Welcome back to our series: A Pilgrimage to Iona! In Part 4 of our series, we will continue the dramatic story of our journey, but each Wednesday at ReadTheSpirit we pause for a Conversation With fascinating people involved in spiritual media.
TODAY in our Video (see the link below), you’ll hear from the Rev. Malcolm King, the current Warden of Iona Abbey about his vision for the future of Iona. And, in today’s Conversation, you’ll read an interview about the purpose of “pilgrimage” with our group’s leader, author Beth Miller.
But, who is Beth Miller, when she isn’t leading groups to far-flung destinations?
For many years, Beth has written religiously themed plays and has developed a nationally known theatrical ensemble of high-school-age actors, called Strangely Warmed Players, through the First United Methodist Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Over the years, some of her plays (and other materials she has written for youth) have been published in book form.
But, THIS WEEK, we remain rooted in the rocky, green and boggy turf of Scotland.
Ready for today’s leg of our journey?
Here we go again with a Conversation amidst our Pilgrimage …
”A Conversation With Our Pilgrimage Leader, Author Beth Miller”
“I always return home changed. It’s pilgrimage that allows me to know truly who I am and who I am meant to be.”
The Rev. Lawrence Bartel, Niccolls Memorial Presbyterian Church, Old Forge, NY.
DAVID: I’ve been writing the main story this week about the pilgrimage that you’re leading us on, here at Iona, Scotland. And I’ve been trying to share with our readers –- in my story and in our daily videos we’re preparing –- the voices of other pilgrims.
But I want to know: What does this pilgrimage feel like to you as our leader, as someone who’s been to Iona, traveling on your own, twice before us?
BETH: It feels like coming home.
DAVID: Like home! Really?
BETH: Yes, I’m like a lot of Americans. We don’t seem to have hometowns anymore. Not real homes like people used to think of a hometown.
My husband Gil is a minister and, when you’re part of a minister’s family you’re part of the community where you’re assigned to serve, but it’s not really your home. You could be moved somewhere else.
But, coming here to Iona several times now feels like coming home to me.
DAVID: What do you mean when you say that? What feels like home about this? Something in the buildings here? The island itself? The ferry ride over?
BETH: I felt it when I was looking over here across the water from the other side there on the shore of Mull. When I looked over at the abbey walls, I just felt tears coming. Yes, it felt like coming home.
Before, when I came to Iona, I wasn’t traveling here with a group like this. This time, leading this group has added to my sense of this being home. I thought about the ways we are all sharing this experience as friends.
This is something that’s very precious to me and I’m sharing it with people who mean a lot to me. That feeling of home – that’s all part of it.
DAVID: I’ve reported on religion for more than 20 years and this isn’t something I hear a lot about in Protestant churches. I associate the idea of pilgrimage more with Catholic groups, Muslim groups –- not Protestants as much.
BETH: Well, our tradition is more practically minded. I’ve heard from critics over the years about pilgrimage. They’ll say: “How can you afford to do that?”
The truth is that it can be reasonable to do this kind of travel. And, if I had spent the same amount of money to go to a church conference in California –- and that is about what this would cost: the same as going to a church conference somewhere in a another state — people wouldn’t think twice about it.
DAVID: It’s strange that this idea is foreign to so much of Protestantism. Why do you think that is?
I’m curious about that because Protestants supposedly are the people who celebrate salvation by grace and not so much by the works of our hands. So, you might think that Protestants would have a more spiritual view of travel these days. Yet most Protestants I’ve met don’t want to travel without working on a hands-on mission project these days. It’s a puzzling situation.
It’s like the spiritual side of Protestant life takes a back seat for a lot of people. I know I’m not alone in making this observation. Tony Campolo just talked about this same issue a few weeks ago on ReadTheSpirit.
BETH: It is a problem for us. We’re so practically minded. These days, Protestants assume that we have to go somewhere and build something or paint something to make the religious travel that we’re doing worthwhile. We’re so production oriented.
Travel to do work projects is a wonderful idea. I’m not criticizing that. It’s important. I’ve organized a lot of trips to do exactly those things. That’s very important, but there’s this wonderful tradition of pilgrimage among Catholics and Hindus and Muslims and other faiths and we need to learn to be a part of this, too.
I don’t want to downplay the importance of work projects. I’ve organized many of them, but it can get to the point that we equate our religious lives with work. People actually will complain to me about our religious groups traveling if there doesn’t seem to be enough work to do.
I’ve had people tell me: I don’t think I’ll go because I don’t think my work will be valuable enough. Or, after a trip, someone will say: This person worked all week and all they did was paint a wall? Was that worth it?
DAVID: Well, if it’s a work project, maybe they’re trying to evaluate the overall value, I guess.
BETH: But, when we travel, even if it’s not purely a pilgrimage like this, we always should think of ourselves as pilgrims going to connect with God and with people in other parts of the world.
The confusion in a lot of people’s minds, I think, is that especially as American Protestants we start to think that travel with our church groups should be about going over to fix things for other people because we have all the answers.
DAVID: You’re beginning to sound like Rob Bell at Mars Hill Bible Church.
His church, Mars Hill, does some tremendous mission work projects. They help a lot of people. But they also understand travel as pilgrimage. When Rob talks about this, he’ll say: We don’t travel to take God to the godless, we travel to discover the part of God that is already there, waiting for us.
BETH: Right. That’s pure pilgrimage.
For 1,400 years people have been coming to Iona for that reason — to find inspiration here. And the connection with people turns out, in many cases, to be more important than the specific work we do.
