Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Education for -- what? More reflections on Luther and Ignatius

We leave for Mexico City in less than a week, and this will be one of our stops: the city dump, a food source for too many of the city's poor. This exposure will be part of our education, and images like this will unsettle our first-world lives.

That's the task of immersion: disorientation.

Some recent travel gave me the experience to reflect on how immersion gets packaged in undergraduate, graduate, and -- in our case, faculty -- experiences. In mid-December I had the opportunity to visit the college that pioneered global immersion through its Center for Global Education (CGE), the Lutheran Augsburg College in downtown Minneapolis. Augsburg states its purpose boldly: "education for service." Contrast that with the mission of the Jesuit Santa Clara University, whose immersion program in El Salvador at the Casa de la Solidaridad Lisa and I will visit in March: "education for justice."

Education for service, education for justice: is there a difference?

I think there is, and it might play into some of the differences between Lutheran and Ignatian spiritualities.

First, Luther understood vocation as a place of one's calling, and he maintained that all positions in life -- brewer, baker, mother -- were important places where God calls people to serve, not just the places of monastery or abbey. It was an pointed correction to the late-medieval valorization of religious life, but it resulted in a somewhat static sense of vocation.

For Ignatius, calling is a path -- Ignatius even called himself as a "pilgrim." Vocation is more kinetic, more in motion. You're on the move, and you're looking for direction. Discernment is crucial.

But the distinction between educating for service and educating for justice comes out of a difference between static and kinetic notions of vocation.

Second -- and related, Luther's attention to place corresponds to an emphasis on context. After all, if you find yourself inhabiting a particular space, you have time to look around. Contextual analysis is crucial.

Ignatius' attention to path and motion allows for a bigger picture. Indeed, the emphasis on justice illumines the systems and structures in which particular places are located, analysis of which is both important and natural from that angle of vision.

The distinction between educating for service and educating for justice highlights a difference between contextual and systemic analysis, between understanding a specific setting and situating that setting in a bigger picture.

Finally, Luther's emphasis on service always has the neighbor as its focus. For Luther, all the world's a neighbor. He's adamant that we bear the face of Christ to the neighbor, that the neighbor bears the face of Christ to us. I wish sometimes the neighbor just bore the face of -- the neighbor. But that's another post. Nonetheless, there's a deeply personal thrust here.

The Ignatian push for justice, almost because of its systemic nature, is more encompassing, but also less personal. I'm always struck with how abstract the "preferential option for the poor" can sound, though that is not at all its intent. Lest the tag "impersonal" seem negative, remember how easily the personal obscures good judgment -- and you see the positive sides of this emphasis.

The difference between educating for service and educating for justice may also be marked by a difference between more personal and more impersonal approaches to poverty.

Of course, we need both angles of vision, Lutheran and Ignatian, for a fuller view. And while the typology above could be contested, I offer it as an heuristic tool to sort differing emphases in the two spiritualities. Each informs a personal and social ethic; each reminds us how closely woven are spirituality and ethics in these two figures -- and the traditions they shaped.

Again, I'm so lucky to have Lisa as a colleague in this venture: she's as thoroughly Ignatian as I am Lutheran. For better and for worse, we're "stuck" in these traditions, and we're often overly critical of our roots. I wind up defending Ignatius, and she'll wave the flag for Luther. So we remind each other of the gifts of the other's tradition. That's been a grace, as well as grist for good conversation!

We carried backpacks along the Camino; we'll carry our traditions with us in the next phases of the grant. Thanks to Kim Erno and Ariadna at the Lutheran Center in Mexico City for all their advance planning. We hope to connect with Anne Lutterman-Aguilar on the faculty of Augsburg's CGE in Cuernavaca. Anne is doing some terrific work on the phenomenology of vocation: the one being called, the one calling, and the one being served. And thanks to Doug Schuurman who elegantly unpacks the difference between vocation as path and as place in his book "Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life" (Eerdmans, 2004).

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The "O"'s have it!

I second Lisa's observation that the Advent/Christmas time is a seasonal pilgrimage. We make the pilgrimage in trips home, visits to family and friends, and we mark the time in visits to churches and holy sites.

We also make the pilgrimage in texts, as we contemplate the appointed readings for the season. The Advent lectionary is my favorite. Words of the prophets register longing and loss, anticipation and hope. They fall like sheer poetry on the ear, partly because of their familiarity but mostly because they rank as some of most lyrical writing in scripture.

As mentioned, we started our pilgrimage to Santiago in Pamplona, staying at a hotel on the tiny Plaza de la Virgin de la O. Although Lisa and I spent miles imagining what that "O" might have stood for, liturgical geographer Dan Johnson pointed us to a website that clarified our confusion: the Virgen de la O referred to the virgin celebrated in the "O" antiphons, a series of readings for seven days immediately preceding Christmas Eve.

