“Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon;
My scrip of joy, immortal diet;
My bottle of salvation;
My gown of glory, hope’s true gauge,
And thus, I’ll take my pilgrimage.”
A contemplative reflection on life as pilgrimage, the verse above was written by a warrior, sea captain, courtier, explorer, lover, husband and twice-dweller of the Tower of London, where eventually he and his head parted company because he supported the wrong candidate for kingship after Queen Elizabeth I of England died.
Many said that Walter Raleigh was a pirate as well, but he himself would more likely have said that he was simply liberating Spanish contraband for Queen Elizabeth — his patron, protector and sometimes his punisher — as when she sent him to the Tower of London the first time for marrying one of her ladies-in-waiting without asking the Queen’s permission (The story was that she rather fancied Sir Walter herself).
Eventually she let him out and Raleigh explored the coast of Virginia, brought back to England tobacco from the natives, rode the high seas in search of Spanish treasure and found time to write poetry as well. People of his own time saw him as quite the rascal, but he saw himself as a pilgrim. Indeed, the scallop shell mentioned in the poem was more than just a symbol for quiet faith — pilgrims wore it to show that they were baptized Christians on pilgrimage when they walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Today, some churches use a shell in baptism to indicate that the baptized person is beginning a lifelong pilgrimage in the company of Jesus Christ.
The fact is that many of us are at least as complicated as Raleigh, if not as talented, adventurous or fond of famous people as he was. Wild and crazy people can be strongly prayerful, as was the great Anglican priest and preacher John Donne, who, in his youth, wrote some very naughty poetry indeed — and after the death of his beloved wife, some of the greatest poetic prayers every written, including the sonnets, “Death, be not proud” and “Batter my heart, Three-Personed God.”
If we expect the people with us on this pilgrimage called Life to be consistent, we will be a long time waiting. As one of my high school teachers was fond of saying, “Don’t stand on one leg until that happens.”
God is not in the business of fulfilling our expectations, and neither are our fellow humans. Wasn’t that always the case with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ? The tax collectors and sinners who came to listen to him made the good folks grumble. “Look who this man spends time with, even eats with!”
Jesus points out to the good people that a shepherd who loses a sheep searches it out, and rejoices when he or she finds it. A poor woman who has lost a coin celebrates joyously when she finds it. God wants all of us in God’s sheepfold, and especially those of us who have made mistakes in our lives. People said Raleigh was a hypocrite when he wrote poems about life as a pilgrimage. He wasn’t any more of a hypocrite than most of us “good” churchgoing folk. He was a complicated human being.
If we could be good all the time, we would be saints when we were young. However, it seems that for most of us the journey to union with God is long, and there are detours, sometimes many of them. We wonder if we will ever meet God in the promised heavenly kingdom.
The Ghanaian/British musical group “Osibisa” sings a song about our challenging journey; it is called “Woyaya.” It is one of the best songs of pilgrimage I know. I sang it for my dear stepson as he made his way out of this earthly life in an ICU in North Carolina recently:
“We are going. Heaven knows, where we are going — Yet we know within.
We will get there. Heaven knows how we will get there — We know we will.
It will be hard, we know and the road will be muddy and rough, But we’ll get there. Heaven knows when we will get there — We know we will.”
That certainty — what the apostle Paul called “knowledge in the inner being” — results from regular prayer and scripture reading, and from asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Both Hebrew and Christian scriptures are full of the accounts of the long journeys of people who loved and worshipped God — and made serious mistakes on the road — but kept on traveling. Life is hard, unpredictable and full of sorrow. It is also miraculous, beautiful and offers unlimited opportunities for love. We share the road with saints and sinners— mostly, if we are honest, sinners (ourselves included). May the Holy Spirit, in all things, guide, direct and rule our hearts. We will get there.
Remembering with love and respect Robert William DuBose III
— Georgia C. DuBose is the priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Harpers Ferry