Pilgrimage: Depart to Arrive

Pilgrimage. The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides these two definitions of pilgrimage:

• a journey to a holy place
• a journey to a special or unusual place

The heart of pilgrimage is a journey. Typically, the journey of a pilgrim is a physical one. In United States history we think of the Pilgrims who left England to form a utopian colony in Cape Cod. But the journey of the pilgrim is much older. It finds roots in ancient cultures where travelers made journeys to holy places, erected altars, and memorialized their encounters with the Divine. Pilgrimages are spiritual journeys in which the physical trip serves to enable a person to move toward a personal encounter that is in some way sacred, that is “set apart” from other life experiences.

Among my favorite classic pieces of spiritual writing in the Christian tradition is the book, The Way of the Pilgrim. The book traces the journey of a Russian pilgrim who is on a physical and spiritual journey to grow more fully in his experience of God. Along this journey, he prays the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer is an essential element of what’s called Hesychastic spirituality, the spirituality of the third and fourth century mystics who lived in the Sinai desert. Hesychastic spirituality is a movement toward letting go of everything that prevents the Divine within us from being fully manifest. The pilgrim in the classic book does this by letting go of the security of home and relationships and roaming the country side on his journey to encounter something special and sacred within himself.

Spiritual pilgrims have always been misunderstood. They are looked at as oddities in each of their cultures. Yet, they have been found in both Eastern and Western religions. The journeys to holy places are also journeys inward to encounter a deeper truth within oneself. Pilgrims are often viewed as drop-outs and misfits, as people who don’t contribute to society, who are somehow self-indulgent. Many of us roll our eyes when someone describes another as “trying to find” him or herself. Yet, throughout the history of religion around the world, there have been pilgrims who remind us that our lives are a journey.

Have you taken time to consider your life’s journey? As a pilgrim who is passing through this world, where are you going? What is it that you hope to encounter? Is there a holy place, a special place, an unusual place that reveals something of your inner self?

One of my good friends recently shared a brief video made by one of his friends, Kevin Miles. Kevin is a musician from Stuttgart, Germany. Two years ago, he quit his job, moved out of his apartment and into his van, and began a pilgrimage. He travels place to place looking for something meaning, purposeful, and in my mind, spiritual to inspire and animate his life. At first glance, one could easily dismiss his journey as merely dropping out. Yet, it’s clear that his pilgrimage is with purpose – the purpose of finding a renewed sense of self and meaning and the purpose to inspire creativity. Kevin’s is the journey that spiritual pilgrims have made throughout the generations. Kevin’s journey is much the same as our own. As pilgrims, we are each on the way to discover, encounter, or create something that’s meaningful, purposeful, or valuable in life.

Kevin probably never heard of Hesychastic spirituality. Yet, much like the hesychast, he has let go of the things that prevent him from exploring his inner self more deeply in search of that which is true for him. His wandering search for meaning and purpose is the journey of the pilgrim, the journey of one who departs in order to arrive.

In this context, I want to share with you Kevin’s brief video of his pilgrimage: Depart to Arrive.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Satire. Freedom of Expression. Prejudice. Charlie Hebdo.

Like many others, I was stunned by the news of the violent attack at the offices of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, on the morning of January 7, 2014. Two masked gunmen armed with assault weapons and a rocket launcher forced entry to the magazine’s offices. In the end, twelve people were killed and eleven others wounded. Many throughout the world followed the hunt for the suspects on the following days – a hunt which ended with their deaths and the deaths of hostages. In the end, twenty people died as a result of this attack.

People in Western countries have responded strongly to this brutal attack. The attack hit at the heart of values we share, including the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, and the freedom of expression. Further, satire has played a vital role in Western cultures and has empowered people to challenge the status quo for centuries. Satire not only makes us laugh at serious situations but helps to illustrate contradictions and hypocrisy in political positions and policies.

