Pilgrims on the Journey
Rev. Douglas Taylor
All of living is a journey. We begin with birth and end with death, although arguably those are merely the boundaries of this chapter in which we each now walk. You are on a journey through this life. The story of each life is different but there are broad patterns that many of us find in our lives. Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” has several stages that apply not only to “heroes” in fiction, but to all of us who chose to live a life of integrity. The first step is “The Call to Adventure” followed by “the Road of Trials” and “Transformation” or “Atonement,” each of which have both internal and external components. Following victory, there is “Returning Home.” My focus for this morning, whether this pattern fits your life dramatically or only in the vaguest of senses, is that we all experience “the road of trials.”
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism begins with the statement that all life is suffering, that all of life is a road of trials. Christians speak of sharing Christ’s cross in this life through our own troubles. The basic story of Judaism proclaims that all of us in all communities experience our place in the Exodus story; that at some point, perhaps even at all points, in our life we are exiled from our true place in the world. Or as the pithy statement from Ben Franklin puts it: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Time and again, throughout cultures we hear the message that life is a road of trials.
Sometimes religion will call this a test from God; trouble and hardship you meet on your journey are God’s way of testing you, they say. I don’t find this a helpful way of talking about the work of overcoming fears that accompanies such trouble in life. And I don’t find this a helpful way of talking about God either. Certainly the way to deal with trouble and fear is to face it, but to characterize such times in our lives as tests set in our paths from a loving God is not, to my way of thinking, a helpful framework. God is love, God is a resource while we are on the journey, not a harsh test-maker dropping challenges in our paths. God is not the source of our pain, but a resource in the midst of our suffering.
My colleague, Tom Owen-Towle, uses a different framework to talk about the ‘road of trials’ and the accompanying fears that are tangled therein. He calls our fears “dragons.” Each of us has dragons we must face in our life. These are not dragons for us to defeat, instead, they are dragons for us to face and embrace. It is all part of the journey. We are pilgrims walking our paths and we encounter our dragons as we travel. The greatest work for any of us truly trying to live with integrity and faith is to face our fears. Poet and mystic, Jalal-Udin Rumi says “Our greatest fears are like dragons guarding our greatest treasures.” But the trick is that facing our dragons is not about conquering them, facing our fears is not about eliminating them. Instead the work is to learn from them, to overcome them by incorporating them into our journey. Contemporary author Robert Johnson writes: “Medieval defenders had to slay their dragons; modern ones have to take their dragons back home to integrate into their own personality.”
What are the dragons in your life? What are the dragons you have faced and embraced? What are then trials you have experienced on your journey, your pilgrimage through life? Death? Loss? Change? Loneliness? Discomfort? Meaninglessness? Or perhaps, as Marianne Williamson suggests in the reading from this morning: “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” Are your dragons the dragons of success? Of living? Of the grand responsibility of your light and power? What are your dragons? I had a theology professor who taught with an eye toward mythic reality and archetype. He would say things to us like, “There is not one of us in the room who is free from the scars of the dragon.” We all suffer; we all have been hurt; we all have fears and trouble in life. This is not something to avoid or something to hide. It is a basic reality of being alive. Do not run from your dragons. Face them, learn from them.
I think the critical component to do what is being suggested is to first learn trust. There is a poem called “First Lesson” that brings this home, this idea of trust resting at the heart of living. It is from a collection called Letter from a Distant Land in which the author, Philip Booth writes to his daughter:
Lie back, daughter, let your head
Be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
Your arms wide, lie out on the stream
And look high at the gulls. A dead-
Man’s float is face down. You will dive
And swim soon enough where this tidewater
Ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe me,
When you tire on the long thrash to your island,
Lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
And let go, remember when fear
Cramps your heart what I told you:
Lie gently and wide to the light-year
Stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.
This poem is not about swimming. It is about learning trust; learning to trust that when ‘fear cramps your heart,’ fighting against it will not serve. Trust that you can relax and survive. Trust that the sea will hold you. Perhaps trusting the universe, or our fathers, or God, or that the stars and the sea to hold you is exactly the dragon the meets you on your road. What do you trust? What do you fear?
A couple of times while volunteering up at Camp Unirondack I had the privilege of taking a group of kids out on a trust building exercise called a Wolf Hunt. Unirondack is our Unitarian Universalist summer camp up in the Adirondacks. A Wolf Hunt is a late night activity that works like this. The counselors select one cabin of campers; this works best with the junior high age youth. We gather the campers after the in-cabin and lights-out bells have rung and have them get dressed in long sleeves and put on bug repellent. Then we explain to them the activity in detail so they know what will happen and so they will trust that this is safe.
We line up; I serve as the alpha wolf at the front of the line and another counselor walks at the back. Each person rests a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them. Once we start we make no human noises, no talking, no laughing, no whispering. Flashlights are all off except for mine at the front. We walk slowly down the camp road a few hundred feet and then into the woods about another hundred feet. They gather around me so we can all see each other. Then I howl like a wolf to signal the beginning. Each camper then moves away from me as I stay in the same spot in the center. They go out far enough so they can’t see each other or me and then they sit waiting for the next signal. We have them sit for about five minutes in the dark in the woods, each alone but knowing the rest of the pack is nearby.
