Become like children

For our February issue on pilgrimage, Teri Ott reflects on the connection between the archetypical hero's journey and traveling as a pilgrim.

Photo submitted by Glen Bell.

When I first started bringing together this issue on the theme of pilgrimage, I came across this photo (on the cover) of Artie Stewart, age 3, on Glen Bell’s Facebook feed. Glen is an Outlook board member. Artie is his grandson. Artie’s look of wonder reminded me of the wonder of childhood: exploring outside, digging for worms, crushing dandelions into “mustard,” burning holes into wood with a magnifying glass. Clearly, Artie has followed his curiosity into this perfect 3-year-old-size cave. As kids, our inquisitiveness was rewarded with discovery after discovery.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to the disciples wanting to know who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In the ancient Near East, and even first-century Judaism, children were powerless, without status or rights, treated more as property than persons. With Jesus’ words, Matthew makes it clear that self-importance, independence and self-reliance will not lead the disciples to God’s kingdom. Instead, they must embrace humility and be open and ready to follow wherever God leads.

De-centering the self on our journey of pilgrimage is counter to our usual narrative. We’re used to focusing on a hero. The archetypal “Hero’s Journey,” popularized by Joseph Campbell, can be traced through classical epics such as Homer’s Odyssey as well as more contemporary flicks like “Star Wars.” This journey follows a set plot: hero answers a call to adventure, gains companions and a mentor, meets obstacles that test her physically, mentally and spiritually, learns lessons that help her overcome the obstacles and returns home transformed. It’s a popular storyline — we love rooting for a hero. But a pilgrim is not a hero.

The pilgrim is a follower rather than a protagonist. Led by the Divine who beckons the pilgrim away from home, or our known spaces, the pilgrim seeks meaning and spiritual truths about oneself, one’s relationship to the world and to God. Both hero and pilgrim meet obstacles, learn lessons and are transformed by the journey — but the hero is burdened by her power. She returns home briefly to hug her family. But she can’t stay because someone else needs saving.

The pilgrim, on the other hand, grows in humility and self-awareness. The pilgrim is not a savior. This liberating truth frees him for right relationships with God and others. This issue highlights pilgrimages in several forms.

Amantha Barbee writes about how her pilgrimage through ministry eventually led her home to Charlotte, North Carolina. Joe Clifford writes about his church’s transformative experience walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Kurt Esslinger and Hyeyoung Lee describe their call as mission co-workers, and Katrina Pekich-Bundy’s trip to Ireland revealed new and applicable learnings about conflict transformation.

Each pilgrim received different gifts and learned different lessons. All were called to follow, curious and open to the wonder of discovery.

“To the Christians,” William Blake wrote, before these lines:

“I give you the end of a golden string; Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate, Built in Jerusalem’s wall.”

Artie appears here as a reminder of what pilgrimage has to offer. God hands us golden strings at every stage and station in life. Our job is to follow, winding the string as we go, not pulling too hard or forcing our will or preconceived ideas on the path. The journey of pilgrimage requires radical openness and a surrendering of will. With this faithful posture, the discoveries we encounter along the golden string can lead us to the kingdom of heaven.