There are so many different ways to think about the spiritual life. And of course, in our country there are so many different variations of religious experiences. There are liberals and conservatives. There are fundamentalists and Pentecostals. Besides the dizzying variety of Christian traditions, there are many different non-Christian traditions. There are the major traditions, such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and so on. There are the slightly more obscure traditions, such as Sikhism, Jainism, etc. And then there are more fringe groups and, even, pseudo-religions.
There are defining doctrines and religious practices. Some of these are specific to a particular tradition or a few traditions, such as the koan, which is used in Zen Buddhism for example. Other defining doctrines or practices are common across the religious board. Something like meditation would be a good example. Christians meditate; Buddhists meditate. And other groups practice this spiritual discipline.
A favorite way I like to think about my own Quaker tradition that has some currency among other traditions is with the distinction between the inward journey and the outward pilgrimage. This is certainly not unique to Quakers. Quite a number of the different Christian traditions have their own version of this way of being spiritual. It is also not uncommon in other religious traditions.
Since I believe it is a good way to understand the spiritual life, let’s take some time to detail what this dual focus means. One direction of the focus is inward. Personally this is the arena of experience, as my Quaker tradition talks about it. The inward journey is the effort I put out in order to “meet” God somewhere in the internal spaces of my life. Personally for me, this usually is felt in my midsection---in my belly. Maybe it is because I live so much of my normal life in my head, I need spiritually to begin to drop from my head to my heart in order to experience the Holy One.
There deeper within my heart is the core place where I encounter the Other, whom I call God. Thomas Kelly, perhaps my favorite Quaker writer opens his wonderful book, A Testament of Devotion, with words to this effect. “Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul.” My inward journey is the quest to discover this amazing inner sanctuary of the soul. And if I have discovered it, then I want to connect with the One who gave me life and breathes the Spirit into my life.
Even if I am graced with this inward experience, I cannot hold it or capture it. Even if it feels like a communion with the Living One, at some point the experience begins to recede and my normal life resumes. Life cannot be lived inside at the altar. However life can be lived “from” that altar. And this anticipates the outward pilgrimage.
I like the language of pilgrimage for this outward focus. Pilgrimage is more religiously specific than a journey or a trip. I can take a trip to New York or to Tokyo, but it is not a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage typically has a religious intent and, ultimately, religious content. A pilgrimage is purposeful. The destination normally is a religious destination. But this does not mean the course of the pilgrimage is uneventful.
Indeed, for my Quaker tradition the outward pilgrimage is usually portrayed with an emphasis on religious action and service. If the inward journey is about experience, then the outward pilgrimage is about express---expression of that inward spiritual experience. The outward pilgrimage is the “outward living from the spiritual center.” The pilgrimage is not just about destination; it is about day-to-day.
Although we have talked first about the inward journey and, then, the outward pilgrimage, they are not sequential. Rather, they are simultaneous. Experience is simultaneously expressed in the pilgrimage. And the spiritual expression fuels more encounters at the amazing inner sanctuary of the soul. Both exist in tension and intentionally. They are the two halves of the spiritual whole person.
Periodically it is well to ask about our spiritual growth and development. We can ask questions from either the journey or pilgrimage perspective. But we do well to remember that one leads to questions about the other. There may be seasons in which one---the journey or the pilgrimage---seems to be more important or in ascendency. But over time the need to be in a healthy balance.
For many of us living “normal” lives in our little world, the outward part might be more often the focus. We are trying to live a good life. We are caring, fair, reasonable people. We want to live a life helping others, avoiding as much sin as possible. But we can be unaware or forgetful how important the inward journey is. If we travel that inward journey road, our outward expression will become easier, deeper and more consistent.
Others of us think spirituality is just about the inner experience. We are really adept at prayer, meditation, etc. We may have a rich inner life. But we may see no carry-over---no engagement in serving or saving our world in any way. We are too content to see spirituality as an inner dynamic between ourselves and God. This is insufficient.
The true spiritual life is a dual trip: inward journey and outward pilgrimage.