The Sacred Journey: The Ancient Practices

The Sacred Journey: The Ancient Practices

by Charles Foster

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“When Yahweh became a man, he was a homeless vagrant. He walked through Palestine proclaiming that a mysterious kingdom had arrived...He called people to follow him, and that meant walking.”
— Charles Foster

Humans are built to wander. History is crisscrossed by their tracks. Sometimes there are obvious reasons for it:


“When Yahweh became a man, he was a homeless vagrant. He walked through Palestine proclaiming that a mysterious kingdom had arrived...He called people to follow him, and that meant walking.”
— Charles Foster

Humans are built to wander. History is crisscrossed by their tracks. Sometimes there are obvious reasons for it: to get better food for themselves or their animals; to escape weather, wars, or plague. But sometimes they go—at great expense and risk—in the name of God, seeking a place that feels sacred, that speaks to the heart.

God himself seems to have a bias toward the nomad. The road is a favored place — a place of epiphany.

That’s all very well if you are fit and free. But what if you are paralyzed by responsibility or disease? What if the only journey you can make is to the office, the school, or the bathroom?

Best-selling English author and adventurer Charles Foster has wandered quite a bit, and he knows what can be found (and lost) on a sacred journey. He knows that pilgrimage involves doing something with whatever faith you have. And faith, like muscle, likes being worked.

Exploring the history of pilgrimage across cultures and religions, Foster uses tales of his own travels to examine the idea of approaching each day as a pilgrimage, and he offers encouragement to anyone who wants to experience a sacred journey. The result is an intoxicating, highly readable blend of robust theology and lyrical anecdote — an essential guidebook for every traveler in search of the truth about God, himself, and the world.

When Jesus said “Follow me,” he meant us to hit the road with him. The Sacred Journey will show you how.

The Ancient Practices

There is a hunger in every human heart for connection, primitive and raw, to God. To satisfy it, many are beginning to explore traditional spiritual disciplines used for centuries . . . everything from fixed-hour prayer to fasting to sincere observance of the Sabbath. Compelling and readable, the Ancient Practices series is for every spiritual sojourner, for every Christian seeker who wants more.

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By charles foster

Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2010 Charles Foster
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8499-0099-0

Chapter One


Whereas most other mammalian bipeds hop or waddle, we stride. Homo sapiens is the only mammal that is adapted exclusively to bipedal striding. -Encyclopedia Britannica

When man was First born, somewhere in East Africa, he began to walk. He was splendidly equipped to do so. He had long, straight hind limbs, bad for climbing trees but excellent for hoisting up his head so that he could get a long view across the savannah, and excellent for striding. He was called Homo sapiens-the thinking man-but he could equally well have been called Homo ambulans-the walking man. Indeed his thinking and his walking have been inextricably entwined.

He walked down the Nile and across the Sinai land bridge into Europe and Asia. Sometimes he stopped walking, and then there was disaster. But there have always been wanderers. They have stubbornly refused to settle, and from the edges of the settlements they have looked critically, pityingly, and prophetically in at the settlers. Their eyes have glinted menacingly in the night. The settlers have felt threatened, inadequate, and judged, and they have responded in the way that all fat bullies react-by violence. Wanderers have been denounced and hunted, but never humiliated.

In the Abrahamic religious tradition, God makes no secret of his clear bias for the wanderer. He is on the side of the Bedouin and loathes the city. It is not surprising. Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, was the archetypal desert Bedouin. Jesus was homeless: "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head," he declared, and with pride, not regret. "I'm in the line of that vagrant, Abraham," he was saying. The prophet Mohammed denounced the evils of the suburbs. Islam is a religion of black goat-hair tents, withering sun, and sandstorm. Religion, like everything else, tends to go bad when it is imported to the town.

