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Cultivating Calling and Pilgrimage

September 25, 2023

Matthew Clark

Cultivating Calling and Pilgrimage is a meandering column documenting the pilgrimage of faith. It’s an occasional letter arriving in the mail from that shabby, wandering uncle you only see a few times year, describing the odd bits and bobs of books, songs, stories, people and places that have struck his fancy, put a lump in his throat, or kept him putting one foot in front of the other toward the Face of Jesus, that Joy set before us all.

Have I told you about the wild plums? We came upon them at the edge of a copse late morning. Ruth, Sara, and I carried our heavy packs (our feet were already listing the things we could’ve done just fine without) as the sun rose nearer to its zenith. Peeking out from the boughs were little lights of deep red and ripe yellow, blinking at us from under leaves as we passed. 

“What are those?” I wondered aloud. We halted to inspect the little fruits, not sure if they were good for eating or not. They were beautiful, and there were so many. Soft, oblong, and smooth, around the size of a large olive, we decided they were worth tasting, in case the Lord may have provided an impromptu snack for us along the way of our pilgrimage. We broke one open, and I tentatively put it to my tongue. 

Ah! It was all goodness, sunlight, time, and affection made tasteable. We filled our palms, laughing as we did, gobbling up what we could, and tucking away handfuls of them in various pockets and pouches for later. I rolled one around in my hand as I walked for the next hour maybe, just to keep the feel of its companionable smoothness moving against my senses. It made beauty upon the fingertips.

There are many similar moments I love to recall from those eleven days of pilgrimage across southern England with my friends. Many shy, bright fruits waited along the way, as G.M. Hopkins says,  

These things, these things were here and but the beholder

Wanting; which two when they once meet,

The heart rears wings bold and bolder [1]

I heard those lines just yesterday on the back porch of a friend’s house, read over breakfast from a well-worn copy of Hopkins’ poems. Several nearly-tame rabbits lounged about in the garden-yard. I’ve been visiting that porch almost once a year for a decade now. The first time the Kopps hosted me for a house concert, they were strangers, but, after all these years of welcome and kindness, they’ve become another home-in-the-world for me.  

As a wandering singer/songwriter, home has been hard to come by. It’s something I’ve more or less given up on, sometimes adopting the Rich Mullins lyric as a mantra, “I’m home anywhere, if you (Jesus) are where I am.” [2] When people say, “Make yourself at home,” I tend to take them up on it, out of necessity. But what I have been so often surprised by is the overwhelming sense of welcome and hospitality I’ve experienced along the way. I haven’t given up much for the Lord, and I’ve certainly not been ousted by my own kin, but it’s still true that the Lord has given this roving pilgrim more mothers, brothers, fathers, sisters and homes than I ever thought possible. [3] 

I could tell you more stories of porches, living rooms, basement bedrooms, dinner tables, and kitchens that arrive just as bright and sweet to my memory as those wild plums in the wilderness. A knock, a door swung open to reveal a face, arms out, an embrace — one more home-in-the-world.  

Josef Pieper, in his book “Only the Lover Sings,” says that humans, by Nature, are pilgrims.[4] We are ever being called further on toward a Great Joy set before us: the face of Jesus. The shape our journey must take all along the way is one of deliberate beholding. The practice of beholding is to always be turning our faces toward the light of that Face that has most assuredly turned itself so tenderly toward us. To cease pilgrimage is to cast our eyes down, to look away, to refuse to meet the face that is facing us, or to settle for the lifeless eyes of some idol. 

There are so many reasons we may fear to meet the gaze of Jesus. How can we survive if Life Himself frowns upon us; it’s such a risk when the stakes are so high. 

“May the LORD bless you

and keep you;

may the LORD cause His face to shine upon you

and be gracious to you;

may the LORD lift up His countenance toward you

and give you peace.”

