I went on a journey the other day - a Lenten pilgrimage, if you will. My world had indeed been a monster, lately, and what better use of a priest’s typical Monday off than to point my zippy little car onto the open road, see some new things, and hopefully - with a decent map and enough time - reach a bit of a destination? I’d heard about it since 1985, but never been. Why not go to Philomath?
It turns out that even a weekday morning journey around rural, northeast Georgia can offer enlightenment. In a short four-and-a-half hours I found myself, among other places: on a gravel track miles deep into a blackened, smoldering forest undergoing a controlled burn of underbrush; at the site of a once-booming mill village (Scull Shoals) on the banks of the Middle Oconee river, dating to the early 1780s but long since reduced to overgrown rubble; passing multiple shuttered, dilapidated train depots and general stores once vital to a bustling agricultural economy, when cotton was still king; and in the cramped quarters of a hole-in-the-wall barbeque joint listening to a white, 70-something Vietnam vet tell war stories to the restaurant’s 30-something, African-American proprietor.
Philomath was a bit of a let-down after all that, really – though the old clapboard Presbyterian church seems to have been preserved nicely. Too bad I couldn’t find a way inside.
The season of Lent is a time for observant Christians to take stock of their life’s journey, their individual pilgrimage. It’s a time to step back from the routine, the habits, the culture in which we're immersed, the everyday patterns and “necessities” we take for granted. A time to reflect, review; to examine our consciences; to identify the obstacles to wholeness and integrity; obstacles to the 'abundant life' we understand God is calling us to live: living a life without fear of death; serving others; showing mercy, compassion, and forgiveness; offering healing and hope in a hurting world; seeking justice.
We begin Lent by confessing openly our all-too-mortal faults and shortcomings. The liturgy of Ash Wednesday (it was March 9th this year) embodies this sense of mortality and the short time we're given to live well. Then, we commit to take up, in some small way, at least, the three traditional Lenten “disciplines:” prayer (giving attention to the Divine); fasting (for focus, clearing the head and heart); and giving alms (serving the poor).
That is, Lent is a time when observant Christians are more intentional, you might say, about their journeys, intentional enough, perhaps, to refer to them with the more theologically-heavy term “pilgrimage.”
Pilgrims are not just wanderers. They know from where they’ve come - the everyday world with its cares, frustrations, smallness, let-downs, pettiness, greed, and exploitation of human, animal, and plant. And they know where they are headed: a place that’s special; a place that seems saturated with the sacred; a “thin place” as the Celts once said – a place where the membrane between earth and heaven seems almost unnoticeable. Many physical destinations can offer this sacredness.
We are all on journeys, really. And more than that, we are all pilgrims.
If Athens is home, let me recommend a pilgrimage to Philomath. It’s really not that far, and the head-clearing, heart-lifting benefits of getting out of your familiar scenery, away from comfortable routines and habits, are real. In encountering the strange and unfamiliar, you might just newly encounter yourself and “the way things really are.”
Oh, and go for the destination, certainly, but don’t neglect to be observant along the way. You will be blessed: perhaps by learning, first-hand, about forest ecology; or by learning about a slice of local history that seemed forgotten; or, in being reminded of the dramatic shift in race relations in the deep South in the last 50 years. Or, by any number of other encounters you might have.
So do try and make a pilgrimage of self-discovery this spring, no matter how close to home – or even without leaving home if you can’t swing it. I think you’ll return finding yourself desiring less of the things that clutter our lives and more of the things that matter, more of the low-down.
The Rev. M. Edwin Beckham is Associate Rector and Curate at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Athens.