The Spiritual Nomad
The Spiritual Nomad
One of my community volunteer activities is serving on the worship committee at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara. UUs (as we affectionately call ourselves) often have lay led services where we host an entire worship service on a Sunday morning. Rather than sermons, we write “Reflections.” These reflections are generally related to our worship theme for the month. I love to write and over the past year have enjoyed exploring more spiritual themes in my writing as well as reflecting on my relationship with God, church, religion and being raised Catholic. I thought I would share with you today part of what I shared with our congregation on Sunday morning.
Our theme for the month is pilgrimage. I struggled with this theme and the concept of being a pilgrim. I realized that I am more of a nomad than a pilgrim. In fact, the previous Sunday as I was driving to church I saw an RV with the word NOMAD scrawled in large letters across the back. Hmmm, I thought, I am a spiritual nomad.
Pilgrims journey to sacred places for religious reasons, like the pilgrims who walk the Camino de Santiago to touch the remains of St. James supposedly buried beneath the cathedral there. Nomads are wanderers, traditionally members of tribes looking for pasture for their livestock; they tend to follow a more migratory pattern. As a spiritual nomad I have been looking for nourishment, too, even when I didn’t know it, circling around the familiar, exploring the new and different.
I studied in Santiago de Compostela one summer during my college years- years during which I was quite skeptical about religion in general and Catholicism in particular. Several weeks of touring Spain, seeing one cathedral after another and hearing the stories of the history of the Inquisition did nothing to endear me to the church in which I had been raised.
I remember walking into the imposing cathedral on the square in Santiago, seeing the worn fingerprints of the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who had touched the column where the bones of St. James lay buried deep beneath the church. I could not relate to the stories of people crossing the Pyrenees Mountains on their knees to touch this stone column. This was not the type of sacred journey I was looking for.
I am not sure that as a 20-year-old college student I knew what I was looking for, I just knew that I was not on a quest to touch the relic of some mysterious saint who may or may not have existed.
Several years before the trip to Spain, I had the opportunity to spend 3 weeks in Peru on an exchange program through the YMCA. We saw cathedrals there too. I had my first experience with catacombs; skulls and skeletons piled high beneath the floors of the cathedral in Lima. It felt like visiting some eerie haunted house. I was 15 at the time and totally grossed out.
While in Peru wee lived and worked in a tiny village called Lampa high in the Andes mountains. There was no electricity or running water and no Americans had visited this community before. We stayed in a room in their schoolhouse and the local children would come to peer in the windows at us, giggling and marveling at our sleeping bags and gas cook stoves. We visited a colorful market in the town of Huancayo where we saw people from dozens of different indigenous tribes, each wearing a unique style of hat that identified their group. What I remember most about the market was the colors, so many bright colors! We swam in the Amazon with the piranhas and ate pineapple freshly cut off the plant in the jungle by a guide with a machete. And like most other tourists who visit Peru, we made a pilgrimage to Machu Picchu, a sacred site for many and a marvel of architecture and mystery for others.
Unlike the catacombs and cathedrals, I felt strangely at home in this beautiful place. Years later I would realize how much my visit to Machu Picchu had impacted my spiritual journey. At 15, I simply sat in awe and amazement at the foot of the ruins, feeling small and yet deeply connected to the history and mystery of this magical place. Pat Conroy wrote, “Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends. The mind can never break off from the journey.” It’s been 35 years and I can still remember the feel of the sun on my face and the expansiveness of the ruins and mountains beyond.
I find that being in nature is the closest I come to experiencing the sacred, to reconnecting to this sense of awe and wonder I felt at Machu Picchu at 15. And it’s this connection to place that makes me feel that I am a spiritual nomad, exploring both an inner and outer geography of time and space.
I love the Welsh poet A.D. Hope’s description of nomads in this poem.
Men in cities, men busy everywhere
Live by a faith that needs lead to some end:
Home, pleasure, a goal achieved, a lover, a friend
‘If it were not so’, they say, ‘we must despair’.
But not the nomads, they never think this way;
Where ever they chance to stop, the roads go on,
To nowhere, to anywhere. For them the one
Despair is a fixed roof, a permanent stay.
Theirs are different natures. They see the things we see;
The words are the same-they look with different eyes.
I wouldn’t call them more human or less wise
Nor think them less happy, more justified than we.
They are simply other: they give and they forgive
But do not ask for anything in return,
Learn only what they have no need to unlearn,
Clutch at no rights, claim no prerogatives.
When I ask my friend the nomad, ‘Would you agree
I have made my mark in the world? he answers: ‘Why,
Yes, you have made something of your life; but I
Prefer to find out what life will make of me!’
I speak of love. He laughs, saying: ‘Friend, you have won
That treasure to hold and keep; but love for me
Is a wayward lightning, a chance felicity
An ungrasped gateway opening on the unknown.’
I talk of his life, the endless, empty miles
The trivial monotony of the wanderer’s way.
He asks, have I lived by the joy of the single day?
I talk then of death, but he looks at me and smiles,
Saying, ‘Ah, but you live so rooted in time, you see.
You have never experienced an absolute moment, my friend.
Death is not the beginning of anything, nor the end
But, as each instant lived for itself must be,
That pure, that limitless “now”, Eternity.’
“I prefer to find out what life will make of me” says the nomad. That line resonated with me at a fundamental level. I am not trying to fit into a mold, I am looking for the “ungrasped gateway opening on the unknown.” As a young woman, I knew I needed to break away from the spiritual tradition of my childhood. I didn’t actively seek to replace that tradition with another one and in fact, I actively avoided church, religion, dogma and even the word God for decades. I never claimed to be an atheist but I considered myself as outside of tradition, a seeker with no wish to find THE answer. As I contemplated this idea of being a spiritual nomad and reflected on the themes of pilgrimage and geography, I realized that being a nomad for me has always involved both a quest for meaning and a return to what is familiar and safe.
What I have experienced in becoming a Unitarian Universalist is the freedom to be a spiritual nomad, to find spiritual nourishment both within these walls and wherever else it appears on my journey through my days – the beach, the mountains, a page of poetry or a conversation with friends. As our 7th principle says, we Respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. This is the nomad’s journey. This is my journey. I am content to explore and to travel and I am always grateful to return home.
I invite you now into a few moments of silence or journaling to contemplate the role of the nomad in your own life. Where have you journeyed and where do you call home?