Pilgrimaging through Mud

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage” (Ps. 84:5).

That verse became my mantra at 20, when I was home from college for Christmas, and learned that our Lutheran pastor would be leaving for another congregation (which would be his last before he left the ministry).  I was disoriented, not only because I’d found a mentor in this pastor–who was an artist and intellectual in our small town–but more because the difficult spiritual consequences of his having eroticized our relationship (and, it turns out, his relationship with many in the congregation) suddenly appeared in a new, sacramental way.  For some years I’d already felt I was trying in slow motion to avoid being sucked down a whorling drain, but now I couldn’t worship in church, either:  it felt as if there were flames around the liturgy, driving me away from the words and rituals that had centered and guided me.

I was sitting in my bedroom beside my piano, taking in privately the news of everything (no one in town really knowing yet the extent of things happening in our church), and as usual I turned to the psalms.  This verse appeared before me, and I fell into it like a carrier of truth:  “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.”

I sensed it would be a long pilgrimage, though I did not know how long–and, as everyone knows who has been undone in a place where trust or identity had once been strong, the dank closed places we inhabit then continue to swim in our blood, bury deep in our bones, and can pop up on any given day, even after we’ve pilgrimaged a long ways back to the land of daylight and goodness and a presence of God that is not so difficult.

Psalm 84:5 became an anchor to me, arriving as it did in the middle of an unmooring, directing my spirit to trust at least that the unmooring was part of a pilgrimage to a temple of God I had never seen (having been impelled out of the one in which I had grown up).

And now–in midlife, living far from my hometown, this psalm came up in lectio this past week, and I heard a different message in it, one for any Lent.  I know now that this psalm was written for those pilgrimaging to Jerusalem for one of the annual festivals held there, and verse four captures the heart of the purpose of those celebrations:  to dwell in God’s house, to dwell in a way that is “ever praising” God.  But that is the vision; the reality is being still on the road, traveling towards the house of God where such full praise is possible.  Verse five reminds all of us that we need not have the strength to praise God with every pore open; instead, we can set our hearts on pilgrimage through whatever mud is stopping our feet just now, and let the strength of even our capacity for praise be in God.

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