The Spiritual Nomads
I’ve read a few articles in different places which touch on the subject of “digital nomads” – these are workers in particular fields who were formerly office-based, but whose work actually allowed them to work anywhere. Many have taken up that opportunity for freedom and have removed what they perceive to be the shackle of an office, as the essentials of the job are available to them in many different places – some even work whilst travelling the world. All they need is their skill set, a laptop and an internet connection. In one such article, a graphic design artist related that she continues to do her ‘day job’ while travelling the world – so far, she has visited 78 different countries and still the work gets done.
It occurred to me that in this present day, we might be seeing something similar in the area of religion – you might call these people ‘spiritual nomads’.
For the longest time now, we have considered that the practice of faith is tied to a particular location. Even looking back at the Apostolic Era of the Church, Saint Paul would write to “the Church in Corinth.. Phillippi.. Colossae” or some other place. Later, Monastic orders had specific locations and the members of some religious orders even took an additional vow, one of ‘stability’, tying them to a specific house or monastery. And for ourselves, the usual practice of our faith is lived out in a specific community which we call our parish – and this parish model is very much the one on which the Church globally is built.
There are some issues with this parish model, however.
The first is that we can become so fixated on our own little bubble and any personal or political machinations within it, that we become unable to see beyond it; this can erode any real sense of the need to evangelise, and any ability to actually go out into the world to do so. Our attention is on maintaining what we have – not on extending the Kingdom of God through evangelisation of those outwith ourselves.
A second issue is that we can forget that the faith, the Church, extend far beyond our own little corner of the world – there is much more out there besides ourselves.
A third issue is the need for particular elements to make this parish model actually work – a physical Church, a priest, and people to form the local community; and as we see all too clearly in these days, those elements are sometimes not present, and occasionally appear to be in free-fall.
Not infrequently, I read pieces by Catholic authors – often, but not exclusively, in the United States – who note that they attend different Catholic parishes at different times or for particular events, or who travel some distance to be part of a parish which is not the one in their geographical location. These authors report a number of different reasons for doing so. This might, at face value, seem a little unusual. But then, at many times in the past different churches may have come into our own little parishes in the form of ‘missions’ – where itinerant preaches, or religious orders, or spiritual groups and even ordinary lay people, come to us for a few days, as have the opportunity to learn something from them. So perhaps this reversal of parishioners going elsewhere is not so strange after all.
On a visit to Rome during the Jubilee of Mercy, my hotel was a few doors along from a tiny little Church right at the end of the street. There are so very many churches in Rome that only a handful of people were present at the Mass on Sunday morning – I expect most of these lived close by and went there most of the time. I probably stood out to every one of them – not least because while they all responded in Italian, I did so in English. Yet, while we spoke two languages in one sense, the reality was that we were all speaking precisely the same language in another sense. Neither language nor physical distance were actually a bar to what I was there to do. On other holidays, I have attended Mass in all sorts of different churches and parishes in a variety of places, and with much the same result – I have participated fully. And during the Year of Mercy, I frequently visited a certain nearby parish which had organised a series of excellent evening retreats and other events, when there was nothing similar in my own parish and where the Jubilee passed by almost silently.
There are also some real positives about practising our faith in different places.
We begin to see something of the broader picture, for a start. And we see ways of doing things which are different to our own – now, that is not to say the essentials are any different, but perhaps the style, the preaching, the expression, or some other factor might be different. We may see things done better or done worse – but the very fact we are seeing things a little differently might shake us out of that complacency (“but we do it THIS way!”) which can often befall us, usually without our realising it.
So perhaps the belief that we must necessarily be tied to a particular place or parish is not quite so necessary as we might think.
Like the digital nomad, the ‘spiritual nomad’ really needs very little; the desire to live the faith is present already, as the travelling makes clear; beyond this, only the ‘spiritual laptop’ of Scripture and the ‘spiritual wi-fi of prayer’ is absolutely necessary on our part. The place where we find ourselves will provide the final essential – the Sacramental and communal life of the Church and above all else, the Eucharist, which is the very sign of our unity and community, wherever we might be.