Pilgrimage, journeys, New Monasticism and the desert spirituality

One of the things the movement I’m part of, World Horizons is well known for, is taking short term teams on journeys to out of the way places. One thing people often ask about these trips is ‘what do you do?’ The answer is often distressingly simple, ‘we pray.’

There can be a temptation to rationalise these trips, to take project based journeys for instance, where participants will get the feeling of having ‘done something useful.’ It is good to be able to give in that way. Prayer trips can be hard to engage people with, many of us find it hard to imagine praying for weeks at a time – this is actually because there is a widespread misunderstanding about what it means to pray – more on that another time.

But the importance of taking ‘project teams’ notwithstanding, I want to say today that there’s something very important about the kind of prayer journeys with which we are more associated.

Talking to Kel last night about her recent trip to North Africa, she said she finds going on this kind of journey, to be a kind of fast. A denial of self as an act of spiritual obedience.

Extrapolating from that, I would say that I find in the rationale for such trips the same issues that were raised when Jesus spent 40 days in the desert (Luke chapter 4).

Jesus was tempted in three specific ways: To turn stones into food – which is about provision. To acquire kingdoms, which is about violation of relationships. And to put God to the test, which is about abusing spiritual power. These three grand themes are sometimes shortened to name the three things which conspire to trip up Christians: money, sex and power.

A traditional monastic approach to dealing with these areas of weakness in one’s life, is to commit to vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. These vows are a recognition of our weakness, and a willingness to submit to discipline to avoid entanglement. New Monastics tend to change these slightly to accommodate things like marriage – so we can commit to simplicity, purity, and accountability for instance. More on that another time too.

In taking a short term prayer trip, which has no practical purpose, I find the same kind of motivation. There’s the rejection of material worries – ‘yes this trip will cost me, it is expensive for me materially, but I am going none the less’. There’s a voluntary surrendering of our relationships – ‘I will leave behind me my family and loved ones, those most precious to me.’ And there’s a refusal to take power – ‘I am not going ‘in strength’ to offer something of myself, instead I’m going in weakness, in a denial of personal power, to rely on God’s power alone.’

The process of fleeing from power is perhaps the most notable characterisation of monasticism, surrendering all the trappings of power, literally donning the habit of humility. Although as ‘New Monastics’ we don’t wear literally wear habits, and many people don’t take vows, we can still participate in the spirit of monastic dedication by choosing to surrender power, and instead submit ourselves to a power much greater than ourselves.

So while there is lots of goodness about taking trips with practical purposes, and I actively encourage it, I would urge you to consider taking a trip of this other sort. For the desert experience, where we are confronted with our weakness, and learn to lean on God throughout, is vital of the deepening and progression of our spiritual life. It is what some would describe as the vital ‘inner journey’ stuff, which prepares and enables us to deal with the other things that life throws at us.

This I believe is behind the idea of pilgrimage, and indeed I’ve been lobbying to have our journeys renamed to pilgrimages – because in pilgrimage we have the concept of a journey undertaken for a spiritual purpose, which is what we are doing.

I commit to you then – the virtue of taking trips where we voluntarily lack power, which cost us financially, and which mean we leave behind us for a time those whom we love. In accepting the value of these kind of journeys, we follow in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth and his pilgrim people, who found God in the desert of life, and in doing so, went deeper into the heart of God.

Visit www.worldhorizons.co.uk for more information on short term prayer trips for 2009.

Posted via email because wordpress is playing up 🙂


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