It is hard to believe we are entering into the third week of Lent. For some of us that realization prompts the sheepish admission that we haven’t perfectly adhered to all of the resolves about fasting, almsgiving and prayer we made going into Ash Wednesday.
The good news is that, as someone I read put it early in Lent, Lent is a journey, not a pass-fail test. And when we realize we haven’t been doing quite as well as we might have, we can pick ourselves up and redouble our efforts.
And what is true of Lent is true of our lives in general: our life is a journey, not a pass-fail test. As Johannes Metz writes in his wonderful little book Poverty of Spirit (another book that would make great Lent reading):
To be sure, none of us drinks the chalice of our existence to the last drop. None of us is fully obedient. Everyone falls short of the human nature entrusted to us. We are all compromised in our acknowledgment of the truth of our being and in our work of becoming human. We never fully grasp the image of our impoverished being. There is a rift between ideal and actual life, between the real thrust of our life and our actual life from day to day. We always remain a promise never quite fulfilled, an image only dimly seen through a mirror. We always stand at a distance from our own selves, never fully sounding the depths of that being called ‘I.’
We are works in progress. That doesn’t mean we are not remorseful about the ways in which we fail. It doesn’t mean we don’t try harder to be all we can be. But it does mean we can approach our journey with patience and without ever feeling like we’ve blown it in a way that can’t be remedied.
Mapquest. GPS navigation systems. Google Maps. Shelves and shelves of travel books and maps in our bookstores. The truth is that we never have to travel anywhere without a map that tells us how to get to and around pretty much every place in the world.
Our spiritual journey is utterly different. As one of my directees observed not long ago, it is a journey without a map.
Jesus says, “Come follow me.” The invitation doesn’t come with a pre-planned roadmap. We start on a path without knowing where it will lead and how it will turn out. Mary says yes to the Angel’s message without knowing it will lead her to the foot of the cross. Peter says yes when Jesus says “feed my sheep,” not knowing it will lead to his martyrdom. And the same is true for us – yes to Jesus invitation is yes to a journey without a map.
I have a miserable sense of direction, so I Mapquest pretty much everyplace I’m driving that I haven’t already driven at least 5 or 6 times. The alternative is trusting that I can figure out a route on my own, and I don’t have a whole lot of trust in myself to do that.
But I’ve grown in my ability to trust that if I say yes to Jesus he will lead me on my way. The way is not always clear – the discernment of path requires much more on our parts than plugging a destination into a GPS. But with Jesus by our side, we can safely journey, even without a map.
Yesterday morning, we had the closing session of our weekend vocation retreat for law students. We began with a prayer service, during which participants were invited to share a prayer, scripture passage, piece of poetry, song, story that had meaning for them. This is always a beautiful service.
One of the students shared a country-western song I had not heard before, Bless the Broken Road by Rascal Flats. (Not only had I not heard of the song, but I have no idea who Rascal Flats is or are.) The chorus of the song goes, “God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you.”
Although the song is a love song to a woman, the student explained that, as someone who identified with the Prodigal Son, for him it spoke of the return to God. For him, the line prayed: God blessed the broken road that brought me back to God.
I was powerfully moved by that image. We are all broken. And we can all look back at the path that brought us to God, much of which is indeed broken.
But, do we stop to recognize God’s blessing at each step of the way? That in each misstep, there was blessing? I suspect that we look back with such embarrassment, pain, shame, etc. that we miss the blessing.
Every step of our journey is part of what brought us to where we are by God. And each step is filled with God’s blessing.
God blessed the broken road that brought us back to him.
Do you remember the children’s game of Chutes and Ladders? The idea is to get from the bottom of the board (my recollection is that it was numbered 1) to the top (number 100) before any of the other players. In addition to the normal movement along the board number by number, there were a certain number of chutes and ladders. If you landed on a ladder, you were lucky enough to jump up to wherever the ladder took you, short-cutting your way up the path. However, if you landed on a chute, you went backwards…sometimes a really long way. (I remember there being a particularly long chute that took you back from something like 90 down to 12. No matter how far along you were on the board, until you hit 100, you could never be secure of your progress. Right up to the end, you could land on a chute.
