In 2012, shortly before I converted to Orthodox Christianity, I undertook a 500-mile pilgrimage on foot, to Santiago de Compostela. I thought—among other things—that this journey would yield a ray-of-light answer about whether I should go ahead with my conversion, or whether my infatuation with the Church was another passing fancy. When I didn’t receive the kind of answer I was looking for, or didn’t receive it in the way I expected, I forged ahead with Plan A, which was conversion in spite of my misgivings.
I’d been kicking the tires of different faith systems for most of my adult life. By the time I made the pilgrimage, I’d dabbled in Wicca, Voudou, Catholicism, Kabbalah, and Contemporary Christianity, among others — all in hopes that I’d find the most direct line to God. But, if I’m honest, my search was also shallower than that. I was looking for a tradition that would define me, something I could call my own and be called by. An identity. A tribe. I wanted to be known by others; I wanted to know myself.
By the end of the pilgrimage, I had the answer but didn’t understand it. I knew who I was, and even mailed myself a postcard from Santiago de Compostela with this information on it, a kind of message in a bottle from my heart to my head. I still have the postcard. On the back, in my own handwriting, is the message: You’ve always been a pilgrim.
I’m not sure what I’ve been denying more for the past four years: my own restless nature, or the nature of pilgrimage itself, which ultimately reveals the journey to be more significant than the destination. It’s cliché, but even on the road to Santiago this proved true. My most meaningful experiences were unexpected: a handful of wildflowers in a jar of murky water on the altar of a village church; tending another woman’s wounded feet; hearing a solitary nun sing within the walls of a dilapidated convent as we passed by. Arriving in Santiago was, in many ways, somewhat disappointing. I wasn’t ready; I didn’t want to stop moving.
Even so, I returned home and enrolled in catechism classes. By the following spring, I was chrismated in the Orthodox Church, although it’s clear from my early writing on the subject that I had reservations. After several years, some of those differences began to erupt, like something buried in the flesh.
This led to an inner breakdown almost one year in duration. It was my own personal “dark night of the soul.” For several years, the Church had been my home, the place at which I’d arrived. Yet once again, I found myself out in the cold, without the sort of guidance promised by the church, and beset by questions that have plagued me since I was a teenager: What is religion? What is its real purpose? Why does mankind consecrate spaces and congregate in them? Do we hope to collectively witness a supernatural phenomenon? In this hope, is there a desire to have our experience of the numinous ratified by others? Are all religions, at their core, a way of keeping the masses from misbehaving, from thinking for themselves? Or is there something legitimate there, a kernel of truth about Divine Love, the universe, and our place in it?
I’ve since emerged from that dark night. I no longer attend any kind of church with any degree of regularity, and have made my peace with the questions; they’ll always be there. I’ve accepted the fact that I feel closest to God when I’m walking in nature, or when Spirit reveals important information to me through dreams. Hardest of all to let go of has been the concept of religion-as-identity, but I can finally say that I no longer need to label myself in that way. What I can’t seem to shake is the idea of church itself.
In spite of my best efforts, I am just not a secular person. I’m fascinated by religion, drawn irresistibly toward its ceremonies and symbolism like a moth to the flickering heart of a votive. Religion appeals to my romantic side, the superstitious picker-up-of-pennies, graveyard-wanderer, copious burner of incense, seer of signs. Although my experiences with various faiths and houses of worship have invariably proved disappointing after any length of time, I’m nevertheless intrigued. Maybe I’m most fascinated by my fascination, which endures in spite of money-grubbing, fear-mongering, snobbishness, the use of scripture as propaganda, and the hackneyed portrayal of Heaven as eternal country club.
Whatever the reason, I’ve decided to just embrace it. I’ve declared 2017 my own personal Year of Pilgrimage, a year of wonder-lust, if you will. I plan to visit a bunch of different churches/houses of faith/temples/mosques/what-have-you, along with my close friend and (amazing) fellow writer, Jennifer, who has her own reasons for this experiment. We will both blog about our experiences. Our goal is not to choose something or make determinations, but simply to experience what is there.
In the Orthodox Trisagion prayers, there is a beautiful line that goes, …O Heavenly Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who is everywhere present and fillest all things…. It is my favorite line from any of the Orthodox prayers, because it acknowledges the fact that God isn’t just in the Baptist church on Sunday morning, God isn’t only in the Eucharist. God is also on Skid Row, on Death Row. In that one house with the piles of trash in the yard. In the trash itself, and in the green shoots growing up between the trash. Anything, anyone, any place can be holy, and it is God’s vagaries and not our own that make it so.
On pilgrimage, we lived by the rule, You must only put one foot in front of the other. That will be my rule here as well.
You can read Jennifer’s introduction to this spiritual experiment here.