Rev. Debra Jene Collum
We are talking about pilgrimages today because of the journey the magi took as they followed the star. This journey to the cradle of the child Jesus, is a metaphor for our own journeys toward discovery.
In my readings for today I learned that during the Middle Ages, European pilgrims were given the right by law to take time out of their lives to make pilgrimages – up to a year for those travelling from anywhere to Jerusalem…
Most of us have trouble just getting two weeks off for a vacation. I can only imagine if we would ask for a year off to go on something called a pilgrimage. And even if we could, who has the budget or room in our calendar to go on a pilgrimage for even a few weeks?
But the idea of a pilgrimage sounds pretty great. Maybe not the walking for miles or the sleeping rough or the food. But the idea of getting away for a time of enlightenment and new connection with God. That sounds pretty nice. Don’t you wish you could do something like that?
Well you know me; I always say that we can do the work of connection with God everyday. Without a great deal of output of special energy or money or time. That our spiritual health shouldn’t have to depend on our bank account, amount of free time we have or even our ability to be disciplined.
It is mostly about paying attention.
I was on a birding trip in the northern part of MN looking for boreal winter birds. It was a group experience. We were being driven through the Sax Zim Bog in school buses. Now the Sax Zim Bog is just west of Duluth. It is a vast area of frozen tundra with a few gravel somewhat maintained roads snaking through and around the bogs and stands of tamarack. In the middle of winter it is beautiful in its starkness.
It was the middle of February. It was cold, it was bumpy, it was a long way between bathroom stops. I was with my Mom and two other women from Arkansas. I had tried to warn them about the depth of cold they would experience. I supplied them with extra socks, even boots. I stocked up on chemical hand and feet warmers. And passed them out to the ladies like candy.
I had tried to warn them but they were not prepared.
I can say with assurance that they were miserable.
But yet, they will tell you it was one of the best trips of their lives.
They got to see birds they would never, ever see in their life unless they went far up into Canada. The Owls: Boreal, Northern Hawk, the Great Grey. The crossbills and grosbeaks, the boreal chickadee and northern shrike.
They were checking life birds off their lists left and right.
During one of our stops to look at a bird, a reporter from Duluth climbed on the bus with us. She was asking THE question. Why do you do this? What makes bird watching such an attraction?
Why would you get up before dawn on a deeply cold winter day when you are from Arkansas just to see a bird you have never seen before?
Well, I can’t answer for my mom and her friends, but I can say for myself, it changes that deeply cold day from a miserable walk in the woods to a pilgrimage.
Because the difference between a walk and a pilgrimage is the level at which you pay attention.
You cannot be a good bird watcher without paying attention and the practice of bird watching trains a person in the art of paying attention, to the smallest of things.
The branch that moves from something other than a breeze.
The shadow that passes just above you against the blue sky.
The rustle in the grass just at the edge of the path.
The promise, that every day there might be a new or even an old discovery in your next glance up or down. It is rare that a bird watcher who has been doing it for some time, discovers something new. Yet, it is even more rare that a bird watcher ever walks without looking and experiencing the landscape around them with acute attention so that even the common becomes a discovery.
So to answer the reporter’s question: why birdwatching. It is because it has trained me in paying attention. Acutely paying attention. So that every walk, or even drive I take has the potential to become a pilgrimage.
Most of us take journeys everyday, to the store, to Rochester, our daily walk, a visit to a relative, to work.
So what is the difference between these journeys and a pilgrimage? It doesn’t have to be much. It just has to be about paying attention. Because the difference between a pilgrimage and walk is not in what you discover, or encounter or even gain by the walk, but the level at which you pay attention.
We all need help in the art of paying attention. For me it is watching birds. For you, what could it be?
The point of chalking your doorways is not to perform a ritual but to help remind yourself every time you leave the house that you go with the blessing of God and the potential to make this particular journey outside your home into a pilgrimage where you once again experience an encounter with God.
Good thing the magi were schooled in the art of paying attention to the stars. They would have missed the journey to the child Jesus. What is your star?