That’s what Aaron and his sons are told to say to the Israelites in Numbers 6:24-26. It is a blessing — in many ways it is the Blessing. A blessing is the deliberate bestowal of joy that constitutes our identity. Without it, the whole basis of our existence is yanked out from under us. God himself says that at the bedrock of reality is a shining face — a smiling face — one turned toward his people in an expression of warmth, gladness, and welcome that calls forth joy and fruitfulness. Every human, from our earliest developmental stages, discovers and is (or, devastatingly, isn’t) formed by the smiling faces of our caretakers.  

One of the beautiful aspects or facets of the way God has made us and the world is that so much of that “discovering” is known, not on the level of consciousness, but much deeper in the parts of the human person that experience and store a kind of knowing that cannot be reduced to information or put into words. [5] When the red and yellow fruits glanced at me, smiling from beneath the leaves, calling me to properly greet them, rather than walk on past, I heard, though I heard no words. The same shining sent forth from the face of Christ at the creation of the world beamed out from beneath those shaded branches, flickering like laughter from some room I ached with all my being to get into. Whatever language was uttered on that July day was spoken in color, shape, movement, scent, texture, and taste. Embodied.   

Even if no religious claim is apparent, our current digital age is certainly enforcing a practical Gnosticism, immersing us in liturgies of disembodiment. There’s just no substitute for picking a real wild plum off a tree on a walk, rolling it in your palm, and tasting all of its beauty, goodness, and truth upon your tongue. There are technologies I am grateful for that allow me to see and speak with friends far away, but I’m under no illusion about the fact that I’m not fully myself and they are not fully themselves until we are actually together in the same place physically. What we are as persons is a whole: spiritually-physical and physically-spiritual. Even more, we are not persons all by ourselves. Personhood and relationship are inseparable; individualism itself is an illusion. I become myself only to the degree that I am received and offered back to myself by another.

“The day I saw You seeing me, that was the first time I could see that I was loved completely.” [6]

Love and personhood cannot be reduced to disembodied information. As this column develops, I hope to explore the growing conversation in the field of “neuro-theology” among Christian scholars like Dr. Jim Wilder and Dr. Curt Thompson, who are pointing out God’s design for a deep interdependence and unity between our bodily experience (which, as we’ve said, is spiritual) and our narratives and beliefs (the information we ascribe to). [7] 

What then is life actually like? To what can we compare it? A machine or device? No. Individualism? No. What then? I think of the moment two of John the Baptist’s disciples ask Jesus where He is staying. Jesus says, “Come and see.” [8] He could have rattled off an address (information), but instead He invited them to move their bodies together with His body on a walk toward His home. We are all being invited to join Jesus on a pilgrimage toward His (and our) Father’s house. Life (and, for that matter, the Kingdom) is something that begins to happen when you get out of your head and go on a walk with someone. Add to that making music, cooking and eating together, and any number of things. 

I’m trying my best to get my walk out of my own head and find ways to make it as bodily as I can. Even starting with something as small as reading the Bible out loud helps, because it gets the words into our lungs, vocal cords, and into the muscles of the mouth and face. That’s one way. Taking the time to share wild plums with friends is another. 

If we’re on a pilgrimage toward the face of Jesus, I’m more and more convinced that the way isn’t mainly figured out; it’s walked. Our life together with Jesus isn’t an equation to solve, a mechanism to master, or a product to consume. It is a Way to be walked with and toward, both companioned and beckoned by the shining face of Jesus Christ. 

[1] Gerard Manley Hopkins, W. H. Gardner, and N. H. MacKenzie, The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 70.

[2] Rich Mullins; “Here in America.” A Liturgy, a Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band, CD (Waco, TX: Reunion Records, n.d.).

[3] Mark 10:29-30, NIV.

[4] Josef Pieper, Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 42.

[5] This is a point I’ve gathered, generally, from watching several Jim Wilder YouTube lectures. 

[6] Matthew Clark. “Meet me at the Well.” Only the Lover Sings. 2022. Streaming. 

[7] See: Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks, The Other Half of Church: Christian Community, Brain   Science, and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2020).

[8] John 1:35-39, NIV.

The featured image is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her glad permission for Cultivating.


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