This is one tactic a real pack of wolves will use. They spread out in an area and sit quietly waiting for all the other animals, prey, to wander into the circle. After five minutes I start howling. The rest of the campers start howling too, all of us out in the woods in the dark after lights-out howling together. As they howl the start moving in toward the center, back to the alpha wolf. In a real pack, this would scare all the game into the center for a shared feast. Once we are all back together again, we line back up and walk out the way we came in. Once we reach camp again we go to the lodge where another counselor has paper and pencils and hot cocoa. Then we have them write about the experience together. Finally, about 45 minutes or an hour after we took them from their cabin we return them, where they get back into their pajamas and turn the lights out.
It is an experience we ask them not to talk to the other campers about in case we get a chance to do it again with another cabin or, I suppose, in case we don’t. It is an experience they remember. For some it is about facing their fears, for others it is about feeling themselves to be a part of the natural world around them. For all of them it is about trust; trusting their counselors, trusting one another, or trusting the world around them.
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, I have lived through this horror. I can take the next think that comes along. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Roosevelt uses the word horror, but there is no horror in experiences of the Wolf Hunt activity. Horror may be too strong a word for the experiences we all have of facing our fears. But certainly Roosevelt’s reasoning still stands, those situations in which we face our fears builds up in us the resources we’ll need for facing future situations with grace and trust.
I remember an incident from my childhood that illustrates this point for me. When I was in school and was picked on by the other children. All through elementary and junior high I had to deal with bullies. I made myself an easy target for their teasing and taunting. The majority of my memories of school prior to high school involve humiliation and fights as well as trying to be unnoticed and every now and then just running away from school.
I have one particular memory of not getting into a fight. It was during lunch, a time of day I did not particularly care for because the cafeteria was always crowded and I never had a group of friends I could sit with. On this particular day I was standing in the lunch line, waiting to pick out and buy my lunch. One kid came over from his table of friends and tried to taunt me into a fight. This is the sort of thing that would happen to me from time to time. Occasionally it would work and I would get into a fight and occasionally I figure out a way to avoid it.
As usual, I was scared. I did not want to get in the fight this other kid was asking for. I said, “It takes more courage for me to not fight you than it does for you to keep egging me into a fight.” A girl behind me commented “that’s right. You leave him alone,” she said to the other boy. When the other kid kept at it and finally shoved me hard so I fell scraped by shine against a nearby table and then fell over onto the floor I jumped up with blood rushing in my ears and I grabbed the other kid by the shirt and pulled my arm back to strike him. Many of the kids around us started chanting “fight, fight.” But that girl who still stood behind me in line shouted at me, “I thought you were better than that.” Ashamed of myself I glared at my adversary and slowly let go of him, turned my back on him and got back in the line.
My challenger shrugged and laughed his way back to his friends as if to say, “I tried.” The girl behind me said, “You did the right thing.” I was shaking with fear and anger as I tried to bend my glasses back into shape, but I also knew she was right. There were other times when I did fight the bullies and other times when I worked very hard to avoid trouble and stay unnoticed. But that one time when I stood up and refused to fight my dragon – that one time was enough and it shines still in my memory and has guided me ever since. I did it once, but that helped define me, that helped me walk my path as a pilgrim on my journey to become who I am today.
Helen Keller wrote, “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” Or as John Wayne said, “Courage is being scared to death — and saddling up anyway. “ But the adventure is not necessarily a fight. It can be a long slow walk toward a better way of being in the world. Facing your greatest fear is not necessarily a fight, indeed it may, in fact, be not fighting, and possibly even befriending.
At the end of his book, Love meets the Dragon, Tom Owen-Towle tells this story about a colleague’s experience of a tiger at the zoo.
A colleague was standing in front of the tiger area in a world-famous zoo. There were several people beside Ted. The huge beast singled out one person next to him and stared straight at this woman, while emitting a low growl. After this had gone on for some time, Ted remarked to the woman: “Doesn’t that shake you to have the tiger glare at you that way? The tiger seems to have it in for you.” She replied, “No, for several years I was its keeper and fed it every day. It knows me and talks to me.”
I have thought back on that incident often, as a kind of parable of the soul, (Owen-Towle writes.) What was giving my ministerial friend imaginary terror was, for the woman who knew her tiger, a message of affection.
Whether you call them dragons or tigers, I encourage you to consider feeding the beasts and befriending them. Your greatest fears are like dragons guarding our greatest treasures. (Rumi) You have a path to walk; you are a pilgrim walking through this life. There will be trouble and suffering and, to be sure, there will be dragons you must face. Face your fears that you may learn from them. Walk in the light, walk with integrity.
In a world without end,
May it be so.