Saturday, July 24, 2010

St James the Great

In Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, the king leads his troops into a spectacularly successful battle against the French with the cry, ‘God for Harry, England and St George!’  As Aussies, we maybe don’t quite get it.  Our country isn’t quite old enough, our roots don’t go far enough back into the sources of Western Christian culture to really do saints with any great enthusiasm.  Perhaps the nearest we could come is to invoke the name of a football team, maybe St Kilda would work for us.  But the days were, back in the 12th and 13th centuries and the beginnings of the Crusades, when national saints were all the go, when the marauding armies of Western Europe were happy to invoke all the help they could get to hack down the Saracens whose countries they were invading. 

For Spain, it was St James, who with his brother John were nicknamed by Jesus, ‘Boanerges’, the ‘sons of thunder’, presumably because that was how they acted.  It was James and John, remember, who in our reading a couple of weeks ago volunteered to call down a lightening bolt from heaven to zap a hapless Samaritan village who didn’t roll out the red carpet.  These are ‘bull in a china shop’ kind of guys, impatient, enthusiastic, literal-minded, scary but loveable.  In today’s reading, their mum asks Jesus for a favour – let them be your no. 1 and 2 lieutenants when you embark on your programme of world domination.  James and John assure Jesus they’re up for the job and Jesus doesn’t doubt them – he knows their love and loyalty, he knows that they will drink the cup of martyrdom that lies ahead but he knows, as well, that they just don’t understand yet.  His programme isn’t quite what they think, God’s kingdom isn’t a prize for control-freaks and crusaders.

How St James gets to Spain is quite a story.  Central to the legend is that during his lifetime St James may have travelled on a preaching tour to the Iberian peninsular.  Then after the unfortunate episode in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, in which he gets his head chopped off by Herod Agrippa I, James’s body is gathered up – according to one version of the legend, by angels – who sail it in an unattended, rudderless boat all the way back to Spain, where his relics end up encased in a massive rock in the town of Compostela.  The tradition claims that a little while later, in 844 to be exact, St James miraculously appeared on a white horse during the battle of Clavijo and helped the Christian army to defeat the superior Muslim forces of the Emir of Córdoba.  Hence the traditional battle-cry of Spanish soldiers and soccer players, “Santiago y cierra España,” (“St James and strike for Spain”).  As a result of his post-mortem exploits, St James won the title, at least in Spain, of Santiago Matamoros – St James the Moor-slayer.

Which sounds in character, at least, if not quite how God’s kingdom is revealed according to the stories Jesus himself tells.  St James the Moor-slayer still doesn’t quite get it.

However there’s another tradition associated with the saint whose supposed relics are encased somewhere in the stone of the ancient church of Santiago de Compostela, the altogether different tradition of the Way of St James, the pilgrimage which became popular in the early Middle Ages and today attracts thousands of people every year.  This tradition, I think, might be a little more helpful.

I recently came across the diary of a modern-day pilgrim along the Camino, the network of paths across Europe that converge on the church at Compostela, a young man named Richard who at the beginning of his journey bemoaned the fact that the idea of pilgrimage seemed too religious.  Richard’s pace slowed somewhat over the course of several weeks, not apparently from exhaustion but because he found himself falling into step with unlikely companions, a man in a wheelchair, a couple of cheerful American nuns, a young Japanese couple, a devout Muslim man, an elderly woman who composed and sang Gregorian chant while she walked.  His pace also slowed because he found himself noticing some things about himself that he hadn’t noticed before – his need for solitude and silence, the refreshment of companionship and the joy of receiving and offering hospitality, the wonder of travelling towards a goal that he gradually came to realise was hidden not within the stone pillars of the church at Santiago de Compostela, but within himself. 

