March 3, 2019: “Pilgrims Progress”


(From “Embracing the Shadow” by Richard Rohr)

Richard Rohr is a Franciscan friar and founder of Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in Albuquerque. He writes:

“Liminal space (from the Latin limen for “threshold”) is an inner state and sometimes an outer situation where we can begin to think and act in genuinely new ways.

It is when we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next.

We often enter liminal space when our former way of being is challenged or changed – perhaps when we lose a job or a loved one, during illness, engagement, or at the birth of a child.

During this graced time we are not certain or in control. This openness allows room for something genuinely new to happen. We are empty and receptive – an erased tablet waiting for new words. Liminal space is where we are most teachable.

Many spiritual giants (like St. Francis, Dorothy Day, or Mohandas Gandhi) try to live their entire lives in permanent liminality, on the edge or the periphery of the dominant culture. This in-between place is free of illusions and false payoffs; it invites us to discover and live from a broader perspective and with a much deeper seeing.”

SERMON: “Pilgrim’s Progress” Rev. Susanne Skubik Intriligator (copyright)

The news has been so overwhelming of late. Sometimes you just want to focus on the fun stuff. Did you watch the Oscars last Sunday?

I didn’t, but I was pleased to hear that Rami Malek won Best Actor for his portrayal of singer Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. The film has become important to me and my family.

As you may know, this past December, our youngest child, Theo, who is 13, let us know that he is gender non-binary or more to his liking, gender fluid. He requested that we both change his name to Quinn, which is more gender-neutral, and use the pronouns They and Them to refer to him.

Changing their name, at school, here in RE, and at the doctors and dentists, went surprisingly easily, in hindsight, and has helped them to feel more comfortable in general. The pronoun thing is harder, and I still struggle. By the way, they gave me permission to talk about them today.

During these past months, it’s been helpful and fun for us as a family to share books and films, like Bohemian Rhapsody, that portray the lives of gay and genderqueer people, so we can discover together and appreciate the lives of pioneers like Mercury.

And it occurred to me in this past week that both Malek, the actor, and Mercury, the singer, demonstrate well our March theme of Journey, on several intersecting levels.

Rami Malek’s parents left Egypt and immigrated to the US just before he was born. He grew up in Los Angeles, speaking Arabic at home. In high school he decided he wanted to act but struggled to start his career. At one point he noticed that for several years, he was only was only cast as a terrorist.

He made a fateful decision. He told his agent he would no longer accept such parts, even if it meant losing his career. He stood firm.

Thankfully, he got a TV role as a computer hacker in the series, Mr. Robot. Two years later, after two more famous actors pulled out, Malek got a shot at playing Mercury, and he leaped. He hired a voice coach, a piano teacher, and a movement coach and worked day and night to learn to mimic Mercury. He says he watched video of the singer’s1985 Live Aid performance around 1500 times. He called it a journey of love.

The effort worked. On set, the surviving members of the band Queen, who served as co-producers of the film, reported that they sometimes forgot that Rami was Rami, not Freddie.

And so the Oscar goes to . . . Rami Malek.

Of course Mercury’s life even more dramatically demonstrates the theme of Journey, both physical and metaphorical. Born to parents of the Parsi ethnic group who grew up in India, the singer was originally named Faroukh Balsara. The boy’s father worked as a clerk for the British colonial government in Zanzibar, on the Indian Ocean coast of Africa, so Faroukh grew up there, and in boarding schools in India.

When in the 1960s, revolution erupted in Zanzibar, the family emigrated to London, where teenage Faroukh struggled to fight in. He studied design in college and worked as baggage handler at Heathrow, while he dreamed of music.

In 1970, Faroukh went to see a band of other students called Smile, who had just lost their lead singer. So he sang for them, signed on, and started writing songs. Within a few years, Faroukh had changed the band’s name to Queen, changed his own to Freddie Mercury, and began to evolve his outrageous stage persona.

Audiences loved him, and he them. In interviews Mercury spoke of the band as a group of misfits, outsiders who pulled in, spoke to, and united other outsiders. Band members and fans around the world agreed Mercury had a way of reaching out and incorporating everyone into his massive shows, even the loneliest audience member, way in the back row, felt a part of an electric happening, a piece of a larger, living whole.

In the 1970s and early 80s, as the band’s fame crescendoed, reporters hounded Mercury about his rumored bi-sexuality, which at the time was widely considered deviant or at least scandalous. Mercury struggled to be authentic and yet protect his privacy. He admitted to have AIDS only a few days before he died in 1991, at the age of 45.

. . .