I was familiar with some of the satirical cartoons in Charlie Hebdo. Perhaps my favorite recent cartoon depicted the prophet Mohammed returning to the newly formed Islamic State only to be beheaded for apostasy. It reminded me of the many variations of jokes that portray contemporary Christians who would fail to recognize Jesus should he return today.

While I value Western freedoms of speech and expression and wish these values were universal, I am also bothered by the prejudice and Islamophobia that colors the popular response, media coverage, and punditry related to this horrible and tragic event. While the media has focused on the shooters as Muslim extremists, it has also glossed over the fact that copy editor Moustapha Ourrad and police officer Ahmed Merabet, both killed in the attack, were Muslims. In addition, the widow of cartoonist and columnist, Stéphane Charbonnier, is also Muslim. On January 7, Muslims killed Muslims as well as people of other faith traditions in the attack on Charlie Hebdo. The attack was not based on religion but on fanaticism.

I believe that prejudice against Muslims is perpetrated and continues to grow because so few people in Western countries know Muslims in their day to day lives. I’ve been fortunate. When I moved to Atlanta over three years ago, I moved into a neighborhood with a high percentage of Muslims. I didn’t set out to do that nor did it come to my awareness until after meeting the neighbors. I live about two blocks from a mosque. The neighbors six homes away from me are the local imam and his family. I run into him at the local grocery and see his wife walking with their children in the neighborhood. My next door neighbor, a leader at the mosque, often talks with me about football. The most unusual thing about my Muslim neighbors is….well, honestly…..there isn’t anything unusual about them. They are just like the other neighbors. Some are better with their lawn care than others; some have dogs that bark too much and others have cats they allow to roam outdoors; some want more activities to be scheduled through the neighborhood association and others don’t attend the meetings. It’s a typical neighborhood with a variety of different people.

As I first began to develop a professional and social network in Atlanta, I stumbled onto a wonderful meditation group that meets one Sunday evening a month. It was co-led by a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim man from Turkey who was an expert in Sufi writings. The group sits in silent meditation for twenty minutes and then has an hour of discussion. It’s a deep, rich experience. The group meets in a Muslim center north of Atlanta. While it doesn’t make the headlines, it’s not unusual for Muslims, Jews, and Christians to share prayer and spiritual practices together.

Just as there are Muslim extremists, there are plenty of Christian extremists, too. The vast majority of Muslims have as much in common with the Taliban or the Islamic State as I do with the KKK (they’re a Christian organization and have their own Christian denomination) or the Westboro Baptist Church. Extremist groups are an embarrassment to all religions. Adherents to religious traditions have little power to stop extremist groups.

On January 8, one day after the attack, I began receiving email copies of press releases from a variety of Muslims groups denouncing the terrorist attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. I am on the email distribution lists because of my participation in interfaith groups. Yet, I haven’t seen any media outlet discuss the number of Muslim groups who publicly stand against the attacks that occurred on January 7. Little notice was given to leaders of the Palestinian state who marched in protests against the attacks in Paris on Sunday, January 11. This lack of acknowledgement that average Muslims stand against extremist attacks is a manifestation of the Islamophobia rampant in the West.

Because satire is often based on stereotypes, I can’t avoid recognizing that the cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo added to Islamophobia. While that may not have been their intent, to the degree that they increased stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists, they were also part of the problem. That being said, I don’t think the solution is to stop satire. Instead, the solution is for people in the West to get to know and become familiar with their Muslim neighbors and co-workers.

On his flight from Turkey in December, Pope Francis was bated by a reporter to make a sweeping statement about Muslims as fundamentalists and extremists. The Pope’s reply was quick and to the point, “You just can’t say that, just as you can’t say that all Christians are fundamentalists. We have our share of them (fundamentalists). All religions have these little groups.”

Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and members of every religion are all part of the human race. Our beliefs may differ, but we are all people who love, laugh, worry, and want to live peacefully with others. Similarly, there have been and will continue to be members of each religion (as well as atheists and those who share other ideologies) who are extremists and resort to violence. The solution to the problem of extremism is not discrimination against members of entire groupings of people but rather intentional attempts to build bridges that support the diversity of the human race.

