Charles Foster’s The Sacred Journey is part of Thomas Nelson’s Ancient Practices Series, edited by Phyllis Tickle. I wish that they would have put more thought into naming the series because I have now read two of the books in the series and both deal with medieval practices and have little to say about anything ancient.
With that being said, there is nothing wrong with looking at the medieval practices of spirituality. Most modern Christians do not realize that we get most of our spiritual practices from this period – especially in the western church. Unfortunately, the word medieval is not considered as sexy as ancient in Christian publishing, so the period never really gets its full due.
Drawing from a number of traditions, even non-Christian ones, Charles Foster shows us an image of humanity that desires to be on the move. He even argues that Yahweh prefers the nomads – that the God of the Bible is the God of the traveler and not the sedentary. There is a lot of value to this observation. History has shown us that whenever faith becomes static, it becomes violent and confrontational. It is when faith must remain mobile that it has its greatest complexity and vibrancy.
Foster attempts to break down the meaning of pilgrimage – a moving faith – in the modern and postmodern context. In a way, he calls the church to see pilgrimage as a living part of our faith. I am not entirely sure he succeeds, but he certainly makes some strides in the right direction.
I found myself agreeing more with Foster in his assessment of sedentary Christian faith than I did when he launched into many of his anecdotal observations on the benefits of pilgrimage. For example, he tries to make the point that being on a pilgrimage makes it harder to sin. Having read Canterbury Tales, I am not sure I agree with him.
Additionally, he fails to address the role of the church in these pilgrimages. His focus is entirely individual, even in passages where he speaks about community and corporate journey. I am not sure that pilgrimage can be divorced from community, and I think that is one of the failures of medieval and modern pilgrimage. Consider the early monastics. At first, the desired to be completely alone but they quickly learned that spiritual discipline is best practiced in community.
Is Sacred Journey worth reading? Yes. It has great merit, especially in our very settled and complacent age. But when you read it, discern carefully and think corporately rather than simply individually. My warning is to not buy into the romanticism of being alone on the road in the wilderness. Sometimes we are called to journey alone, but it is always in preparation for restoration to the community. It is not the loneliness that makes the pilgrim.