This month, in the Soul Matters packet for covenant groups on the theme of Journey, we are invited to contemplate this quote from Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer:

“The path of awakening is not about becoming who you are.

Rather it is about unbecoming who you are not.”

For me, Mercury’s brilliant artistry, brought to the screen via Malek’s stunning performance, demonstrates this idea.

Like so many artists and performers, like so many LGBTQ people, Mercury’s path from awkward baggage handler to rock-n-roll legend wasn’t about becoming something he was not, but rather more about peeling away all the accumulated layers – stereotypes and social mores, other people’s expectations – un-becoming who he was not – so he could dare eventually to bare his incomparable essence and become who he always was, underneath it all, out loud on the stage, for all of us to enjoy and remember.

That is the kind of self-fulfillment that I hope for my child and for all of us.

May you dare to un-become what you are not.

. . .

This week, as I meditated on the idea of the religious Journey, I thought a great deal about pilgrimages. Why do so many of the world’s great religions invite, or even require, adherents to travel on actual, physical journeys of faith?

What do these quests have in common? What are they supposed to accomplish?

For simplicity, let’s start with us. Did you know that many UU s across the country, view Boston as a pilgrimage site? Every year, hundreds of UU s fly in to see the UUA, the famous Boston churches, Mount Auburn cemetery, Emerson’s house, Thoreau’s cabin at Walden.

Other UU’s consider it a religious pilgrimage to go to our annual general assembly, where they can worship and workshop with thousands of other coreligionists.

Some UU’s also travel to Transylvania on pilgrimage, where we not only visit our usually much older partner churches, but the places where the very ideas of Unitarianism and religious tolerance were born, amid the heated warfare of Reformation Europe 500 years ago.

Of course, Christian pilgrimage paths and sites are far more numerous and more famous. You’ve probably heard about friends visiting the Vatican or Lourdes, other places claimed to have spiritual power or healing gifts.

Recently my friend Liz reported a life-changing experience when she walked the Camino de Santiago across Northern Spain, a 500-mile pilgrimage path that Christians have been walking since the year 812 AD. That’s when, according to legend, the body of the apostle James was shipped across the Mediterranean and buried at the church in Compostela, Spain.

Raised as a UU, with a UU minister mother, Liz says she’s not particularly religious and certainly not Christian, and yet she felt that walking the camino was an intensely spiritual experience. Why?

It’s hard to put words around it.

The theologian Richard Neibuhr wrote that a pilgrim is a “person in motion, passing through territories not their own, seeking something . . . we might call completion . . . clarity. . . a goal to which only spirit’s compass points the way.”

. . .

The grand-daddy of all religious pilgrimages must be the Muslim Hajj, right?

I mean, there are 1.8 billion – with a b – Muslims in the world, and unlike Christians and Jews, Muslims are required by their faith, if they are physically and financially able, to undertake the pilgrimage at least once in their adult lives. So just going the numbers, that’s got to be a lot of people going to Mecca every year.

But there’s so much more I didn’t know, complicating things. (And since our middle school group, including my Quinn, is now studying Islam and visiting a mosque this coming Saturday, I thought it a good time to brush up and dig in.)

For instance, did you know that all these pilgrims are going to Mecca at the exact same time? Yes, official hajj takes place only during five specific days a year. Miss that window, and you miss salvation.

So, unlike say with Rome or Spain, everyone goes to Mecca simultaneously – 2 to 3 million extra people from all over the world descend on the same city on the same day. A logistical nightmare to say the least.

And, once they get there, their faith requires them to perform the same rituals in the same order at the same places, all together, for five days. To manage it, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia tightly controls the whole operation, as you might imagine. Each Muslim country is only offered a certain number of visas, and countries manage their own delegations. In the huge tent cities that spring up in the desert, pilgrims stay in their country groups, wear identification, and are monitored constantly by guards and cameras.

And monitoring them visually proves tricky, because they look alike – all the male pilgrims must shave their heads and dress in the same pilgrimage uniform, unsewn white cloths, simply wrapped around them. Women usually wear plain black robes, in 100 degree summer heat.

Though the Saudis have spent billions on building and upgrading facilities in recent decades, the huge crowds have occasioned some serious incidents. In 2015, two crowds intersected on a street corner and in a mass crush, many were trampled. The Saudis put the death toll at 700, but outside agencies claimed it was closer to 2000 killed.

So what possibly is the upside here? How is all this upheaval worthwhile?

Well, try to imagine it if you will – being swept up in a vast sea of humanity, people of all colors and languages, from all over the earth, all dressed the same, stripped of their wealth and social markings, walking slowly and praying together constantly for 5 days?

