“Pilgrimage” always sounds like an exhausting affair.
We imagine dour monks in brown robes, praying solemnly on their way to very holy places, or maybe Reese Witherspoon in Wild, screaming and throwing her boots off the ledge while bandaging her blisters. Long journeys are for the relentless and unsmiling, wearing heavy packs and getting up while it’s still dark to cook tasteless food that is meant for sustenance but not pleasure.
“Sustenance, not pleasure” sums up how we view Ordinary Time, that long stretch between Pentecost and Advent.¹ These liturgical months have no dramatic depths of Lenten repentance or ecstatic mountaintops of Christmas festivities. Ordinary Time is, well, ordinary. The liturgical color is green to represent “growth,” and we assume that growth in the Christian life is both mildly unpleasant and extremely monotonous.
“He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two.” Mark 6:7, the Gospel reading for July 8
In Ordinary Time, the Gospel texts follow Jesus’ daily ministry – feeding the hungry, healing the sick, telling stories, and preaching on hills. The lectionary for July 8th puts the story of Jesus sending out the disciples next to Psalm 123, a Psalm of Ascent.
Unto You I lift up my eyes,
O You who dwell in the heavens.
Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters,
As the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the Lord our God,
Until He has mercy on us.
Psalms 120-134 are the Ascent Psalms, or Pilgrim Psalms. They’re traditionally believed to have been sung by the ancient Hebrews on their way up to Jerusalem for festivals. The Pilgrim Psalms are songs for people on the road. They are songs for Ordinary Time, for long hot days in the sun when we don’t see the fruit of our labor and time isn’t punctuated by fasts and feasts.
Ordinary Time is the longest season in the Church calendar, a reminder that most of our spiritual life isn’t particularly flashy, but a series of daily choices to be faithful to what is in front of us. I think this might be the most difficult part of the Christian life. Prioritizing faithfulness over success can feel wearying. It can feel too small. It can feel like it is just not enough to do one thing well. Those endless spiritual Mondays can take a toll on us. It is easy to lose hope during Ordinary Time when we don’t see fast results.
This week, we are reminded that the only way we’ll survive this pilgrimage is if we don’t go out alone.
As Jesus sends out His disciples in Mark 6, He tells them to go in pairs. In all of the Psalms of Ascent, including Psalm 123, the psalmist moves from the singular “I” to the plural “we.” These are songs to sing in harmony.
Despite being so family-centric, the Church has not always given us the tools that we need to foster spiritual community. Even while the Church lauds the “community” of marriages and family, our family units are often still isolated – small islands that can be just as lonely as singleness. We show up to church on Sundays and grab a drink on Fridays. In between, we slog through our spiritual disciplines alone, trying to get through this serious journey of the Christian walk by getting more in our own heads, thinking harder, and prioritizing our independence.
The Gospel reading and the Psalm, though, warn us that without each other, we will get weary on the road. Without each other, we will lose hope.
We need spiritual community for this “long obedience in the same direction,” because it is much easier to hope for each other than to hope for ourselves.² Sometimes we can’t believe that our own story has a happy ending, that there is Jerusalem at the end of this pilgrimage, that our legs can carry us one more day, that our small work matters. But even on days when we doubt for ourselves, we can believe for each other. “I’ll hope for you if you’ll hope for me,” the old saying goes. “Two are better than one,” Ecclesiastes reminds us, because “if either of them falls down, one can help the other up” (4:9-10). We can’t always get up on our own. We can’t always hope for ourselves. When we center our spiritual life in community, though, we hold hope for our neighbor, even as our neighbor holds hope for us.
“I’ll hope for you if you’ll hope for me.”
When we go on pilgrimage with other people, we can sing in harmony. We can remind each other that there is water just around the next bend; that “we will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps 27:13); and maybe most importantly, we can make each other laugh. Because maybe Jesus sent us out in pairs because it’s hard to belly-laugh alone. Laughter makes the trip feel so much shorter and our packs feel so much lighter. Laughter can save us from our own self-satisfaction and poke gentle holes in our wearying pride. Learning to laugh when the rain starts, and dance while we get soaked, can be the difference between giving up in despair and having the strength carry on.
Pilgrimage is an important business, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be solemn. The spiritual life is a marathon, not a sprint. If we’re going to make it, we need each other.
Perhaps this all makes your soul ache, because maybe you’ve been showing up on Sundays, showing up to church socials, showing up to volunteer, and you still feel alone and unseen. The good news about community, though, is that you don’t need as many people as you think. Find someone to meet for coffee with regularly. Ask a few friends if they’d like to pray together once a month. Pull a good book off the shelf and see if a couple people want to read and talk about it. It can feel scary to make the first move, but investing in small acts of community yields surprisingly delightful results for this long obedience in the same direction.
I’ll hope for you if you’ll hope for me, friend.
- Two notes: Firstly, Ordinary Time is mostly between Pentecost and Advent, but there is also a brief blip of Ordinary Time between Epiphany and Lent. Secondly, our Episcopal brethren more commonly call this time “Sundays after Pentecost” and “Sundays after Epiphany.”
- Eugene Peterson’s excellent book on the Psalms of Ascent, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, takes its name from a Nietzsche quote – “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is… that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living” (Beyond Good and Evil).