Maps of the Unseen

Mappa Mundi detail

I’ve been reading Spiritual Direction lately. It’s been an enlightening book and this morning the following caught my eye.

“You cannot worship a formula, only the underlying reality to which it leads, but without the formula the reality is unlikely to be reached. Without the map one is liable to get lost.”

Martin Thornton+, Spiritual Direction, p. 68

This succinctly sums up the need for and role of liturgy. We cannot worship a formula, indeed, and we must be careful not to make an idol of it. Instead, we must be mindful of where our liturgy leads us. A map that does not reflect reality will lead us astray because it doesn’t conform to the actual world.

How do we know a map is accurate? One of the simplest ways is to ask if other people have used it to get where they were going and if it got them there successfully. We cannot, however, know for certain that our forbearers arrived since we are not there yet. If we were, we wouldn’t need a map.

We are somewhat like those on a ridge trying to get across a wide plain of rolling hills and woods to the other side of a distant mountain. From our vantage, we cannot see the entire journey, but we can see our predecessors as they make their way up the final mountain and crest the summit. We can be fairly certain that those were on the right road and arrived successfully.

Some never emerge from the forrest. Some get swept away trying to fjord the river. We may even see a few cresting the wrong hill or stuck on a ledge. Fortunately, we are not the first ones to tread this path, so we have guides and maps. Others have identified perils to avoid, alternate routes around certain sections, and even places to rest and sights to see.

In order for a map to be useful, we must follow it. It does us no good to pull out a pen and start drawing our own roads or crossing out hills or valleys. To do so does not change the landscape, only our expectations of it. Wishful thinking is rarely a good strategy for route planning.

The liturgies of the church guide us and keep us from becoming lost or stranded. They do not specify all of how we must travel. We can choose to stop and ponder every flower and bird along the way or we can choose to travel at night so there are less distractions. We may travel alone or with a group.

I’ve always liked maps and I like Thornton’s image of liturgy (and tradition) as a map. Just as I can look at a map of somewhere I have been to help me recall a trip, so liturgy helps me recall where I have been and the experiences I have had on the journey thus far. Its reliability in guiding me thus far increases my confidence that it will continue to point me in the right direction.


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