To go on pilgrimage is to risk being disturbed and changed. To peel away the layers of the trite, banal and superficial in order to encounter the Really Real is also to risk having the rest of your life shaken up when you return. One of the reasons that moments of revelation are so difficult is because of what they require from us afterwards. Once we taste the Living Water, everything else tastes like kool-aid. Bad kool-aid.
I've just returned from a summer where I spent the better part of two months in France. Part of my time there was involved in research ( everything from Medieval history to Josephine Baker), part of it was taking part in spiritual communities (from the extraordinary ecumenical site of Taize to the French Orthodox monastery of St Michel du Var). For one glorious month, I had the luxury of spending every day with my beloved daughter Anissa as we pondered what is next for her as she stands at the threshold of graduating from college. And for part of my summer, I led a pilgrimage to the sites associated with the legends of Mary Magdalene in Provence accompanied by twelve magnificent women.
What I miss most about the pilgrimage in France is not the elaborate and wonderful meals served in a gorgeous al fresco setting with the gentle sound of a water fountain gurgling in the garden. It's not the monuments to art and history that peek around virtually every corner. It is not even the breathtaking landscape of La Baume mountain, with the ancient forest of Artemis below and the whole of Provence spread out beneath vibrant azure skies.
What I miss most is the communal rhythms of breath, silence, chant and courageous vulnerability that I got to experience on a daily basis. I miss listening to a truly profound level of sharing, and I miss the sense of creating something new and true and real with fellow seekers. I miss the sense of community.
In the two weeks since I came back, I've tried to slip into old patterns. I've attended church services and led labyrinth walks, and last night, I played my heart out on the piano as part of a Taize service. But the only thing that has come close to quenching my hunger for spiritual community was the day long workshop the Mythica Foundation produced on Hildegard of Bingen. What made that work for me was once again the sense of being both participant and witness to a larger story, hearing the struggles people were facing as we also explored the struggles that Hildegard faced in her life. There was more manna in witnessing the personal revelations participants had as they mined HIldegard's magnificent images for their own guidance than any sermon I have heard all year.
The great poet John O'Donahue urges us to pay attention to our longings. Well, here is mine:
I long to be a part of a community of passionate, thoughtful seekers dedicated to remembering the wisdom of the past while creatively and courageously addressing the challenges of the present- both in our own lives and in the culture at large. I long for a place of beauty, contemplation, warmth and acceptance, a place where pilgrims of all faiths (and none at all) would feel at home to express their real selves, authentically offering up their broken hearts as well as their bright and brilliant spirits. A place of music, art, poetry, silent contemplation and the psychological and spriritual practices that really can transform lives and bind people together in truth and love. I long for a community where the focus of the year isn't stewardship drives and where the creed isn't routinely and blindly recited , but where there is a heartfelt and deeply thoughtful offering that affirms the beauty and power and sanctity of each soul as we promise to witness one another with hope and compassion in our love, loss and longing. A place where the readings included both the powerful words of Jesus, but maybe use the wisdom of Julian of Norwich or John of the Cross or David Whyte instead of the texts of a smiting and vengeful Yahweh with an emphasis on suffering, fear and sin. I'd want a community where the words of the laity were honored as much as those of the priest, and where there is no pulpit, but more a circle of trust and reflection, and where the chorales of Bach and chants of Taize were sung with long stretches of silence in between.
I know of one such place where all this happens- Bishop's Ranch in Healdsburg - but I have found nothing that quenches my spirit in my own backyard. And so I am paying attention to this longing, this calling. Maybe what I need to is to create this community myself. Anyone want to join me?