St James, of course was not just a hot-head.  There must have been more to him than that or Jesus wouldn’t have loved him so much or teased him with such a colourful nickname.  With his brother John and with Peter – another ‘act before you think’ sort of guy – James is one of the inner circle of disciples, the three Jesus takes a little further into his confidence.  It’s Peter, James and John who are present with Jesus when he raises the little girl from the sleep of death, who are with Jesus on the mountain top where he is transfigured with the light of heaven, who walk with Jesus a little farther into the dreadful garden of Gethsemene.  If James still doesn’t get it, that’s not because Jesus doesn’t understand and love James.  It’s the same three – James, with John and Peter – who according to Luke’s Gospel are the first who hear and respond to Jesus’ call to follow him, leaving behind their boats and nets and a miraculous but highly perishable catch of fish.  It’s the beginning of a life-long pilgrimage that may or may not take him to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela, but that might be the best and most enduring relic of St James.

Pilgrimage is about leaving behind the familiar in order to find what you already have.  I get leaflets and emails all the time about pilgrimages, 20 days in the Holy Land, retrace the steps of St Paul’s missionary journeys in Asia Minor, that sort of thing.  I’d love to do it one day when I’m rich and retired.  But it may or may not be pilgrimage.  It might just be pious tourism.  Pilgrimage, on the other hand, is a holy duty, and the business of every Christian.  You don’t necessarily have to leave home – housebound pilgrims, pilgrims without fat chequebooks aren’t disqualified, workaholic pilgrims can also come – but the business of discipleship is necessarily the way of a pilgrim.  St James shows us how, and it starts by noticing that we’re being called to leave something behind.

This is the first thing about being a pilgrim, which is to be in motion.  To be a pilgrim means to have left something behind and to be going somewhere.  A pilgrim is somebody who hears Jesus’ invitation to follow and understands that to mean joining Jesus on the way of insecurity, living towards something that we don’t quite see and never fully comprehend.  We can be pilgrims at home in Cannington, but to be a pilgrim means never being quite settled, always living in the moment without finding our security in what we have or where we are or what we do, never taking ourselves too seriously.  For modern pilgrims, that might mean resisting the latest purchase, recognising that where we live is also home to other living creatures, noticing and responding to the needs of others.  Pilgrimage is an attitude of holy homelessness that means we recognise our only true home is in the heart of God. 

The second thing about being a pilgrim is not to have an agenda.  The reality of modern life, of course, is that we have a ‘to do’ list and an appointment diary, we live by schedules.  To be a pilgrim is to balance the responsibilities of our lives against the need to be available, to be interruptible, to learn to turn aside for new experiences, to hear new voices.  On the Camino del Santiago, the Way of St James, pilgrims learn to walk not aimlessly but in openness to new experiences and new challenges.  Pilgrims learn that much of what makes us so busy is actually a fancy way of insulating ourselves from what really matters, of switching off from listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit.  Make time for reading, for conversation, for prayer and meditation.  Make time to be alone, to be with friends, cultivate the expectation that God wants to break into your schedule, and make room for it.  Not having an agenda means cultivating a heightened awareness.  Pilgrims on the Camino del Santiago learn to listen and see and touch and smell the world around them, learn again the delight of being immersed in the natural environment.  They also learn a heightened awareness and perceptiveness of other people, the tell-tale signs that another is in need, the signs that one needs to talk, another needs to walk in silence.  Pilgrims learn again the delight of human companionship, and the delight of ruminating and noticing what’s going on in their own bodies, their own hearts and minds.  Pilgrims learn again the skill of listening for the murmur of the Holy Spirit in their hearts.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly of all, pilgrims learn the way of hospitality.  To be a pilgrim is to learn to offer and to receive the service of others.  On the Camino del Santiago Richard learned to exchange stories and to give encouragement, to share food and blister cream and fresh socks, to accept the gifts of bad poetry and out of tune singing, to walk slowly enough to stay in step with others.  You can’t be a pilgrim by yourself, and the gift of pilgrimage is to learn the countless ways that we are dependent on one another, that our spirituality as well as the practical circumstances of our lives depend on hospitality offered and accepted.  To be a pilgrim is to be intentionally attuned to the invitation for companionship, the opportunities to sustain and encourage others, the offers of assistance when we ourselves are finding the going tough.

To be a pilgrim, of course, is ultimately to discover that the goal is in the journey, and that the gift is to discover what you didn’t know you always had.  We sometimes need to travel a long way to discover who we really are, but the only real tragedy is never to begin.