Pilgrim’s Progress

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The Society for Spirituality, Theology, & Health held its third annual meeting on June 15-18 here at Duke. I’m glad to say I’ve attended all three meetings.

The Society for Spirituality, Theology, & Health held its third annual meeting on June 15-18 here at Duke. I’m glad to say I’ve attended all three meetings. The Society is a key sponsor of an ongoing conversation without which the Clergy Health Initiative might not exist.

Spirituality and Health is a young and burgeoning field of study, and the very newness of the field makes this conference intriguingly unpredictable. Sometimes things don’t go perfectly smoothly. Sometimes the different disciplines talk past one another. But at other times wonderfully unexpected conversations and epiphanies happen. I won’t attempt to summarize the whole conference, but I want to share a couple of impressions.

Photo by Andy HeatherAfter a week’s reflection, the word that most stays with me from the conference is Pilgrimage. The liveliest presentation I saw was by an anthropologist named Jason Danely, reporting on his study of the practice of pilgrimage among older adults in Japan. These pilgrimages can be grand -- climbing Mount Fuji -- or mundane -- walking a circuit of Buddhist shrines in a neighborhood in the city of Kyoto. They are often undertaken at times of major life change, such as retirement or the death of a loved one. Dr. Danely shared photos and other artifacts to demonstrate that when followed carefully, the path of pilgrimage offers multiple benefits: physical exercise, spiritual reflection, intellectual enrichment, and social engagement.

Rev. Stacy Smith of the Church Health Center in Memphis was present, with a poster presentation titled “Walking as Spiritual Practice: Developing Practical Opportunities for Congregational Health.” She cited The Amazing Pace, a program that, through the use of Internet-compatible pedometers and friendly competition among districts, is encouraging Magnolia State pastors to get out and walk. The poster also included excerpts from this interview with Arthur Paul Boers, a theologian whose book The Way Is Made by Walking discusses walking as a spiritual practice and its connection to the Christian tradition of pilgrimage. (Boers has some thoughts specifically on the topic of clergy health.)

What does pilgrimage mean in our time? Does a pilgrimage have to be to Jerusalem or Lourdes or some other famous religious site? Most of us take "vacations." My family and I are planning to go to Orlando next week; I don’t suppose that counts as a pilgrimage site.

I took a day trip with my father a number of years ago from his home in the Washington, D.C. suburbs to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. We wandered over the steep cobblestone streets of the old town. We reflected on John Brown’s raid, the prophetic audacity of his actions. We took the guided tour (the National Park Service guide there at the time was well known as a spellbinding narrator). We also made a side trip in search of the graves of some of our ancestors who had lived in western Maryland. Perhaps that was a pilgrimage of modest proportions. Certainly it was a meaningful shared journey.

I am going to be reflecting on the idea of pilgrimage, and I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the subject.

*Also of possible interest: The Rev. Dr. Jackson Day, a member of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, gave a talk titled “Agents of God, Agents of Health,” about a 14-week Bible study he has developed and tested, on agency and congregational health in a Wesleyan context. (Rev. Dr. Day’s e-mail address can be found at the linked page.)

Shalom y’all,

John James, M.A.
Research Coordinator
Clergy Health Initiative

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