Introduction – One Step at a Time

WEDNESDAY, JULY 12, 2006. DAY 19. LEDIGOS, SPAIN. I find myself staring a lot . . . at dilapidated buildings . . . at crucifixes . . . at sunsets. I’m trying to hear better the questions my soul is asking . . . and to listen for some answers.

Spiritual Pilgrimage is a lifelong journey of asking questions and seeking answers, of learning how to see more clearly and to listen more carefully, of changing and being changed, and, ultimately, of pursuing God and learning how to better walk with God each step along the way. No matter where we start in our faith and relationship with God, the journey for Christians is marked by seeking to know, love, and serve God better; to follow Jesus Christ more fully; and to be filled and led by the Holy Spirit as a way of life.

However, spiritual pilgrims also know what it is like to struggle, to fail, to get off track, to be discouraged, to doubt, and to be frustrated and disappointed with God. True spiritual pilgrims are just like every other fallible human being, except they believe in God and value their relationship with God highly enough to keep pursuing God. They want to grow spiritually, and when they lose their way, they grow dissatisfied with their life and look to God for guidance and help to get back on track.

This book, then, is not for those who never doubt or who never drift from God. It is written precisely for those people who care deeply about their relationship with God and yet struggle with many different barriers to growth and tend to get stymied in their spiritual journey more easily or more often than they want. It is for those who value the questions of their soul, heart, and mind and who are willing to listen for deep answers—not simplistic, dogmatic answers but ones that resonate with real life and truly lead to loving God and others in practice as well as in theory. It is for those who highly value their faith who want to truly know God and to see the Holy Spirit work within them, in their relationships, and in every other aspect of their lives.

So what is making you care more about your relationship with God at this point in your life? What question, longing, need, desire, conviction, or insight is stirring within you? What is God showing you that you simply cannot ignore any longer?

Why Pilgrimage?

Every year millions of people go on pilgrimage, and the numbers are growing. Many people in the United States seem quite unaware of this phenomenon, but worldwide, annually, millions of people flock to ancient and modern holy sites throughout the world—Christians to Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela, among hundreds of other places; Muslims to Mecca; Hindus to Benares and Mount Kailas; and Buddhists to Kandy. Not everyone walks to get there, but whether they walk, bike, drive, train, or fly, significant numbers of people travel to places they deem to hold special spiritual significance. Some seek hardship as part of the journey; others go as tourists.

The idea of walking hundreds of miles to some medieval religious site might seem bizarre or misguided to many North Americans. What is the point? And if there is a point, do the walkers have their heads screwed on properly? Yet, over the past eleven hundred years, millions of Christians have walked to Santiago de Compostela, while millions of others visit other holy places throughout the world every year. Why do they do it?

Anthropologists have been seriously examining the phenomenon of pilgrimage for the past thirty years or so, ever since the late Victor Turner, former professor at the University of Chicago, put forth his groundbreaking assessment of pilgrimage as “exteriorized mysticism.”1 He found that pilgrims sought to enact rituals that symbolized the movement of their hearts, a transition from one stage or status to another within their community. He described pilgrimage as a liminal—or more properly, liminoid (liminal-like, but subtly different from liminal)—experience in which pilgrims cross a threshold (limina in Latin) as they move from one way of being in the world to another. Pilgrims typically leave behind all structures and identity en route to new structures and identities—or at least new ways of being and functioning within one’s community. The pilgrimage itself marks the temporary time and mode of existence between the old and the new.

More recently, anthropologists have found that the bulk of pilgrims are not necessarily concerned with transition in their lives as much as with seeking a particular type of community experience and want “to establish direct contact with [their] deity.”2 On one hand, a deep social significance is attached to pilgrimage, especially in the sense of participating in communitas—spontaneous, meaningful, egalitarian bonding with others on a common journey. On the other hand, people also have deeply personal, individual reasons for walking, especially spiritual ones, which may or may not involve transition in one’s life.

Christian pilgrims have been known to embark upon pilgrimage for many reasons: to fulfill a vow made to God, as penance (punishment for sins committed), to offer thanksgiving, to ask for help or beg for a favor, to seek healing, and to “go to a place where God might just be a bit closer.”3 Catholic pilgrims have also sometimes been motivated to go on pilgrimage in order to receive indulgences, which were granted by the church in place of other penance that believers might be required to do as a consequence of their sin. Eventually, in medieval Catholic tradition, the practice of granting indulgences evolved into declaring complete forgiveness of sins to the pilgrim.

