If you want to go on comfortably in the settled life you’ve built for yourself, do not read A Sacred Journey.
But if you are ready to be challenged to possibly radical Christian action with a 99% chance of changing you and your life forever, this is the book for you.
A Sacred Journey is, unsurprisingly, about pilgrimage. Not the comfortable car or airplane journeys to safe and known places that sometimes pass for pilgrimage, and certainly not any sort of metaphorical journeying to the kingdom of heaven, but the real, nitty-gritty, blistered, sunburned, hungry, rough-sleeping, stranger-encountering, faith-challenging, unencumbered and transformative tramping through the unknown that our distant ancestors regarded as an integral part of the Christian life.
Charles Foster, as you might guess, is all in favor of pilgrimage. In fact, he spends the first half or so of the book making the case that God loves wanderers. He sees all of human history, beginning with Cain and Abel, as a battle between the settlers and the wanderers, with God coming down unambiguously on the wanderers’ side. When Jesus said, “Follow Me,” according to Foster, He really meant, “Let’s go for a walk.” A long walk.
I got a little impatient with this section of the book, because Foster seemed to be saying that Christians should never settle down at all. And that is in direct contradiction to the traditional wisdom of the Orthodox Church. Stability—staying in one place—is one of the four monastic virtues, and is equally advised for lay people.
But as I got deeper into the book, the message seemed to change: not that we all need to be permanent nomads, but that we all need to go on pilgrimage at some point during our lives, to counteract the complacency, materialism, and illusion of self-sufficiency that a settled life can foster.
Real pilgrimage makes you see that all the stuff by which you define yourself is not really you, nor essential to your life. It forces you to rely on God for literally everything, and shows you that He can indeed be relied upon as He meets your every specific need. It opens your spirit to hear God’s voice. And it changes you, forever.
I titled this post “A Reluctant Pilgrim” because although I stand convicted that pilgrimage is highly beneficial, even essential to the Christian, I can’t really see myself doing it. Not the real on-foot-in-foreign-countries kind. Although I’ve always longed to travel, always been at least theoretically willing to open myself to encounter with the unknown, I’ve let myself get so settled that I can barely walk around the block without pain, and any disturbance to my normal routine makes me grumpy. As a diabetic, I’m not at all sure I could survive on a pilgrim diet, and I’m dead certain I could never sleep on a pilgrim (un)bed. I also can’t afford to take time off or to travel to a place where a Foster-approved pilgrimage might reasonably begin.
So I will have to ponder long and hard about my own response to the challenge to take a long walk with Jesus. I pray that if He shows me a way, I’ll have the courage, strength, and faith to pursue it.