As I was walking the labyrinth the other morning at St. Ignatius Retreat House (where, as I’ve mentioned already), I’m currently giving an 8-day guided retreat, it occurred to me that Chutes and Ladders provides a useful metaphor for our spiritual lives. We so much like forward progress and we cling to the idea that once we past a certain point, we are securely past it. We like to think we are always moving in one direction toward our goal.
But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes we’re moving merrily along, feeling like we are making great progress on some issue or another and inexplicably we find ourselves back where we were some time ago, back at a point we thought we had put behind us. Down the chute…sometimes a really, really long way.
The reality is our spiritual path is not a game we can “win” during our lifetime. Our spiritual journey is a lifetime of movements forward and movements back as we make our way toward full union with God. And just like in Chutes and Ladders, there is nothing to do after falling backward down a chute other than to pick ourselves up and continue the journey.
Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of St. James. What always comes first to my mind when I think of James is his ambition. He’s the one that wanted to be head of the class, first in line, seated at the right hand of Jesus in heaven.
But more interesting to me is the traditional assertion that St. James preached the Gospel in Spain. It is also believed that after his execution by Herod, his body was somehow miraculously translated to the northwest of Spain, and later to Compostela, a famous pilgrimage spot – the endpoint of the Camino de Santiago (also known as the Way of St. James).
The authenticity of the relic of St. James in Compostela has been questioned and there seems to be reason to doubt that St. James ever made it to Spain. Still, thousands of people each year make their way along the Camino. My friend Maria has done it; my friend Michael plans to do it this fall and it is one of my great desires is to do the same once my daughter is finished high school and off in college.
What explains that? I don’t think it is at all about St. James and his relics. I don’t think it matters a whole lot to me whether he was in Spain or not or whether his relics are there now.
I think it is more that pilgrims have been making their way along that route for more than 1000 years. I say pilgrims, although many of the people who have walked the route did not set out on a spiritual journey. (Not surprisingly, they say it ended up being a spiritual jouney.) Maybe it goes back to the Exodus metaphor I talked about two days ago – we know we are on a journey and there is something about pilgrimage – about walking a holy trail that others have walked before us that draws us. And so on this feast of St. James, I remind myself that I will walk the Camino
My friend John recently shared with me an excerpt from a book by organizational consultants Nancy Barger and Linda Kirby that uses the metaphor of the pioneer journey to understand organizational change. The metaphor seems to me equally applicable to our own personal spiritual journeys and so I share one particular aspect of what they describe.
As described by Barger and Kirby, those pioneers who took the journey westward were all inspired by a belief that something better would await them at the end of the journey. They packed all of their goods and “essentials,” everything they needed “to recreate their past, to provide a familiar environment, to bring the past with them into the new land.”
As time went on, the pioneers faced challenge after challenge and ultimately it became clear to them that their wagons were too heavy. “They couldn’t take everything with them into their new lives. Priorities had to be reassessed. Possessions had to be reevaluated. They had to ask themselves: Is this essential in our new life? What’s most important to carry with us? What was once useful but now seems just a heavy burden?” And so they discarded many things that had previously seemed to them “essential.”
We hold on to all sorts of things that seem “essential,” but which really hold us back on our spiritual journey. Some of those things may be material…think of the parable of the rich young man, who walked away sadly because he couldn’t imagine giving up what he had to follow Jesus. Others are nonmaterial – attitudes and images or ourselves (or of God) that we hold on to, that may have once served some value, but now no longer do.
Just as the pioneers confronted difficult questions about what to keep and what to give up, there is value in periodically asking ourselves: Is what I’m carrying essential to my new life with God? Are there things I’m carrying that, whatever use they may once have been, are now a heavy burden? What do I need to discard so that I can follow God more closely?