Today those who journey to Santiago de Compostela on pilgrimage can still get a “Compostela,” a certificate assuring them of forgiveness for all their sins, providing they have walked at least one hundred kilometers (or sixty miles), attended mass at Santiago de Compostela (the church), and confessed their sins to a priest. While forgiveness of sins and escaping the obligation of penance is still part of the meaning of pilgrimage for many Catholic pilgrims, Protestants and those from other religious and nonreligious perspectives generally walk for different reasons, seeking something they sense they need to see, feel, know, or otherwise experience to go forward.

But frankly, many people need to go on pilgrimage—to make significant shifts in their relationship to God, themselves, and others or to initiate or mark a transition in their life—but simply can’t afford the time or handle the physical demands or costs of an extended trip. Many others value a deeper spiritual life and want to be intentional about continuing to grow and change in keeping with how they sense God is leading them in their life, but they lack adequate resources and guides to help them. To address these needs, I have written this book as a guide for both sets of people—those of you who are making shifts in your life but probably can’t get away to go on pilgrimage and for you who are devoted to living your whole life in pursuit of a deeper relationship with God.

Spiritual Vitality and Transformation

I was almost halfway into my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela before I came to grips with three extremely important spiritual realities. First, the walk was primarily about connecting to God in a profound, extraordinary way for an extended period of time. Second, I felt called to seek a deeper relationship with God—greater knowledge and experience of God—as a way of life. Third, the Holy Spirit was actively at work within me, using the pilgrimage as a tool of transformation in my life, continually calling me back to God and leading me to new realizations, new values, new resolve, and new ways of being and relating to others.

Then, after returning home, I began to sense that God had been preparing me to share with fellow pilgrims the questions, insights, and learning that grew out of pilgrimage. As I continued to reflect on spiritual growth, read the Bible, make changes in my life, listen to others, and engage in conversation with Christians, nonbelievers, Buddhists, Muslims, and other religious people, my desire to write this book kept growing.

While many resources available today present a generic form of spirituality to appeal to as many people as possible, I wanted to offer a nonsectarian Christian view of spirituality and a biblically based understanding of human purpose and fulfillment. I have written this book for you and others who are not satisfied with vague or eclectic spirituality, who want some more definitive answers but still want room to do your own thinking and to relate to God authentically, out of your own experience. This book is for seekers who are open to the Christian faith and for Christians who see themselves as spiritual pilgrims and want to learn how to pursue a deeper relationship with God as a way of life.

Many different individuals and schools of thought, even among Christians, define spirituality in many different ways. In this book, spirituality refers to the nature and quality of our relationship to God—both how we know and experience God and how we live out our faith in our relationships and in every other aspect of our life.

According to the teaching of the New Testament, spiritual vitality may be defined as a right relationship with God, grounded in God, the Father (Creator and Loving Parent), marked by faith in and devotion to Jesus Christ, and dependent on the active presence of the Holy Spirit working in and through the believer’s life. When Jesus Christ said that he came to bring a full life to believers (John 10:10), he meant that he was drawing them into a close, life-giving, loving relationship with God, which is alive, deepening, and fruitfully influencing every other aspect of their life. Spiritually vital Christians develop a faith-based orientation toward life, a godly frame of reference for interpreting their experiences, power for fulfilling their purpose, and meaning for human existence.

Key to spiritual vitality, then, is the Holy Spirit, without whom our faith would be simply intellectual, self-generated, or guided by other spirits. Without the Holy Spirit, our moral convictions may grow out of our personal experiences or a reasonable assessment of what makes for a good social contract, whereby humans can best live in relationship to one another. Our sense of purpose may be self-generated or given to us by parents, teachers, preachers, or other inspirational or influential figures in our life. We may even be extremely religious, in the sense of appreciating symbolism, ritual, the numinous, intuition, synchronicity, or other dimensions of organized religion or disorganized spirituality. However, only when we are dynamically engaged with the Holy Spirit does our spirituality truly become Christian, with God as the primary driving force in our relationship with God. That is, the key to truly loving God, ourselves, and others; the key to faith in Christ as one’s Savior and Lord; and the key to fulfilling our purpose in life is God’s presence and working in us through the Holy Spirit.

