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In the memoir Eat, Pray, Love, writer Elizabeth Gilbert gives up her entire way of life to spend a year traveling the world, finding spiritual enlightenment along the way. Julia Roberts, who plays Gilbert’s character in the movie version out this week, apparently found enlightenment of her own through the role, revealing that she has become a practicing Hindu.
As Joan Ball asks in a Guest Voices post, “Is it possible to live a life of deep, transformational faith without dropping everything and hitting the road?”
In your tradition, what is the aim of the spiritual journey?
The goal of the spiritual journey for me as a Christian is love of God and neighbor. Sometimes, however, the way to achieve that goal can be overwhelmed by the noise and pressure of modern life. Modern life is very noisy and distracting. The journey inward, back to the stillness where the voice of God can be heard, is a path back to spiritual centeredness from which springs the love of God and neighbor. Travel, or as earlier Christians called it, making a pilgrimage, is a good way to find your way back to a centered spiritual life.
Travel is a tried and true way to get away from the demands of life and hear God again. That’s Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. As Chaucer wrote, when March gives way to April and the weather improves, “Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.” Translated from the Middle English, that means “people long to go on pilgrimages.” Apparently the 14th century was also demanding and distracting and people wanted to get away and renew their spirits. As Chaucer tells it, and as this newer pilgrimage tale, Eat, Pray Love, also shows, new people and new places can help you discover the vibrancy of your spiritual life.
This is a good thing for churches to realize. A few years ago, a seminary colleague and I undertook to study which churches sent us the best students for ministry. There were a few churches that we came to call “seed churches” that just routinely raised up wonderful candidates for ministerial leadership. What were these churches doing right?
There were several characteristics they had in common, like a lot of lay leadership opportunities, but one unexpected trait was church work-trips where lay people volunteered to help folks in need in U.S. urban or rural communities, or around the world. We interviewed people about these work trips and they all said, in one way or another, that they were able to more easily make the connection between what the scripture teaches and what they were doing to help people. Everything just got clearer and simpler on the trip because they were not treading their usual paths in life.
Another excellent resource for reconnecting with God through traveling outside civilization is Renewal in the Wilderness. This is a wonderful program of wilderness retreats whose goal is to reconnect people with God through wilderness. John Lionberger, the founder, summarizes the process and the goal: “Renewal in the Wilderness offers spiritual retreats in nature…We take people like you, from all faith traditions, out of normal environments for a week (or weekend) of wilderness sojourning for a chance to spend time with God in ways that have been proven for at least 4,000 years.”
The common thread among 14th century pilgrimages, modern faith-based work trips, and 4,000 year-old practices of spiritual retreats in the wilderness is paying attention to your spiritual life. Having a spiritual life doesn’t just happen. You need to be intentional about it, and find time to listen, to learn, to be still and to serve. You can do that in a lot of ways, but from time to time, getting away from the routines of everyday life can really help you hear the still small voice and see God in the other. I know it helps me.