A Pilgrim Confessionby Fr. Daniel+ on January 20, 2022
I want to write in a more personal vein today. As such, in what follows, I may lose my thread a bit more than usual. Moving and movement are on my mind, as are these blog posts, and on the whole I’m just a bit scattered today. Mostly, though, I want to try and say something of how important the discipline of writing these posts has been for me, though I’ll likely take the long way around to getting there. I want to start with a paradox.
When we pay attention to the natural world, we notice a paradox: that which is most secure is not the thing which is the stillest, but the thing whose motion is most regular. The planets orbiting along the bright gravity of the sun; the flow of blood through our circulatory systems; the in and out of our breath. An oak tree yearning upwards, bursting with green and then dropping its leaves in seasonal motion, is rooted to something more secure than, say, the pyramids of Egypt or the medieval castles of Wales, sinking as they are into slow ruin.
As Lucy and I prepare for our move, I’ve been thinking about how this is true of the human soul, not just of planets and oak trees. The soul wants to be with her Maker, and for us earth-bound creatures that means living lives that move with God’s own bright gravity. I don’t necessarily mean literal, physical movement from point A to B (though that is certainly involved sometimes). I just mean the natural desire of creatures to move towards that which is good—the oak branches up to the sunlight and the roots down towards the ground water, for instance. For human creatures made in the image of God, this movement involves moving towards that which is Best. Nothing else will do. “You have made us for yourself, O God,” writes St. Augustine in his Confessions, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
To resist this movement is to die a kind of death. To make of our soul a fortress against the world is to stagnate, to atrophy, to sink like Egyptian pyramids and Welsh castles into spiritual entropy. To put it differently, when Jesus calls people, it always involves moving in a new direction: following Him towards God, towards that which is Best.
We are getting nearer to the language of repentance now. Usually when we talk about repentance we mean feeling sorry for something bad we did and amending our lives accordingly. This is true and good; it’s just only partially true. Repentance is really about regaining our proper movement: it’s not primarily about turning away from what is bad but about turning towards that which is Best. Leaving sin behind is just symptomatic of being freed to follow Jesus. If we would be faithful, sometimes we must leave not only sin behind, but also lesser goods for the sake of greater ones. Confusing the two is all sin is, really.
It’s easy to talk about all this in the abstract: sin, lesser goods, that which is Best. But in practice, we can’t get away from what St. Augustine says: our hearts are positively restless until they rest in God. I am not close enough to the saints to know if we are ever truly un-restless and at peace in this life, but I do believe we get little tastes of it and that we get little sign posts that guide us in a peace-ward direction. Moments here and there that somehow reveal to us that the Center really will hold, in the end, simply because the Center is God. Every now and then our awareness dilates enough to see things from a higher perspective, which is to say, as Christ sees them: the changes and chances of this life really are held in the palms of God’s hands. Despite the vicissitudes of history, God really is always free to respond to the world as a Loving Creator, whether we are the crucifiers that day or just standing far off, watching it happen.
But this vision also brings with it a kind of heartache. We cannot share even a little of God’s view of the world without also seeing how broken it is. Things really do fall apart. The view of Christ is also the view from the cross, after all. And so we really are restless here, in this place where things don’t go as they ought. Our own best intentions and efforts are amongst the things which so often go awry. We are homesick for God’s future.
When Christians talk about these themes, the temptation is always to point towards the afterlife and say, “Yes, but in heaven we won’t be restless anymore.” This is true, but again, it is only partially true. Our restlessness is not something merely to be endured until the Last Great Day; it is the anxiety of love trying to move and so our restlessness is properly something given to us for the here and now. To put it differently, the soul wants to be with her Creator, yes. But what is that Creator like Well, that Creator is like Jesus. Thus, no sooner does our soul draw near to God than we find God shooing us back into the world again to love it until it’s a little more whole again. That’s what God did with Jesus, after all.
Here is another paradox I am starting to notice: being shooed lovingly back into the world by God is simply what drawing near to God is like. In Jesus of Nazareth, the road home to God and the road out to the world are not different roads. We are always coming and going. We are always on the move. We are always following the Way, the Truth, the Life. Again, the life of faith is a life that moves.
We have arrived at last at something like the language of pilgrimage. To be a pilgrim is not exactly to leave one place behind in order to get to arrive at another place once and for all; pilgrims come home, after all. Instead, it is to allow one’s earthly movement to become an outward and visible sign of the paradox we just named: the road we walk home to God and the road we walk out into the world in love are not different roads. We don’t leave earth behind in order to get to heaven. That’s not how pilgrimage works. We follow the Way not to leave the earth behind, but so that the distance between earth and heaven gets shorter in us. We follow the Way of Jesus until our every footstep is Truth and Life.