The late Robert Webber, author and seminary professor of ministry, defined spirituality simply as “a lived theology.”4 In contrast to alternatives that have emerged in the history of Christianity, he taught that spirituality is neither experientially based nor dependent on our ability to adhere to a certain set of rules. Rather, Christian spirituality is grounded in God and in what God has done on behalf of humanity through Christ and the Holy Spirit as it applies to each individual. The spiritual life means embracing this theology by faith and by living into the new life that comes through God’s grace.

In a complementary way, Sandra Schneiders, a pioneer in the academic study of spirituality, captures well the interplay of belief, relationship to God, and relationship to the rest of humanity when she defines spirituality as one’s “lived experience” of faith.5 Spirituality, then, is not just belief, on one extreme, or a collection of religious experiences, on the other. It is grounded in God’s activity on our behalf, our response of faith, and our experience of seeking to live out the faith in myriad ways, affecting every dimension of our life.

Spiritual transformation begins by gratefully embracing the God who embraces us in love and by following the Holy Spirit’s prompting and leading to order our minds and life in ways that fit with God’s will. Ultimately, the Holy Spirit enables us to fulfill God’s purposes for us—to know, love, and serve God and to love others as ourselves. Thus, we are given the opportunity to grow spiritually both because God loves us and because our spiritual growth serves God’s greater purposes of blessing the world through us.

Thus, in urging you to pursue God as your highest priority in life, I am not promoting the self-gratifying type of spirituality that is sometimes promoted. Spiritual vitality and transformation are not about us, but about God and what God wants to do in us and through us. While we will benefit immensely from knowing and experiencing God more powerfully in our lives, God calls us to live for God and to benefit as a byproduct.

How This Book Works:A Holistic Model for Spiritual Growth

This book is not an academic study of either theology or spirituality. It is neither a philosophical or theological treatise on God nor is it an abstract exposition of spiritual principles. Rather, it is a Christian-based, experience-oriented, reflection-filled, biblically informed, practical discussion of spiritual growth and Spirit-led living.I assume that we are more likely to keep growing as spiritual pilgrims if we learn to pay better attention to what is happening in our life, think more deeply about our experiences, let Scripture and others inform our thinking, make new choices, and set out to live differently. I also assume a holistic model for spiritual growth that links a closer relationship to God with growth in every aspect of our life, including our heart, mind, emotions, relationships, and behavior.

Each chapter begins with my own experience, usually an excerpt from my pilgrimage journal (edited to fill in gaps or make it more readable). Then, in the second part, I reflect on my experience and invite you to reflect thoughtfully on your own. As we see better what is real in our life and let questions surface and propel us on our spiritual pilgrimage, especially in light of what Scripture teaches, our growth will emerge more naturally and will likely be more sustainable.

The third part of each chapter leads you explicitly to Scripture for the journey. The Bible is the most sacred source of spiritual wisdom in the Christian tradition, providing a unique collection of stories and teaching on God’s activity in human history and guidance for spiritual pilgrims. In it, we find the testimony of authentic experience with God from fellow pilgrims, prophets, and spiritual teachers, whom the church in all its forms has identified as reliable and trustworthy witnesses without equal.

Fourth, each chapter offers practical suggestions for next steps that you as a pilgrim can take to keep growing spiritually. While much transformation happens mysteriously in our life due to unseen internal processes, we can also experience significant change as a result of becoming more intentional in our spiritual life—especially when the steps we take are in sync with how we perceive the Spirit to be prompting us. Some suggestions correspond to my own experience, others grow out of time-tested spiritual practices and disciplines honored and followed by many. All are in sync with Scripture, although only those that jibe with how the Spirit is leading you will be helpful.

Finally, each chapter concludes with several questions for further personal reflection and discussion with others. I strongly recommend that you keep a journal while reading and praying through this book. As we take time to write out our thoughts, feelings, intentions, and prayers, we gain greater clarity of mind and heart. When we communicate to God in writing, as composing a letter to a friend or a poem expressing our heart, we are likely to feel closer to God and to experience greater confidence and spiritual strength.