One of the most important things that we need to do in our lives is discover the sacred part of our life and the sacred part in the lives of others. We talk a lot about this idea, but I’m not sure if we really believe it. We say that we have a sacred part within us, that God dwells within us somewhere. But do we really believe that?
What I’m saying is that, when what’s sacred within us touches what’s sacred within another person –- that’s one of the holiest things that can happen in the world. That’s so important.
I do cherish that part of this experience at Iona. You have to look through someone else’s eyes sometimes to discover the sacred within your own life, within your own community.
DAVID: I’m thinking more about this with each passing day of our pilgrimage. The pilgrimage experience depends on talking with other people.
BETH: Right! For your interview about this, you really should include other people, you know, even in talking with me. We should talk to someone else. You really need to meet Lawrence here. He’s a pastor from the Adirondack Mountains.
(She turns in Iona Abbey, where we are seated as we talk, to a young pastor, the Rev. Lawrence Bartel, pastor of the Niccolls Memorial Presbyterian Church in Old Forge, New York.)
LAWRENCE: I’m here on pilgrimage, too, and today our group will do the challenging walking part of the pilgrimage across the island.
DAVID: Oh, so your group is off doing that a day or so ahead of our group. Off into the bogs and over the cliffs, hmm? This may be the last we’ll see of you.
LAWRENCE: (Laughs!) You mean I may sink into a bog or fall off a mountain?
DAVID: No, I didn’t mean that. I meant –-
BETH: You’ll sink into the peat bogs and never be heard from again. We’ll have to start remembering you just as “Old Pete.”
LAWRENCE: Oh, I hope not.
BETH: Maybe just up to your knees?
LAWRENCE: Oh my. (Laughing.)
DAVID: OK, sorry to scare you. But, please, do tell us what brought you here. What’s this pilgrimage for you?
LAWRENCE: It’s part of my deep searching for the presence of God. To use the Paul Tillich phrase, this is about looking for the ground of our being. Travel has been a very important part of that for me. Travel in the United States. Travel to India, Scotland, France, Australia, South Africa.
DAVID: Why is that important?
LAWRENCE: It’s vitally important to me, not always in each moment of my travels, but in reflection on the travels. Going to other countries and seeing how other people live with their faith helps me to understand the world in which we live -– and it helps me to identify my own beliefs and traditions on an even deeper level.
I grew up in a Mennonite family and faith was just part of the fabric in our home. So, it’s part of who I am but in order to claim that part of my life, I had to travel and learn more about the world.
DAVID: You say this comes through seeing the lives of other people? How else does travel work on you?
LAWRENCE: It works on me because it takes me out of my routines. It takes me away from all of those things that normally wrap me up completely throughout the day. As a pastor, there’s plenty to wrap me up. There’s so much going on that I can lose the perspective on what is most important in my life and how God is speaking in my life.
It’s in travel that I rediscover my own sense of call. It’s in traveling and hearing other people’s experiences of faith that I rediscover the depth of my own faith.
I was traveling in India 10 years ago. It was supposed to be a short trip. I was doing some research there and it was supposed to have been just two weeks. I didn’t expect to find as much as I did.
I just happened upon a church there that was an Orthodox church. I talked with the priest there and managed to get through the language barrier enough to hear his story that the church was started by Thomas, you know? Doubting Thomas from the gospels who later traveled to India and started churches.
DAVID: Yes, that’s an important and ancient branch of the Christian church in India.
LAWRENCE: I discovered that and I thought: Here is such a different branch of my own church that I’m just now discovering is here in this part of the world. And I sat down with them at dinner and we ate our food together with our hands from banana leaves in the custom of their culture.
And later I traveled to Hindu temples and spoke with people there, asking them what’s most important about their faith.
But the conversation I recall most was while I was traveling in a desert area between India and Pakistan. And there were some Muslim camel drivers there. They had brought a young son along.
I was probably the youngest person on this trip and so he probably felt drawn toward me, since he was young himself. And, he asked me if I am a Christian. And that was surprising to hear that question, because you’re not usually asked that question in the United States, unless it’s someone who’s just about to try to convert you to their church. But he very clearly said that he is Muslim and he wasn’t trying to convert me. He was just curious.
I said I am Christian.
We fell into a conversation that wasn’t one of trying to persuade each other about the supremacy of either faith. We were just talking about who we are –- each of us –- as people of faith.
Finally, I asked him: “What’s the one thing you’d like to do in your life?”
And he told me: “I’d like to go on pilgrimage to Mecca. But I can’t afford it.”
And I know that the Quran says that, if you cannot afford to make the pilgrimage, this won’t be held against you. But this young man did consider it the dream of his life.
It dawned one me, as we talked, that I was carrying enough money with me -– just on this one trip –- for him to be able to afford to fulfill this life’s dream and go on Hajj to Mecca. This is just the little bit of my money I was using for one month, not my whole lifetime’s savings. That was humbling to realize. We have so many resources as Americans. We are called to do much.
How am I using what I have? What am I doing with my life?
That’s the kind of thing that a pilgrimage does. That’s how it works on us. We begin to see our lives in new ways. We begin to see who we are and what we have and what our calling really is in new ways.
DAVID: We might set out hoping to change the world, but we discover that the first thing we need to change is our perspective on our own lives.
LAWRENCE: Yes. As I’ve traveled and sorted through all of my experiences, I always return home changed. It’s pilgrimage that allows me to know truly who I am and who I am meant to be.
Chapter 4, “Dangerously We Rise; We Fall; We …”