I would imagine sometime in the next four months I will be out in the community sharing my Rome to Rumi experience. It’s hard to tell for sure what form that will take—probably a Power Point slide show, maybe a multimedia presentation, likely a few talks and some Q and A. It’s even harder to guess what lessons might emerge from the sharing of my pilgrimage. I can tell you, however, that one message is starting to surface clearly already.
I think the best door to enter this will be to introduce you to the lyrics of a hymn that is included in our Presbyterian hymnals. It was written by Javoslav J. Vajda in 1983 (very modern by church standards!) and is titled, “God of the Sparrow”. The first verse reads:
God of the sparrow
God of the whale
God of the swirling stars
How does the creature say Awe
How does the creature say Praise
Depending on how you read these words, you might hear a pre-packaged answer coming, such as “The creature says awe and praise by singing hymns and attending a right-thinking church near his home.” But, it is also possible that the song is meant to leave us hanging at the conclusion of each verse. Each verse ends with a similar question, “How does the creature cry Woe, How does the creature cry Save; How does the creature say Grace, How does the creature say Thanks.” It is possible that the song is not about leading us down a narrow path to the nearest God-approved sanctuary, but may be actually dropping us into the deep, swirling pool of mystery. Had Vajda put the question first and the description of God second then it may have been a closed riddle. But, he ends with the question. Interesting.
I write this because my Rome to Rumi pilgrimage taught me something. Being that I was on the bicycle I had the opportunity to wheel my way up to Catholic masses in progress, cycle along the Tyrrhenian Sea abutting the western coastline of Italy, and share meals and tea with Turks where our only communication was kindergarten-level charades. What became obvious to me was that, as I opened myself to the presence of the Sacred, I experienced those spiritual feelings of awe and praise in numerous and unpredictable places.
Worshiping in Saint Padre Pio’s sanctuary in San Giovanni Rotondo pitched my mind and heart to a place of reverence. That same feeling of reverence washed through me as I encountered the first meters of the climb up Mt. Olympus in Greece. I was overcome by a powerful spirit that hit me like a gust of wind as I entered the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome. Strangely enough the gratitude that I felt after sharing a spontaneous meal with a road crew in Turkey left me feeling like I had shared communion in a sacred space, no less sacred than Rome’s glorious churches.
I have heard that some people (mostly dedicated to the Church) don’t understand my flirtations with Rumi and my obvious infatuation with the spirit behind some of the Greek gods. As an ordained Presbyterian minister, there may be some unspoken rule: like I am supposed to be defending the God of John Calvin and promoting our “decently and in order” Presbyterian way of encountering God.
But, this pilgrimage taught me something. It’s not really about which God we pray to. It’s not about which religious tradition is the most authentic and most right. It’s not about who becomes the object of our awe, our praise and our gratitude. What this pilgrimage taught me is that we humans have a need to have our hearts pitched to a place of awe (in a sanctuary or next to the ocean). We all are healthier, happier and more fully human when we open ourselves to the experience of wonder, praise and gratitude (whether praying with the faithful or laughing with the alien stranger). Our souls crave and lust after the divine Presence (whether standing at the threshold of a church or being lost in the rolling, golden hills of Turkey).
This pilgrimage was wonderful because, in the end, it wasn’t really about leaving Rome and arriving at Rumi’s Tomb, as if I was a teenager leaving the fold of family in order to wear the cloak of a new identity. No, it was about opening myself up to the wonderful and awe-some presence of God wherever I might meet her on the road of life—for she was there in certain corners of St. Peter’s Basilica holding the shards of history in her paintings; she showed up as I painfully powered my way up switchbacks to the lovely Greek village of Ambelakia where the sunset and I bowed to each other in a mutual blessing; she was there as I prayed in the Blue Mosque among a handful of faithful Muslims; and she was there as I enjoyed a perfect Greek salad while watching hunters return from a successful and bloody wild boar hunt.
The last verse of the hymn reads:
God of the ages
God near at hand
God of the loving heart
How do your children say Joy
How do your children say Home
If my pilgrimage taught me anything it is this: live into the question and then trust, that like a rose in bloom, the Sacred Presence will unfold before your very eyes.
Enjoy the journey…