pilgrims gathered at the Tabard Inn in South London setting out for Canterbury came to mind the Sunday after Easter when 10-15,000 people descended on Stockbridge and the Shrine of Divine Mercy. 10-15,000 seekers on a pilgrim way! Why do they come? What are they looking for? They are looking, as instructed by St. Faustina, for God’s mercy and forgiveness—so they can find their way in life again. It is forgiveness that heals sin and hurt and disappointment, and if we get it first from God, we are better able to give and receive it ourselves.
Forgiveness is the sum and substance of Christianity, all else is optional decoration. It is not to be counted among the Christian virtues, however, it is not like patience, kindness, tolerance, forbearance and humility. Forgiveness is the fundament and platform of the entire Christian life. It is what got Christ rejected (and killed). He conveyed the importance of this in our lesson this morning when, breathing the Holy Spirit upon the disciples, he said to them, “The sins you forgive are forgiven, the sins you retain are retained.” Paul conveyed it in his letter to the Ephesians when he said you were dead, you had lost your way, God saved you, that is, God forgave you, through Christ our Lord. All the familiar terms of the Bible are synonyms for forgiveness—grace, salvation, mercy, love—all are equivalents for forgiveness. As when the Psalmist says in our Psalm this morning, “My soul thirsts for you and your refreshment,” meaning the refreshment of forgiveness.
So they came to Stockbridge, as Chaucer’s pilgrims came toCanterbury, in springtime, to find their way again. And where might we go? What pilgrimage need we undertake to regain the path we might have lost? Or is pilgrimage not acceptable to us as a Christian practice: is the idea too Catholic for us Protestants, too medieval for us moderns, too physical for us cerebral Christians? What else can you recommend that will match the depth of your spiritual infirmity? Will anything else reach that recessed place you could not scratch for ten, twenty years? What else will take you physically out of the lifeless and life-taking path you presently tread?
I went on a pilgrimage myself, exactly a year ago this month. I went to Montgomery, Alabama, for the 50th anniversary observances of the Freedom Rides. I was too young to have participated then, but I wanted to connect with the root of my political consciousness, to see where the fight was actually fought, to link my history with theirs, to ask what I had really contributed all these years, to ponder why the movement had stalled and why the pain of discrimination continued, to remedy my disappointment with history, and to try and find a new way to practice justice’s imperatives. I too went in springtime on a pilgrimage and it touched me profoundly.
But that’s me. If you wanted another kind of model, see the movie, “The Way,” starring Martin Sheen and written and directed by his son, Emilio Estevez. Here is a hard disappointment in mid-life—a man’s son dies an accidental death on a hiking trip. Except it is not a hiking trip that he is on but a pilgrimage, the one in Spainto Santiago de Compostela. The father then joins in the actual pilgrimage and, despite himself and his bitterness, finds new friends and a future. Forgiving God remedied his terminal disappointment.
Or, again, a funny and poignant example from Hollywood is the movie, “Bucket List.” They faced a more dire set of circumstances than most people have to, in as much as our two protagonists played by Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson have terminal diagnoses. Nevertheless, they face this disappointment by going on a sort of pilgrimage together which ends with an important reconciliation for each of them upon their return. In Freeman’s case, after his death, his wife observes that “he left a stranger and returned a husband and a father.” In Nicholson’s case, one of the items on his list was to kiss the most beautiful girl in the world (we know what that means!), which turns out in the end to be his granddaughter from his estranged daughter. Both men have died by the end of the movie, not a typical Hollywood ending, although each recovered the way he lost.
“That’s why good folk then long to go on pilgrimages,” wrote Geoffrey Chaucer, about a day in April. And it could take any form it needs to, not just to the Shrine of Divine Mercy or Montgomery, Alabama. We need forgiveness that badly, and—more importantly—we need to reconnect with the Source of forgiveness. Then, too, we must ultimately embrace our own Christian vocation as forgiveness bearers.
So, just do it. A long walk will re-spiritualize the world for you. A walk will bring you in close contact with other people on the same path. And it will oblige a silence upon you to think and to be, even as you are surrounded by people, alone with your God. It doesn’t even have to be April.