I mourn with the people of France over the horrible attack of January 7, just as I mourn with those who have been victims of other attacks by extremist groups. But I also recognize the difference between extremists who seek to impose their values on others and the vast majority of people who make up a larger grouping of people. Whether those extremists are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or members of any other faith tradition, I am committed to working against their totalitarian views. Instead, I choose to value the strength and benefits of living in a world characterized by diversity and mutual respect. And I’ll continue to enjoy the creativity of satirists.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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The Myth of the Lone Wolf

It’s a striking image: a wild, dominant wolf, alone and on its own seeking prey while ruling its territory. This metaphor is not just popular among young men who seek to define themselves as rugged individuals. The lone wolf is also something of an analogy for a strong leader, a successful executive, or a man’s man. The image of the lone wolf is also used to market assault weapons, a women’s career magazine, executive coaching services, and a seemingly endless list of products and services identified by my web search.

Yet, there’s something not quite right about this image of the lone wolf. To say that the lone wolf is a myth is an understatement. Myths having meaning that convey a deeper truth meant to teach or inspire. But the lone wolf? It’s nothing but a fabrication! A lone wolf is a distortion of the reality of the lives of wolves.

Wolves are pack animals. Their survival depends on the group. Their innate strategies for hunting are based on group organization. They live in hierarchical groupings or communities, if you will. They take care of each other and depend on each other. It’s the pack that makes individual members strong and successful.

There are lone wolves. Lone wolves typically fall into two categories. One is the senior alpha who used to be the head of the pack. Such a lone wolf was driven out of the pack by a younger rival who took his place. The other is the younger rival who challenged the alpha, lost, and wasn’t permitted by the alpha to remain in the pack. This latter is the wolf that just doesn’t fit in. Lone wolves typically become weak because of lack of nutrition and die. They rarely survive very long on their own and often resort to feeding off dead carcasses and have no territory of their own.

I learned about wolves during the years I lived in Southern Arizona. I came to know a traditional healer from the Mandan tribe who lived a few hours east of Tucson. He worked with wolves. My Mandan friend understood the wolf as his totem spirit, which was what led him to maintain a pack of wolves on his ranch. He would become angry when people who toured the ranch to learn about wolves would refer to him as “a lone wolf.” Such comments were meant as a compliment. He heard it as an insult, implying that he didn’t get along with others, was incapable of relationships, or was a weak individual. Sometimes he’d ask with indignation, “Are you calling me weak and old?” Of course, that question was met with blank stares and confusion when posed by a tall, muscular, strapping man in his early thirties.

My Mandan friend shared with me how he learned what it meant to live as part of a group from wolves. Having grown-up in a community marred by addiction and domestic violence, he relocated to the Southwest and created a way to learn from his totem animal: the wolf. He found that by working with wolves and other animals, he learned about the commitment it took to maintain long-term relationships, deferring to the needs of others, and doing one’s part for the success of the group. In other words, the wolves taught him a new way to live and work with others that was cooperative and benefited the members of the group and the group itself.

I’m not sure how the myth of the lone wolf originated. What I do know is that wolves live with a strong sense of inter-dependence. That’s something that seems almost absent in Western culture today because of our values on individualism. We want to believe that we can make it on our own and be the “master of my own fate,” to quote Henley’s poem Invictus. Such independence is an illusion. What’s true is that we’re all in this together – and depend on each other.

As I consider the problems of the world, ranging from income inequality to wars for political domination, I have come to understand that at the heart of division is a belief that one is better than others and that one can be strong without others. That false belief is at the heart of the myth of the lone wolf. But the truth is the same for wolves as it is for people: the one who separates self from the larger community in the quest for power ends up dying weak and alone. At heart, it’s our cooperative connections with others that enable us, as individuals and as the human race, to thrive.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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