In the readings for the 28th Sunday in ordinary Time, the prophet Elisha and the prophet Jesus perform their roles as prophetsâ€”they comfort the afflicted and they afflict the comfortable. Naaman and the ten lepers will be comforted but they will have to do it the prophetsâ€™ way and not their way. Naaman, powerful military commander scourged with leprosy, is told to go wash in the Jordan. Why the Jordan? He protests that the rivers in his country are just as good if not better. Jesus will heal the ten lepers including one Samaritan. But he does not say, â€œYou are healed.â€ He tells them to go show themselves to the priests. They apparently are then healed but only oneâ€”the hated, despised Samaritanâ€”comes back to express gratitude for his healing.
There are so many themes we could deal with in these readings. Naaman is sent to the Elisha by a slave girlâ€”distinctions between classes do not matter. Lepers were social outcasts but Jesus goes beyond the rigid Pharisaical purity codes to reach out and heal them. The gratitude expressed by the Samaritan leper is a core biblical value.
Rather than go into any of these, I would like to talk about pilgrimage, going on a journey to a sacred place and/or for a sacred purpose. Elisha and Jesus tell the lepers to take a hike so to speak. They must go on a journey, a journey not of their own choosing. Christian life has often been characterized as a pilgrimage, a journey. It may involve a physical journey from one geographical location to another. It always involves an inner journey, a spiritual journey to a new place in the soul.
Namaan went to the River Jordan as directed and was healed. He had an inner conversion experience. He asked for dirt from Elishaâ€™s land so he could offer the appropriate sacrifice to the one true God who had healed his leprosy. The ten lepers went to the priests and at least one of them had a spiritual conversion experience as evidenced by his gratitude.
We had the opportunity to spend three weeks in Ireland this summer. We were once again in the land of the Mahons, McNamaras, and Sullivans. There is a rocky crag off the coast of County Kerry which rises 700 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.
I went on a pilgrimage to Skellig Michael. It was a physical journey aboard a small boat captained by Michael Oâ€™Sullivan. Once on the island, it was a hard, scary physical climb to the top.
But, it was also a very spiritual journey. Beginning in the 6th century and going into the 12th century, monks lived atop this crag. Their beehive huts and oratories are still there. They were Celtic monks who followed the austere practices of the Egyptian desert fathers and mothers. They differed from monks in the traditional European monastic order that were emerging. Their tonsure was having their hair shaved straight across the front of the head rather than the Roman crown tonsure. They also celebrated Easter on a different date.
The hike to the top was a spiritual trip as I drew aside from the crowd and tried to sense the presence of these holy monks. Eventually the Roman church in an effort to consolidate its power shut down this monastery and sent the monks to live with a traditional orderâ€”albeit the Augustinians in Ballyskellig on the mainland.
I relate this bit of history because in my ensuing study of Celtic monasticism, I have discovered some things which will help us on our journey, our pilgrimage today. The Celtic monks, who eventually restored Christianity to the rest of Europe, thought of the outer and inner journey as a pilgrimage to the place of oneâ€™s resurrection. With reckless abandon and complete trust in God, they would often set forth on the sea in their small animal skin boats. St. Columcille (Columba), banned from Ireland because he participated in a battle, settled on the island of Iona near Scotland. Iona became a great center of spirituality. They called the monastic pilgrimage to the place of oneâ€™s resurrection the White Martyrdom.
What does it mean to journey to the place of oneâ€™s resurrection? It means a journey of dying to self in order to come to new life. Naaman and the ten lepers had to die to themselves and the way they would have preferred to be healed. In the Christian journey, resurrection requires the cross and requires abandonment to God. Jesus warned Peter that he would be led where he did not necessarily want to go.
We are into our lifeâ€™s journey. Illness often brings us to a deeper level of our journey with God. We realize that we are not in charge of the universe, the world or even ourselves. What a relief! We donâ€™t have to be in charge. We are totally dependent on a loving God who is leading us to the place of our resurrection. Some of us are at our place of resurrection. For others it is a future destination.
Hopefully, we are part of a faith community which makes our journey much less lonely. It is always good to hear â€œWelcome homeâ€ or â€œGood to see you.â€ Second, we are embedded in nature which connects us to the Creator. Thomas Merton says that we are surrounded by paradise and donâ€™t know it. Celtic spirituality is very much embedded in nature. Even the powerful Roman church could not get the Celts to abandon their streams, wells and other holy places, and the â€œwee people.â€ We can always enjoy nature around us. God has enfolded us in so much beauty.
I have discovered one Celtic practice in Esther De Waalâ€™s book The Celtic Way of Prayer which helps me connect. Splashing water on our faces after a night of sleep is a common practice. One Celtic practice is to splash water on your face three times while saying:
The palmful of the God of Life,
The palmful of the Christ of Light,
The palmful of the Spirit of peace,
Triune of grace. (p. 77)
This practice connects us with water, with nature, and with the water of our baptism. Today, let us be grateful for the pilgrimage we are on. Let us, like the Samaritan leper, gives thanks God for bring us to the place of our resurrection. Let us live with God, with one another and with the creation around us in peaceful harmony as we die to self and rise to new life in Jesus. God is summoning us. In the words of a famous hymnâ€”The Summonsâ€”from Iona:
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?
Will you leave yourself behind, if I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare?
Will you answer prayer in you and you in me?
Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name?
Will you set the prisoner free and never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean and do such as the unseen,
And admit to what I mean, in you and you in me?
Will you love the “you” you hide if I but call you name?
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found, to reshape the world around,
Through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?
Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In your company I’ll go where your love and footsteps show
Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me.