By Joshua Seligman
Heaven on earth, we need it now
I'm sick of all of this hanging around
I'm sick of sorrow, I'm sick of the pain
I'm sick of hearing again and again
That there's (never) gonna be peace on earth
These lyrics come from U2's song 'Peace on Earth', which came out in 2000.* The world was a different place twenty-three years ago, but the lyrics remain timely, expressing a longing for God's peace to come in the face of personal and global evils.
Millennia earlier, the Psalmist described a similar longing in different words:
O Lord, deliver my soul from unjust lips
And from a deceitful tongue....
Woe is me! My sojourning was prolonged;
I dwelt with the tents of Kedar.
My soul sojourned a long time as a resident alien.
With those who hate peace, I was peaceful;
When I spoke to them, they made war against me without cause.
Psalm 120:2, 5–7
As pastor Eugene Peterson writes about this psalm, 'Such dissatisfaction with the world as it is is preparation for travelling in the way of Christian discipleship. The dissatisfaction, coupled with a longing for peace and truth, can set us on a pilgrim path of wholeness in God.'
Such a quest for wholeness in God has motivated pilgrims -- travellers with a spiritual purpose -- for generations. A few hundred years after Christ, the desert fathers and mothers left their possessions and status in single-minded pursuit of God. Their journeys led them into the wilderness to pray and wrestle against evil: in Egypt, they moved to the desert, while in the British Isles, where I live, many of these monks and nuns settled down on wind-swept, desolate islands off the Irish and Scottish coasts.
Modern pilgrims still visit these sites today, which in the Celtic Christian tradition are called 'thin places', as visitors often sense there a seemingly thin veil between heaven and earth.
One such thin place is Holy Island, Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England, where St Aidan established a monastic presence that transformed the region, the effects of which endure to this day. I had the opportunity to visit Holy Island one sunny day last autumn. I was struck by the overwhelming sense of peace that filled me during those few hours of walking on the island and that remained with me long afterwards.
But many would say we don't need to travel vast distances to encounter heaven on earth, as powerful as such physical journeys can be. Some Christian traditions say that we can find thin places every week when the church gathers to break bread and worship God.
The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, used by the Orthodox Church, begins with the words 'Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit'. The priest thus announces at the start of the service that the worshipping community is about to embark on a spiritual journey into the heavenly kingdom, joining the worship that is already happening there.
'The liturgy of the Eucharist is best understood as a journey or procession', writes theologian Alexander Schmemann. 'It is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the Kingdom....It is not an escape from the world, rather it is the arrival at a vantage point from which we can see more deeply into the reality of the world.'
In other words, worship is an ascent into the presence of God, and this experience transforms our ongoing relationship with the world around and within us. Perhaps the point of visiting a thin place, whether a holy island or a church service, is to absorb its qualities so that we can help make our homes and work places and communities little thin places of their own. Such journeys can also help us identify God's presence wherever we are and wherever we go.
To a smaller degree, do we not also make such ascents whenever we step outside ourselves to honour the image of God in the people before us and whenever we open our ears to listen for God's still, small voice?
Conversely, if we fail to recognise Christ in others, we fail to make the heavenly ascent. As St John Chrysostom warns, 'Would you do honor to Christ's body? Neglect Him not when naked; do not while here you honour Him with silken garments, neglect Him perishing without of cold and nakedness. For He that said, "This is my body", and by His word confirmed the fact, this same said, "You saw me and hungered, and fed me not"; and, "Inasmuch as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me."'
The ancient Hebrews also understood worship as an ascent. Their primary thin place, the temple in Jerusalem, was on a mountain, so their travels there for annual feast and holy days involved a literal climb.
On their ascents, they would sing songs to accompany them. We call these the Songs of Ascents, and they can be found in the Book of Psalms. These fifteen psalms (120 to 134) cover a range of topics, from issues of the human heart to family life to socio-political concerns to blessings for the road. It's as if the songs enabled the pilgrims to bring the entirety of their lives before God in prayer, communally and individually, as they approached the temple, as they prepared for worship. At the same time, I imagine the songs gave them spiritual fuel for the hike.
The Songs of Ascents and the pilgrimages for which they have been sung are the focus of Foreshadow this year. The editors and co-hosts look forward to sharing creative writing, podcast conversations and other works that offer personal stories and reflections on the journeys we take, spiritual and physical, in search of heaven on earth and wholeness in God.
We hope these works provide courage, insight and inspiration for the path ahead.
* Although in the original song, the line is 'There's gonna be peace on earth', in a live version, the line is 'There's never gonna be peace on earth'.
Joshua Seligman is the founding editor of Foreshadow and a co-host of its podcast, Forecast.