The Sacred Journey by Charles Foster is the eighth and final book in The Ancient Practices Series published by Thomas Nelson. The series began with an introduction to the seven ancient practices which “came effortlessly out of Judaism into Christianity as the principal ways of forming or organizing the . . . devout life” (viii). This introduction was followed by seven additional books, each highlighting and exploring a different ancient spiritual practice. Foster’s work highlights and explores the practice which is arguably most foreign to contemporary Christians: pilgrimage.
Weaving together third-person historical accounts of pilgrims and their pilgrimages, first-person testimony of both “tourists” and “pilgrims” (who are distinguished in part by the purpose of their travel and the vulnerability with which they do or do not undertake their travel), passages from sacred texts of various religions, and pertinent biblical texts, Foster makes a case for the continuing practice of pilgrimage by Christians. The presentation of Jesus in the canonical gospels as one constantly on the move serves as the cornerstone of Foster’s case. He constructs the rest of the foundation of his case by arguing that many of the features of God’s kingdom Jesus described in his preaching, teaching, and interactions (e.g. “the first will be last…,” “those who lose their lives for my sake will find them…,” “love your enemies…,” etc.), can be realized on pilgrimage in ways they simply cannot be realized in the midst of a settled life. Having set in place the cornerstone and constructed the foundation, Foster continues the construction of his case by providing suggestions for why one ought to practice pilgrimage (to get rid of the junk that inevitably accumulates and clutters our lives and to seek an encounter with something other than ourselves), where one ought to journey (thin places, that is, places in which, for whatever reason, one finds it easier to encounter the other, particularly the divine other), and how one ought to prepare for the journey (packing minimally and ensuring one’s absence won’t place an undue burden on others). He then explores the ways in which the journey can be both refreshing and exhausting and the ways in which the journey can open doors to true fellowship with fellow pilgrims. Having discussed preparation and the experiences one is likely to have on the journey, the importance of the pilgrim’s return is discussed. The book concludes with two clarifying chapters, the first discussing and responding to various opponents of pilgrimage, the second addressing the inevitable pilgrimages which choose some of us, whether we like it or not (e.g. health challenges which prevent individuals from going on the kind of pilgrimage that is the primary focus of the book, but which transform daily life into an altogether different kind of pilgrimage).
As I mentioned previously, my suspicion is that pilgrimage is the most foreign of the seven ancient spiritual practices to most contemporary followers of Jesus. It is especially to Foster’s credit, therefore, that The Sacred Journey is not only accessible, but engaging. No doubt this emerges largely as a result of Foster’s obvious and contagious conviction as to the great value of pilgrimage. At times, however, Foster’s passion is offset by snark, his communication of his conviction comes off as less contagious than condescending, and his case for the value of pilgrimage is called into question by a smug sense of superiority. In fact, he seems to commend just such an attitude, “… [Y]ou’ll give them the shepherd’s smile and thumb your nose. Very graciously, of course, but with a humble knowledge of superiority” (208). I can’t imagine Foster intended to come across as his own worst enemy, so I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt. Still, the condescension and superiority make it difficult to be persuaded fully.
Like many evangelists, whether of a religion or a hobby or a rock band, Foster at times seems to overstate his case. His fascination with pilgrimage as an antidote to gnosticism is a perfect example. Foster rightly and helpfully identifies gnosticism as an often overlooked but extremely significant obstacle to faithful following of Jesus. But while statements such as “anything that upsets [the gnostics] can’t be all bad” may evoke a chuckle from readers who already agree with Foster’s diagnosis of gnosticism’s threats, they may also prompt those who struggle with gnosticism to become quite defensive. Foster also makes assumptions, foundational to his argument, that at least some, if not many, would not necessarily share. For instance, he asserts early on that “God makes no secret of his clear bias for the wanderer. He . . . loathes the city” (2), an assertion he reiterates in various ways throughout the book. Not only is this an assumption many would not share, but also Foster fails to fully substantiate such an assumption. The mere observation that both Abraham and Jesus were wanderers does not warrant the strong claim that God “loathes the city.” God may indeed loathe the city, but Foster’s failure to sufficiently support such a claim can make it appear as though he couldn’t make a strong enough case for pilgrimage by speaking of its merits, so in addition he had to attack city life. Additionally, readers familiar with the vision of the city at the end of Revelation may find this claim, as well as Foster’s attempt to reconcile this claim with the Revelation vision, unconvincing.
It is altogether possible that when it comes to a spiritual practice which is likely foreign to many followers of Jesus, such overstatement is the only means by which to seriously engage many readers. Indeed, while I bristled at such overstatements as I read, I found that they caught my attention and forced me to reflect on things on which I would not otherwise have reflected. While I am not compelled to set out on a journey to Jerusalem or Rome, I have been stirred to reconsider the ways in which I’ve allowed the allure of feeling settled to be an idol and to prevent me from living as though the kingdom realities of which Jesus spoke are in fact true. For that, I thank Charles Foster.
Disclosure: I received this book free from the publisher through http://booksneeze.com. I was not required to write a positive review.