Pilgrims during a Pandemic: Learning the Gift of Restlessness.
By David Bennett.
In my current doctoral work, I’ve taken a turn which I wasn’t expecting. Exploring the question of human desire has led me to the theology of St. Augustine. His works are probably the greatest in the Christian canon outside of the scriptures. They help us to deal with the in between spaces that scripture doesn’t always fill in for us, and also to apologetically re-approach Christian faith in a time where the culture is turning against it, much like in the 4th century context of a collapsing Rome in which he penned the greatest apologia for the Christian faith outside of Jesus’ life, The City of God.
After these two years spent rummaging through Augustinian scholarship, I’ve come across a kind of healing. Central to Augustine’s whole thought-world is the notion of being a perigrinus which roughly translates as a pilgrim. However, the word has a fascinatingly rich significance related to the city-state of Rome. A peregrinus was an illegal alien, an unknown entity, a refugee from another land, a queer figure who didn’t quite belong in the City’s citizenry and the power play of socio-political norms in the State. They couldn’t be easily identified. In this rich context Augustine constructs this magisterial metaphor for the state of being a disciple of Christ in the world. From the youngest of ages we are born restless. Our lives are but pilgrimages where we can fully make Earth our home, even if we try. Rather, in Christ, we recognise Earth, and these bodies as our future home, affected and disturbed by the effects of sin and death, and yet gloriously en route to being perfected by Jesus. We love this world not because it’s our home yet but because within it lies the seed of the future promise of home when desire will finally come to its full rest, and our restlessness will rest with God in Christ.
After the pandemic hit I needed a break – a place to return to my studies, what I was doing and where I was living and to reorient myself again around Jesus. Covid had simply thrown me. I decided to travel to Cornwall with a friend of mine who was ministering missionally to the locals, and running a festival there. Each day we would travel to the beach. Never before has the ocean felt so metaphoric to me of what we are all passing through, and I felt God speak deeply to me through it. This year has felt like a slow tugging retraction, with the churn of whitewash intermittently reminding us that we’re being put out to sea.
Big chunks of the optimism of the 2010s seem to have been eroded away. As the tide pulls back it reveals the stones, the crushed shells, the powdered sand of our lives. Then in sweeping pain the waves crash. In my year it’s been the long-term exhaustion of trying to make a difference on one of if not the greatest question related to faith this decade, the death of a spiritual father and leader from cancer, the longing again for a friend, community or beloved that seems to dislocate in the churn. The effects of Covid, political transformations, unrest, a world of unending uncertainties in being far from home, yet realising no where is really home except God.
That is until, as the waves pummel, and the soul is unhinged from itself, its capacities, longings, projects of the self and even its innate strength or capacity, gold is found under the debris. I’m reminded that this is the process, like the ocean, of grace. I realise that this infinite body of water I thought was sent to wear me down is in fact producing the waves that reveal the gold of grace that Jesus placed and formed in me by his Spirit. Really the waves, that fulsome tug of nature, is actually the work it takes for the Creator to reveal the gold of faith. It is only by realising the superabundance of grace - the infinite ocean - that we are released to love like Jesus does - not held by fear of waves, but pulling out, rooted and established by the anchor of his love.
Cornwall and its craggy coastline, and picturesque beaches taught me afresh that there is no greater passional, affective, or aesthetic experience than being in the manifest presence of God and the Lord Jesus Christ. All we need to do is let that presence in and it will do the work of renewing all things in us. At the extremities or hidden beyond places, all along the shoreline of this world for millennia in this way he has quietly made saints as numerous as the stars above it. I was again able to cling back onto this promise in 1 Peter 5:10: ‘And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.’