Lately I’ve been thinking about devotion: in four days I leave on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. And I’m not really sure why.
My devotion to the belief system into which I was born (Christianity) has fluctuated dramatically over the years. I’ve gone from Baptist to atheist to voodooienne, to Catholic manqué, to singing on the worship team at a contemporary evangelical church, to catechism and chrismation as an Orthodox Christian, to my Dark Night of the Soul and utter abandonment of it all.
And recently, my irrepressible desire to feel a part of something has me attending an Episcopal church, albeit erratically.
It isn’t clear how this new church has affected me. I only know that this year, my relationship to the Christian god and the Bible has changed with a rapidity that has bordered on violence. First I started reading the Bible. Then I took a university class about the Old Testament.
At first I was angry. How, I wondered, could priests and ministers who had presumably been to seminary and learned all the stuff I was learning and more, pass off the Bible as “a love letter from God” or “God’s instruction manual?” How could they stand before their congregations and read a passage as though they were reading history to us, when what they were actually reading was a modified Mesopotamian legend? Was Christianity some kind of conspiracy?
Somewhere in all of this, my husband and I were invited to be part of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
I kind of didn’t want to go. It wouldn’t be the same, I reasoned, knowing what I now know. The idea of standing around with a bunch of die-hards mooning over a fabled well or tomb held little appeal. I didn’t want to spend the entire trip eye-rolling and full of inner snark. Been there, done that.
At the same time, I haven’t been out of the country in five years and if I don’t feed that dog, it’ll die. Plus, hummus. The hummus is supposed to be excellent.
I’ve been on pilgrimage once before, when my husband and I completed the Camino de Santiago in 2012. The call of that road had been sudden and clear, and, like the invitation to Jerusalem, it was completely unexpected. One minute I’d never heard of the Camino; three months later we were walking it. All I knew, both then and now, was that I had to go. And, as with the Camino, a supernatural clockwork kicked in. Things began falling into place.
I’m trying to keep myself empty of expectation, to hold space, as they say, for the trip to be whatever it will be. I trust motion. I trust journey. I am devoted to the road, I suppose, and its transformative power.
But whether I believe in anything else is less certain. This state of mind was uncomfortable at first, but I’ve decided maybe I like it this way, all nebulous and murky with contradictions and unanswerable questions. It isn’t so bad stumbling through the fog. Sometimes I bump into some cool people and interesting stuff, which might not happen if I could see where I was going.
Earlier this year, my brother visited Vietnam and said one of the things that most moved him was the people’s devotion at Buddhist shrines. I’ve been thinking about that ever since: the idea that devotion might be fundamental to us, a compulsion we can’t help, like breathing.
Religious devotion is only one of its myriad forms. Spiritual temperaments differ; others will be devoted to political causes, their families, financial success, self-destruction, professional achievement. Some will be devoted to Harry Potter books, or the Beatles. Everybody needs something to live for, after all. What if God—whatever They are—can find Their way to us via any route?
To my everlasting chagrin, I am drawn to saints and icons and relics in a way that my logical, analytical mind cannot justify. Maybe I just want something I can touch. Maybe I’m so unimaginative as to need an actual altar. Or maybe there really is some kind of poetic mystery swirling like incense back through the ancient stories. If that’s true, maybe I’ll catch a whiff among the artifacts.
Either way, there will be hummus.