You’ve seen the photos. In Mecca’s Grand Mosque, the world’s largest, pilgrims mutter prayers continuously as, barefooted, they circle the black cube-shaped holy K’aaba seven times. The mosque holds 1.5 million people.

Many call the experience transformative, life-changing. American civil rights pioneer Malcolm X went on Hajj in the 1960s. He wrote:

“They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white. . . . [On] this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought patterns previously held.”


For me, on reflection, it seems that pilgrimages developed as a way of pulling people out of normal life, forcing them to put down their worldly ways and set aside time and space just for reflection.

Richard Rohr calls this time liminality.

He writes: “There has to be something different and daring, even nonsensical, to break our comfortable sleepwalk and our compulsive cultural trance. . . . We actually need to fail, fast, and deliberately falter to understand other dimensions of life. We need to be silent instead of talking, experience emptiness instead of fullness, anonymity instead of persona, and pennilessness instead of plenty.”

In liminal space,” Rohr writes, “we descend and intentionally do not come back out or up immediately. . . . Liminality keeps one in an ongoing state of . . . struggling with the dark side of things, calling the center and so-called normalcy into creative question.”

When is the last time you entered liminality, let go of worldly things, pulled out of our compulsive cultural trance?

Is it time for you to set off on Hajj, or to a yoga retreat, or to find a new way to peel off another layer of your un-becoming?

. . .

Just for fun here, never mind academic rigor, I have to tell you a little more about what I discovered about spiritual pilgrimages. For one, the massive Hajj, 2-3 million strong every year, is in no way the world’s largest pilgrimage.

There’s one 10 times bigger – and then another 3 times bigger than that, if you can believe it! They just don’t hit the Western news.

Humans are so fascinating.

Every year, there’s a 40-day festival in Iraq, sacred to Shia Muslims, called Arba’een. As many as 20 million people (or 60% of the country’s population) step out of their normal lives and walk to a shrine in Karbala. Many travel up from Basra, the nearest large city, walking around 400 miles and clogging all the roads for two weeks. Unlike the hajj in Saudi Arabia, everything is free. Along the route, volunteers hand pilgrims free food and drink and offer places to sleep; hospitality is expected and ubiquitous. It’s all part of the festival, which has been going strong since 680 AD.

It’s often called the largest peaceful gathering on Earth. And it’s definitely, probably, the largest annual human gathering.

But in pure numbers . . . the Arba’een is dwarfed again by the Kombh Mela, a Hindu religious festival that has to be the grand-daddy of them all. Held about every 3 years in one of 4 sacred locations, it draws millions to bathe in sacred rivers, which at certain times on the zodiac calendar, are said to possess the secret potion of immortality. Over a two-month period in 2013, an estimated 120 million people took part in the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India, including over 30 million people on a single day, February 10, 2013.

Humanity is amazing, isn’t it?

How far would you walk to bathe in immortality?

For me, I don’t know. I think I’d love to experience the mass collective joy of the Arba’een, or the communal meditative immersion of the Hajj, but in all honesty, I’m just not good with crowds. I get a little claustrophobic – I’ve been known to have melt-downs at theme parks.

At the same time I’m all in favor of liminality, of being forced by circumstance or invited by tradition, to move outside your comfort zone and look at life from another angle. Sometimes it’s about journeying to a holy place, alone or with great numbers. Sometimes it’s about walking in the footsteps of your forebears and reciting prayers as you go.

Other times it’s about failure and loss and looking at yourself in the mirror alone. Other times it’s about living your whole life outside the culture, on the edges of society, because it’s who you are or you don’t have a choice, but the surviving imparts real wisdom that, when voiced, can push the culture over, toward justice.

Painful as it can be, we often avoid spaces of liminality and thereby, the growth we need, individually and collectively, to evolve.

“There has to be something different and daring, even nonsensical, to break our comfortable sleepwalk and our compulsive cultural trance. . . .
We actually need to fail, fast, and deliberately falter to understand other dimensions of life.”

This is why we come here. To be reminded. To be held and supported when we inevitably, needfully, rightfully, fail. To hold and support others. To be part of that vast sea of humanity, praying for peace and justice and a better future.

We may never play at Wembley for Live Aid and knit together 100,000 outsiders into an electric whole, we may never walk the Hajj or bathe in the Ganges, but we do walk in liminal spaces of our own, times of birth and death, failure and hurt, that shed light if we choose it see it, on our life’s deeper meaning, our soul’s true purpose, and our community’s larger vision.

Today and every day, let us journey on,
toward becoming and yes, unbecoming,
seeking the spirit’s wholeness
in the endless human quest.