This has all been very reflective and a bit abstract, and I’ve not said very much that is specific, let alone specific about Lucy’s and my move, so let me try to do that now. The truth is that for all of my adult life I have been restless in my work: as a youth minister, as a seminary student, as a new priest, as the vicar of St. Liz. Regardless of what is next for me, I will to one degree or another be restless in that, too. The slow conversion God is working in me is a growing awareness and confidence that this restlessness is not something for which I should seek an earthly cure, but is instead merely a symptom of everything I have tried here to describe. It is just the anxiety of love trying to move toward its object, of ongoing repentance, of drawing ever nearer to God. All there is to do is continue the pilgrimage. Continue following the Way. The road home to God and out into the world are the same road if we are paying attention.
The point is that to rest in the stillness of God is not to refrain from movement or to stop searching and striving, but to have our movement harmonized with God’s own. In the biblical idiom, St. Augustine’s restlessness might be St. Paul’s injunction to “work out thy salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
In my limited experience, the times I have felt most strongly that my restlessness was leading not to just frantic activity but towards harmony with God’s own movement have been times marked by some combination of study, writing, teaching, and prayer. At St. Liz, the work I have done which to me has felt most like the kind of pilgrimage I have tried to describe has been the work of this blog and the Mark bible study I was privileged to lead last year. I had my usual anxieties about all of it—fretting, over-thinking, impostor syndrome—but I also felt all of that restlessness being trained, transformed, trajectoried towards something Good. I also felt myself being transformed by that work, and that a new and purer voice was emerging through it. I could feel a restless love being unhindered. The discipline of writing these posts most weeks has been for me a source of that regular movement we began by noticing. Planets moving around the sun in her bright gravity. Oak trees shedding and growing leaves, digging their roots into the earth.
I say all of that for two reasons. First, some of you have asked about my academic interests and expressed hope that those interests don’t take me away from parish work. Thank you for the kindness and confidence in those words. What I can say is that I don’t hope to become a fulltime academic any more than I hope to continue in fulltime parish ministry just because my hopes are more basic than that (and I am more comfortable admitting how basic they really are). I just hope my restlessness becomes ever more harmonized to God’s own movement, whatever that means. If you’re a restless type, I hope the same for you. For me, seasons of intensive study, introspection, and writing are a big part of that harmonizing.
Second, I wanted to thank you for reading these newsletters. I don’t take it for granted that anybody will care what I have to say about something, and I hope that I never do take that for granted. I am grateful that you have cared. For my part, I have worked hard on them, and I hope that has born fruit. Moreover, that work has been part of my own growth and transformation, and your caring (even a little, even occasionally) about what I have written over these past few years has been a life-giving and sustaining part of my own pilgrimage. Thank you for that. I hope that in the future I have occasion to be part of a conversation like this one again.
Finally, some of you know that I love Dante’s Divine Comedy, and that much of what I’ll be doing this spring is writing an MA thesis on it. There are a lot of reasons why I love that poem, but I think the basic one is that he, along with St. Augustine, is a Christian writer who more powerfully than most gives voice to this fundamental restlessness I have tried to describe. The Comedy is a 14,000 line poem about moving towards God. In a sentence, that’s all the Comedy really is. It is (amongst other things) how Dante himself tried to harmonize his own life’s movement with God’s. And, moreover, his own life-movement as a poet was to envision and describe his own journey in such a way that the distance between heaven and earth grew shorter in his writing of it.
One of the most beloved lines in the Comedy is from a woman named Piccarda, who is in the heaven of the moon. In Dante’s view of the cosmos, the moon was the lowest sphere of the heavens, which is evinced by the fact that the moon is the only heavenly body that changes (waxing, waning, etc.). When Dante meets her, he very reasonably has a lot of questions, and one of them is essentially about how there can be so much variety in heaven. How come some folks are higher up and closer to God than others when everyone in heaven is blessed? How can there be such variety with God, who is perfect and eternal?
Her answer is that God, “in His Will, in-wills us; / and His will is our peace” (Paradiso III.84-85). Somehow, in the realm of the blessed, the diverse created wills of human beings are in-willed by God’s own Will. Another way of saying this is that the diverse, creative movements of human life are, willfully and fully, swept up into the movement of God. Our wills are filled, in-willed, by God’s own. There is harmony, a unity in difference.
Regardless of our diverse ages, geographical locations, stations in life or any other creaturely particular, a human life on the move with Jesus always has a God-ward trajectory. This is not quite the same thing as saying God has a particular plan, but it is a way of saying that God redeems our restlessness and clarifies it so that it becomes a homing. And this homing movement is, I believe, both our rest in God and our joyful work in the world.
I am glad to have been welcomed so fully into your pilgrimage and to count you amongst my own traveling companions. It has been a joy to serve with you in this pilgrim company. What a gift it is to walk each other home.
Thank you for reading.