Humans have never forgotten that they were designed as walkers. When things go wrong, they go for a walk, and whether through the action of serotonin or some ancient metaphysical mechanics, that seems to make things better. When they want to feel what it is like to be a human being (instead of a lawyer, an academic, or an acronym), they lace up their boots. When they want to feel even more human, they take off their boots and walk barefoot. When they want to describe the human's strange relationship with time, they use the language of the road: "Time is marching on"; "Stop dragging your feet"; "I think she's coming to the end of the road."

All the great religions have acknowledged this fundamental relationship between the man, his feet, and his place in the universe. The acknowledgment has taken many forms. One of them is pilgrimage. It is unstoppable. In the Middle Ages, huge economies were built on it. They still are. Each year about 3 million Muslims make the Hajj, 5 million Christians go to Lourdes, 20 million Hindus visit the 1,800 sacred sites in India, and about 700,000 devotees trundle reverently to Graceland, the shrine of Elvis Presley in Memphis, Tennessee. As conventional churchgoing plummets, the number of people taking to the road rises. These are good times to buy shares in companies owning hotels in Santiago de Compostela. If you think Christianity is all about signing up to a set of doctrinal propositions, that will worry you sick. "Now the lord said to Abram, 'Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you' ... So Abram went." And ever since, men have been going to the lands they think God is showing them.

Judaism was forged on the march, in the wind and blazing sun of Sinai. "You're a pilgrim people," said God, "and don't you forget it." And so to help them remember, he stuck walks into their liturgical calendar. "Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel." That wasn't just putting on your best clothes and going to the synagogue around the corner. Unless you lived wherever the tabernacle was, that meant taking to the road for Passover, Shau'ot, and Sukkot. It meant dust, expense, disease, and bedbugs.

As does the Islamic Haj. Between the eighth and the thirteenth days of the twelfth month, Saudi Arabia's population swells massively. Charter flights, bought with the life savings of Pakistani peasants and shopkeepers, clog the skies. Trucks, axle-bendingly overloaded, cut into the liquid tarmac on the road to Mecca. Boats shudder across the Red Sea; the pilgrims shave their heads and throw the hair into the wash from the engines. "Pilgrimage to the House," says the Qur'an, "is a duty laid upon people which they owe to Allah, those of them that can afford the journey thither." The House, here, is the "House of God"-the Ka'aba in Mecca, believed by Muslims to have been built by Abraham and Ishmael. It was an important shrine long before the birth of Islam, and it contains fragments of the black stone (perhaps a meteorite) once kissed by the prophet Mohammed.

The Prophet's great campaign was against polytheism, and so a centralization of the faith was crucial. If you sanctioned little local shrines, there would be a danger of breeding little local gods, little local cults, and little local heresies. The Hajj-the mandatory pilgrimage to the one Mecca-reminds Muslims that there is one God, Allah; that he spoke very specifically to one man, the Prophet, in this place; that there is only one true revolution against unbelief, this one. It is an invigorating reminder of the internationality and scale of Islam, a return to the Abrahamic routes and roots, and a reminder that stasis kills. "You're just passing through," says the Hajj. "Keep moving. Neither Dhaka nor Jakarta's your real home. Neither, in fact, is Mecca. You are built for Paradise. Walk on." And when they get to the Ka'aba, that's what they do. They keep circling, seven times in all, following in the wing beats of the angels that circle the throne of Allah (for even the angels are travelers).

And when the pilgrims have done that, there's more traveling. They run between two hills to remember Hagar, Ishmael's mother, and go to the Mount of Mercy, where the Prophet spoke to his followers for the last time before his death. The connection with Abraham is reforged during the Feast of Eid ul-Adha (which remembers Abraham's sacrifice of a ram instead of his son), when a sacrificed animal is eaten-a desert meal, commemorating a desert man.

The journey to Mecca used to be dangerous and arduous. It sometimes still is. But Islam is clear: the journey itself forms no part of the Hajj. The Hajj proper begins when the pilgrim reaches Mecca. This dictate is a useful bulwark against heresy. If the point of the Hajj is to promote doctrinal unity and purity, it is wise to say that the only legitimate experiences are those that occur under the umbrellas of tradition and clerical supervision. The road is an unpredictable, epiphanic place. Things happen to people there. When you step onto the road, you throw open the experiential floodgates. And who knows what might come in?

