Many moons ago, the good folks at Thomas Nelson sent me a copy of The Sacred Journey to review. This is the final installment in The Ancient Practices Series. I have read and reviewed most of the series already and was eager to receive this volume to engage the ancient practice of pilgrimage.
There are two kinds of books that are quite easy to review: books you love and books you hate. Both of these categories create an emotional response that leads to an easily written review. However, I find books that I neither love nor hate to be harder to review. The Sacred Journey falls into this category for me.
This text is Foster’s attempt to “articulate a theology of pilgrimage.” Christianity is about journeying with God, following Jesus on the way, and the practice of pilgrimage captures this essential component of the faith. For Foster, pilgrimage is not a metaphor, but setting out on an actual journey—packing the barest essentials, leaving behind normal commitments, heading out on an unplanned journey, wandering into the unknown, and discovering more of God in the process. The pilgrimage journeys recounted in this book remind me of a mix between an Australian Walkabout (recounted in the old Crocodile Dundee movies) and the journeys of Frodo and Sam in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. “It’s a dangerous business,” says Bilbo,”going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
Of course there are lessons to be learned on pilgrimage. Foster writes that “Pilgrimage, done properly, is one of the best-known antidotes to gnosticism.” Gnosticism mistakenly separates the spiritual from the physical: spiritual good; physical bad. Christianity, the religion of the good creation, incarnation, and bodily resurrection calls for a spiritual-physical wholeness. The spiritual is embodied in the physical. The extreme physicality of the pilgrimage journey offers a constant reminder of the importance of the physical that strips away the lure of gnosticism. This is good stuff that Foster offers.
Yet two concerns lingered for me throughout this book. The first is the extreme nature of the pilgrimage journeys that Foster recounts. Must one leave behind commitments to jobs and relationships in order to practice pilgrimage? Is there a way to enter the lessons of pilgrimage while remaining at home? Can we approach our daily routine through the eyes of one on a life-long pilgrimage with Christ? Unfortunately Foster does not adequately address the pilgrimage life as lived among daily commitments.
A second concern: Foster frequently explains pilgrimage as understood among other religious traditions. This in itself is not a concern; Christian practice can be enriched through examining practices of other traditions. My concern is that, at times, I lost the connection between an Islamic or Buddhist understanding of pilgrimage and a thoroughly Christian understanding of pilgrimage.
The invitation to embark on a journey is an essential component of the story of Israel in the Old Testament and the life of Jesus in the Gospels. Followers of Christ would be wise to considered what it means to journey with God, even in the daily routines of life.