How many times have you gone on a pilgrimage? I don’t mean vacation. A vacation is altogether something different. They differ because of intention. A vacation is a break from our life, an interruption of how we have chosen to live. This interruption can be refreshing and leisurely, or it can be stressful as we pack more into it than can possibly be done. A pilgrimage seeks a destination that, should we reach it, we will have gained greater knowledge or character. While both necessitate a break from how we live from day to day, a vacation can quickly be lost and forgotten whereas a pilgrimage informs and empowers us when we return. By and large, in The West we have neglected the act of pilgrimage in our walk with Christ. Church has by and large become our spiritual act. We go to a building once or twice a week, gathering in community to sing songs to God, and while this isn’t a bad thing, it isn’t a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage requires time, it requires movement, and it often sees us following in the footsteps of those who have come before.
In the book of Exodus (specifically Exodus 23:14-23), God instated a set of three sacrifices to be offered throughout the year. At this time, all the men must present themselves before God. Upon construction of The Temple, this meant all men throughout Israel must make the journey from their homes to The Temple in Jerusalem. What an inconvenience to have to make the journey to Jerusalem three times a year. Yet, it was commanded, and as this is the same God that had destroyed Pharaoh’s armies, it is best to do as He says. Granted, He had also just freed the Jews from captivity in Egypt, so paying tribute three times a year is not an unreasonable task. But what I am interested in here is the fact that all Jewish families were required to make this pilgrimage to The Temple. The very act of repeating this journey year in and year out is at once a way to connect the current pilgrim to those who came before, but also a way of affirming identity to a culture or belief. The pilgrim, in this case, becomes displaced from the trappings of every day life in order to pursue a religious goal or act.
Both Jewish and Christian tradition believe Psalms 120-134 were sung by the travelers to Jerusalem. These psalms have come to be known as The Psalms of Ascent, so named because Jerusalem was on a hill. However, the symbolic act of turning one’s face toward God is also not to be missed. These psalms also have a fascinating progression that mirrors the pilgrim’s journey from earthly discontent to pursuit and love of God.
In my distress I called to the LORD,
and he answered me.
Deliver me, O LORD,
from lying lips,
from a deceitful tongue.
What shall be given to you,
and what more shall be done to you,
you deceitful tongue?
A warrior’s sharp arrows,
with glowing coals of the broom tree!
Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech,
that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I had my dwelling
among those who hate peace
I am for peace,
but when I speak, they are for war!
–Psalm 120 (ESV)
Eugene Peterson has a wonderful quote in his devotional on The Psalms of Ascent A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Peterson says, “It is nearly as hard for a sinner to recognize to recognize the world’s temptation as it is for a fish to discover impurities in the water.” (Peterson, 15) I would also say this can be true of knowledge. We can’t know what we don’t know. And yet we can often sense when something is wrong, when a thought or argument just doesn’t seem to work. Sometimes it takes someone from outside of a culture to be able to see clearly what is wrong. This is what is happening in this psalm. Faced with the lies and deceitful culture surrounding him, the psalmist cries out to God. God is the ultimate Other, the Entity which exists outside of us and our culture that can give true knowledge and wisdom. However, He is not an impersonal force, for it does no good to cry out to someone who will not answer. The pilgrim cries out to God for knowledge, cries out to find truth among the lies and deceit that blind so many.
This seems so counter to our concept of reason. Yet, in my studies of logic we often ascribe to traditions of thought. We appeal to knowledge based on a philosophical worldview, be that Judeo-Christian, existential, naturalism, agnosticism, or any number of other worldviews. We become immersed in a tradition of thought, an appeal to a lens through which we can process and interpret the world. However, if we have made the choice to follow God, then God defines our reality and existence. As a Christian, I believe He defines our reality and existence whether we choose Him or not, but if we choose Him, we must follow Him. Therefore, we cry to God for knowledge. We cry to God for guidance. We can seek wisdom from those around us, family, friends, co-workers, even other Christians, but each of those people are still human and still very likely to interpret matters through experience. And while experience isn’t necessarily a bad guide (to keep touching a hot burner is foolish once burned), experience may at times be subjective knowledge rather than absolute. This is why a relationship with God is essential because God can help us discern these things. If we are not in relationship with God, it is harder to discern and we start leaning harder and harder on man’s wisdom and reason.
The first step of the pilgrim is to see that something is wrong. This can be incredibly difficult to do. We can grow easily distracted. Sometimes we’ll see something on TV and that takes our mind off our strife. Maybe we just go out for coffee and that assuages the discontent. Perhaps we feel a new job or a new car or a new wife will make things better. Even these pursuits show we are not yet ready. The psalmist here is sick of where he is. He has an ache that penetrates to his soul. He will go anywhere, do anything to find a better way. If we do not have a direction, we cannot move forward. We will find that direction next time, in Psalm 121.
Peterson, Eugene. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. InterVarsity Press. 2000.