That isn't a worry that tortures Hindu and Buddhist wanderers. They want to be transformed by the land, and they are. The tradition of pilgrimage in Hinduism and Buddhism is vertiginously ancient. The Mahabharata (c. 400 BC), one of the foundational documents of Hinduism, lists many pilgrimage sites; Buddhism has a well-established circuit by the third century BC at the very latest.

Hinduism sees the land as expressly sacred. There are various ways of trying to express that sanctity, but one of the commonest is to see India as the body of a goddess, mythically dismembered and scattered between the coral seas. Her body permeates, fertilizes, and sanctifies India. A holy mountain might be her nipple; a cave might be her navel. In the forest, as you are waiting to die, you might hear her heartbeat trembling through the earth.

The physical form of the landscape is therefore supremely important. A landslide that sheers the face off a hill might be the tears rolling down the goddess's cheeks. The landscape dictates religious practice: it is not a theater in which religion happens. When a new temple to Vishnu was recently built near Birmingham, UK, it was an exact replica of the Vishnu temple at Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh and, crucially, the seven hills in which the original temple nestles were faithfully reproduced.

Pilgrims roll like waves across India, crashing as surf against the beaches of Varanasi, Vrindavan, and Badrinath at the great festivals. Some pilgrims ride the waves all their lives, begging for their food, the calluses on the soles of their feet about as thick as their ankles.

Even when the software engineers from Bangalore come to a holy place in their air-conditioned limousines, they still have to walk. They waddle in tight terylene trousers along prescribed processional routes. Buildings are not for congregation, shelter, or interest: they exist to be walked through.

And then there is Christianity.

Jesus was a very Jewish Palestinian. The Christians believed he was God-that God had burst uniquely into space and time and wandered around the Holy Land. The physical evidence in Palestine had an apologetic importance for Christianity that no similar evidence had in any other religion, and the theology of the incarnation lent that evidence a devotional power that not even the fingernails of the Buddha had for Buddhists. The accounts of Jesus' life are geographically very explicit. He had said, "Follow me." Many took him literally.

Pilgrimage to the Holy Land was difficult until the rise of Constantine, but thereafter, for a while, it was both facilitated and popularized by the efforts of the formidable Helena, Constantine's mother, who trawled the Near East for biblical sites, slapping on labels that by and large have stuck. Some of her identifications are almost certainly wrong (Mount Sinai, for instance); some have survived more or less unscathed the worst that modern archaeological skepticism can throw at them (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, for example, which contains the alleged sites of the death and resurrection of Jesus); many will forever bear the verdict "not impossible" (such as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem). It was Helena who drew the pilgrims' map of the Holy Land.

Her map was soon encrusted with legend and theology. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was thought to be the place where Adam was created and where Abraham lifted the knife to kill Isaac. (In Jewish thought, both happened on the Temple Mount.) If you go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre today and can fight your way through the melee, you will see a crack in the rock of Golgotha. All the tour groups are told that the crack appeared at the death of Jesus: "The earth shook, and the rocks were split." The Catholic and Orthodox tour groups are then told that the blood of Jesus flowed through the crack to the grave of Adam below. The first Adam was thus redeemed by the blood of the second "Adam."

From the fourth century, pilgrim guidebooks were a commercial hit. We meet some of them later. They tell us a lot about how myths are made. Humans are desperate to see their vital abstractions made concrete, and the heat of the Holy Land crystallizes abstractions beautifully. The devout mind poured the blood of Christ into the great lamp that hung in the middle of the Dome of the Rock, and linked a cistern near the Dome with Ezekiel's prophecy about water coming forth from the temple. There is also straightforward competition with the rival religions. Islam says that the footprint of the Prophet's horse, Buraq, is visible in the Dome of the Rock. Christian pilgrims, not to be outdone, saw Christ's footprints there, connected with one of his visits to the Temple.