I also recommend that you form a small group or find an accountability partner to discuss spiritual issues that arise from each chapter. Talking with others who share our love for God and commitment to growth can help us gain clarity about the Spirit’s leading and provide support as we start taking new steps to follow. Listening to the stories and thoughts of others can inspire, challenge, and encourage us as the Spirit speaks to us through them. Intentionally walking with fellow pilgrims also helps us to see, hear, and feel that we are not alone on our journey.

Traditionally, to grow in our relationship with God, Christians have been taught to start with Scripture, then move to thinking (as informed by theological frameworks constructed by theologians), seek community among those who think similarly, and then, at the end of the process, interpret our experience in light of our beliefs or what the preacher tells us. Good reasons exist for these guidelines, but too often in practice, individual believers don’t do enough thinking for themselves or don’t value their unique experiences highly enough. The result can be cookie-cutter Christians, shallow followers, or a stunted relationship with God.

The emphasis on experience in this book in no way is intended to undermine the typical Protestant insistence on the primacy of Scripture as a guide for theological understanding or the Catholic respect for tradition. Rather, I am attempting to encourage you believers to think for yourself better and to integrate your experience and religious beliefs more fully, without neglecting Scripture or tradition.

For many years, especially in the 1950s and ’60s in the United States, when most people were members of churches, one might easily have found someone who could recite the creeds but not necessarily explain what they mean or how God related to their own personal life. Today, on the other hand, an increasing number of people are comfortable talking about spirituality as an experience with God but don’t know what the Bible teaches, how to put their experience in a theological framework, or how their thinking fits in (or doesn’t) with the millennia-old Judeo-Christian tradition. Generally, it seems difficult to find believers who, in a balanced and indepth way, truly value Scripture and thoughtful reflection and experience and intentionality and community.

If your spirituality is mostly intellectual, you may need help to get out of your head in order to know God more experientially and to better integrate your faith and every other aspect of your life. If your spiritual experience is mostly intuitive and feelings based, you may need help to ground your beliefs more in Scripture and thoughtful reflection. If you tend to go it alone with a personal spirituality, you may not yet experience the depth and richness that can come from greater communication with others. If you tend to believe or do whatever someone else tells you, without thinking for yourself, you may need help to own your faith for yourself and seek a spiritual life marked by personal experience with God and leading by the Holy Spirit. In short, a holistic model offers help for any of us who tend to be skewed in one dimension or another of human spiritual experience to fill out our spirituality and to deepen in a more balanced way.

The Pilgrim Trail

As a guide to help you and other motivated spiritual pilgrims draw closer to God and experience real transformation in your lives, this book offers a series of steps you can take on your own or with others. Specifically, the chapters will focus on the following:

  • Intentionally taking the next step in your spiritual journey (chapter 1)
  • Embracing the journey for what it is—full of challenges and opportunities (chapter 2)
  • Facing reality better in every aspect of your life (chapter 3)
  • Seeking inner change (chapter 4)
  • Pursuing God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (interlude)
  • Knowing God better (chapter 5)
  • Following Jesus wholeheartedly (chapter 6)
  • Living by the leading of the Holy Spirit (chapter 7)
  • Crossing bridges to your best self (chapter 8 )
  • Staying the course . . . one step at a time (postlude)

Spiritual pilgrims travel a difficult path at times. We have to learn to face reality—truth about ourselves and others that we may not want to see. We discover that to grow closer to God and others and to experience more fulfillment in life, often we need to change. Our growth often depends on making our relationship with God a higher priority and letting go of attachments to the things we value in order to create more space for God in our life and more freedom to follow the Spirit’s leading.

However, spiritual growth is not something to be achieved but something to be experienced. It is not a goal so much as it is the fruit of a process of transformation that slowly influences, reorients, and eventually propels us by the leading of the Holy Spirit in every dimension of our life. Though we often don’t like to face reality, change, make God a higher priority, or let go of our prized or deepseated attachments, once we can admit just this one basic truth—our reluctance to change in ways that align with our highest spiritual values—we have begun our journey. Then, as we take steps to act on the truth God reveals to us, our pilgrimage begins in earnest.