The feast of St. James reminds us of the phenomenon of pilgrimage. Annually, thousands of pilgrims make the Camino across northern Spain to the cathedral of St. James in Santiago. Likewise, thousands of Muslims annually make the pilgrimage to the Kaba in Mecca. Pious Muslims experience their pilgrimage as a resurrection. For hundreds of years, Celtic monks journeyed to find the place of their resurrection. Catherine Doherty in Proustinia describes Russian holy people who do pilgrimage “for those who have no holy restlessness and who do not want to arise and seek God.” (20)
Sacred journeys are transformative; they quench our holy restlessness—our hearts are restless until they rest in God (Augustine of Hippo). Merton considered pilgrimage to be an inner journey in search of finding his true self. Muhammad believed, contrary to Western stereotypes, that the greater jihad was the internal struggle of iman–internalizing the core of Islamic belief and practice into our daily lives. Merton relied a great deal on the work of Muslim Reza Aresteh on Final Integration to shape his mystical belief in the emergence of the true self.
As in Western theology, Allah is transcendent and imminent. Tanzih refers to God as unknowable; tashin speaks of God as manifest in creatures and creation. Speaking of Allah as manifest, Merton taught the novices in his charge about the 99 names of Allah. More importantly he told them that each person has a name by which Allah is known and by which Allah knows the person. As I was listening to Merton’s talk, my consciousness was jolted as the word “Beloved” exploded within me. It was a powerful God-experience. I am the Beloved of God and God is my Beloved who leaps over hills and bounds over crags to enter into union with me. Knowing I am “Beloved” puts me on a new leg on my pilgrimage. Knowing the Beloved and being known as the Beloved, in the words of Paul in Ephesians, is now “rooting and grounding” me in what Rohr describes as deep abundance. I know the truth (1 Jn 2:21)–I am Beloved.
On our journey, our greatest struggle is indeed with what Paul called “the flesh,” not the body as such but rather the false self seeking meaning and fulfillment apart from God and godly service to humankind. We have to let go. We have to stop seeking false truth. We have to stop putting our ladder of success against the wrong wall and climbing nowhere.
I think the religious metamyth that cuts across all credal boundaries is that we are more than we are. We can become more than what we are. Pilgrimage is then the journey to become what we are in the imago Dei–the image of God in which we came into being. Our experiences along the way, whether it be the hajj, the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage in search of resurrection, or the proustinia’s trek, help us to become what we are. Eastern Christian theology says that God became human so that we might become divine. Pilgrimage is a transformative process.
We journey on with hope in our hearts knowing that the trials along the way are refining us like fire refines silver. In one of his talks on Sufism, Merton told the novice monks, “Get rid of your despair. Stir up your hope.” Why? God wants you to know God so you can enter into deeper union with God. We journey in the power of the Spirit of the Living God who is calling us to be what we are. We “recite” God’s name for us and our name for God with each step we take.