In AD 638 the armies of Islam swept up from Arabia and took Jerusalem. The shock and the shame reverberated throughout Christendom and indeed acted as an adhesive, sticking together its disparate parts. Christians loathed one another, but they hated the Muslim conquerors of Jerusalem even more. Christian pilgrimage shuddered to a near halt. A few intrepid travelers still made it there, but they were probably more daring than devoted.

The Christian world fulminated and plotted, but life went on. You can't stop caribou or swallows from migrating, and the pilgrim instinct could not be suppressed. So local shrines blossomed (those with relics from the Holy Land doing particularly well); the tombs of saints attracted more attention than ever.

In an ecstasy of bloodlust fueled by guilt, fear, and apocalyptic hymns, Jerusalem was stormed by the self-styled "armed pilgrims" of the first crusade in 1099. After the guts had been hosed down the drains of the Temple Mount, a strange kingdom started to rule the Holy Land. This was a kingdom of men in steel, wearing hair shirts-men a long way from home who had seen and done terrible things, men for whom time was short and redemption urgent.

Their energy was astonishing. Realizing their supply lines were dangerously long, they built a chain of castles to guard them. Those castles, built in the most straitened circumstances, are some of the great architectural glories of the Middle Ages. It was sweating on the battlements of the summit of the Krak des Chevaliers, in the Syrian highlands, that I first admired anything made by men. Whenever I am in Jerusalem, I sleep in a crusader cellar. And each night, when the cameras have stopped flashing and the coaches have belched away to Tel Aviv, I go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the best thing the crusaders ever did or tried to do, and sit at Calvary, breathing old frankincense in the dark.

The brutal, dreaming kingdom of Jerusalem didn't last a hundred years. In 1187 the crusaders marched out onto the fields of Hattin in the Galilee to meet the army of Saladin. They carried with them the most precious relic of all-the True Cross, discovered by Helena in a cave under the Holy Sepulchre. They thought they couldn't lose. The Cross had defeated the powers of darkness and routed Satan; what chance did an Ayyubid upstart have?

But this time it was the crusaders who were routed. The Cross was carried off in triumph by the cheering hordes of Islam and has never been seen again. The disaster of Hattin was both military and theological. The kingdom was broken. Jerusalem fell shortly afterward. This should have prompted an agonized reassessment of the raison d'etre of crusading. There was certainly plenty of agonizing. The instrument of salvation had gone. Had salvation gone with it? Had God definitively withdrawn his favor from his crusading mujahidin? Was Islam right in saying that it had superseded Christianity? Hattin injected doubt deep into the psyche of the Christian West.

But on one level it did not take the crusaders or Christendom long to get over their spasm of introspection. God, they decided, with the help of a lot of Old Testament footnotes, had judged them for their faithlessness, their immorality, their arrogance. But not their violence. And how should they repent and regain his favor? By redoubling their armed efforts. By avenging the sleight to the name of God that had been uttered at Hattin. God was like them: his honor was everything.

And so the crusades grumbled bloodily on. Each wave contained men who saw themselves as pilgrims, often with a primarily penitential objective. And although the politics of the papacy increasingly wrote the real agenda of the crusaders, protection of pilgrim traffic to the Holy Land featured strongly in the rhetoric of the crusade preachers.

No subsequent crusade achieved anything like the success of the first. In their frustration, later armed pilgrims flung themselves on Jews and Christians. Christian Constantinople was sacked by the fourth crusade in 1204, massively boosting the relics trade in Europe and therefore increasing the number of European pilgrimage destinations. But Jerusalem itself remained in Islamic hands until British commander Edmund Allenby, dismounting from his horse in deference to the Holy City, entered it on foot in 1917 after defeating the Ottomans. "Today the Crusades have ended," he said, unwisely.


Excerpted from THE SACRED JOURNEY by charles foster Copyright © 2010 by Charles Foster. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Charles Foster is a writer, barrister, tutor in medical law and ethics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford. He has written, edited, or contributed to over thirty books.

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