Monday, October 8, 2012

What Columbus Can Teach Us About the Religious Life

Today is the federal holiday that celebrates the "discovery" of America by Christopher Columbus.  I'll wager that few of us hear about Columbus in our churches.  But his voyage has something to tell those of us who are living a pilgrim's life in this century.

At Charlestowne Landing (near Charleston, SC), I saw a boat that was a replica of the boat that some of the first English settlers used to get here. It was teeny-tiny. I can't imagine sailing up the coast to the next harbor in it, much less across the Atlantic. Maybe it would have been easier, back before everyone knew how big the Atlantic was.

In our spiritual lives, we may have to set off on a tiny boat.  We might wish we had different resources, but we start with what we have.  Maybe we wish we had the bigger boat of a fancier education, an ordination, a bigger budget for our church.  Maybe we wish we had the bigger boat of a trip to a spiritual heritage site or a fancy retreat or a place to live that feels more spiritual.

But important journeys can be made in teeny-tiny boats.  It's better than staring longingly out towards the sea.

I've often wondered if Columbus (and other explorers) ever woke up in the middle of the night and said, "What am I doing here? I could have just settled down with my sweetheart, had a few kids, watched the sunset every night while I enjoyed my wine." Of course, back then, a lot of options were closed to people, and that's why they set off for the horizon. No job opportunities in the Old World? Head west! Sweetheart left you for another (or died)? Head west!

It's easy to feel full of enthusiasm at the beginning of a project. Far harder to keep up that enthusiasm when you're in the middle of a vast ocean, with nothing but your instruments and the stars to guide you, with no sense of how far away the land for which you're searching might be.

I'm guessing that many of us have similar feelings during our spiritual lives.  We start a spiritual discipline full of enthusiasm.  Years later, our enthusiasm may flag, as we find ourselves still wrestling with the same spiritual issues.

What can we learn from Columbus? To answer fully would take more research than I have time for right now. But I keep thinking of the ship's logs and the captain's journals. Perhaps we need to do a bit more journalling/blogging/notetaking/observing/calibrating/focused daydreaming.  These tools can be important in our spiritual lives.

Or maybe we need to just set sail, knowing that we're going to be out of sight of land for awhile. Maybe we need to get over our need for safe harbor, for knowing exactly where we're going.

Or maybe we need a benefactor. Who might be Queen Isabella for us, as individuals and as the larger Church?

And we probably need to know that while we think we're sailing off for India, we might come across a continent that we didn't know existed. Columbus was disappointed with his discovery: no gold, no spices, disappointing land. Yet, he started all sorts of revolutions with his discovery. Imagine a life without corn, sweet peppers, tomatoes. Imagine life without chocolate. Of course, if I was looking through the Native American lens, I might say, "Imagine life without smallpox."

Still, the metaphor holds for the spiritual life. Many of us start off with a vision for where we'd like to go, perhaps even with five and ten year plans. Yet if we're open to some alternate paths, we might find ourselves making intriguing discoveries that we'd never have made, had we stuck religiously to our original plans.

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