I wasn't aware that these "O" antiphons had anything to do with the Virgin Mary. They name Christ in the many and various ways that the prophets anticipate him: as Wisdom from on High, Ruler of Might, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring from on high, Ruler of all nations, and finally, as Emmanuel. You'll recognize these as verses of the ancient Advent hymn, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."

There's the O, but where's the Virgin?

That was the question I brought to these readings this year. And lo! reference to the virgin was somewhere in every one of the days' readings. The "O"s begin on December 17th, and this year's reading was the magnificent genealogy from Matthew's gospel, full of long and largely unpronounceable male names -- but interrupted by four women, most of whom were not "good Jewish girls." There's Tamar, who wrestled the justice she was due from her thoughtless father-in-law, Judah. There's Rahab, a Canaanite "prostitute," who nonetheless saved the young nation of the Hebrew peoples. There's "the wife of Uriah," Bathsheba, probably a Hittite like her husband. There's Ruth, the Moabite woman and wife of Boaz. Finally, there's Mary. These women are important breaks in the male lineage: they signal the good news is for all people.

Another of the readings for one of the "O" days comes from the gospel of Matthew, who echoes Isaiah (7:14), "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel" (Matthew 1:18-25). Then, there's the story of the barren wife of Manoah, who had no children -- and suddenly became pregnant with Samson (Judges 13). Other readings during the season of the "O"s tell the story of Elizabeth, a much older, childless woman who becomes pregant with a child who will grow up to be John the Baptist. Hannah, the mother of Samuel, makes appearance in another reading: another woman without any children, who suddenly finds herself pregnant. Mary's song in Luke's gospel, the Magnificat, is only a little less militaristic version of Hannah's song from 1 Samuel 2.

The readings prescribed for these final days before the birth of Christ celebrate unexpected and thoroughly momentous pregnancies that issue in powerful figures to both the Jewish and the Christian faiths.

But most of all these readings celebrate the women who bore them -- perhaps the only time in the church year we cheer them on.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Seasonal Pilgrimage

This time of year, of course, we note a famous pilgrimage without generally calling it such.

The Christmas story we celebrate begins with two crises: first the dangerous pregnancy of a very young girl, maybe 13 or 14 years old. Pregnant by--whom? An over-eager, insufficiently cautious finace? A Roman soldier committing another rape because he can? Or was it...God? Mary is vulnerable to Jewish law, and could be stoned to death for what would be assumed to be her transgression. The second crisis, nearly 9 months later, when the young couple heads to Bethlehem under pressure of the government's need to take a census. Now. Of all times. So, the story goes, Joseph and Mary head to Bethlehem.

Historicity? Doubtful at best. The Romans only counted their own in censuses. Even though there was a census in 6 b.c, they wouldn't bother to count the Jews. Second, not even the most bone-headed administrator would send people back to their birthplaces to be counted. It was only a little less stupid then than it would be now to do such a thing. The story of Jesus' birth in a cave in Bethlehem is most likely a fiction added later in order to fit his life story with Micah's prophecy of a savior's birth in Bethlehem.

Or...perhaps...remember who this girl is. When the angel told her she was to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit (if she consented,) first she argued with the angel on matters of biology. No sex, no baby, she said. When the angel said that wouldn't be a problem, she responded by echoing a great Hebrew Bible song of the triumph of the lowly over the powerful. To latch onto this song revealed Mary as something of a middle-school-age political firebrand. In this child, God would "cast down the mighty from their thrones." The rich would be "sent away empty." Mary was a girl with attitude.

It is possible that it was Mary herself who wanted to take the dangerous trip to Bethlehem. She was raised on scripture, and knew very well of Micah's prophecy. And her child, by God, would be that messiah. So she and Joseph saddled up and headed off. This is an act of some determination: 9 months pregnant, joints loosening in preparation for birth, ankles swollen, belly sore, unable to sleep anyway, she hops a donkey for a weeklong pilgrimage, a transformative journey to a holy place. Or she'd make it holy, anyway. Perhaps they intended to go stay for a week or two, get settled a little, but the very jostling of the trip brought on the birth a little early. But no, her water broke early, they found a stable, and Jesus arrived on his own schedule.

I've been focused on pilgrimage not as about the end but the walking, the step by step by step. The character of a pilgrim is in the walking. Here we have a young girl making her pilgrimage into the danger of giving birth without relatives to help (and where do you find a midwife in a strange town?) She did so, perhaps, in order to fulfill a minor prophet's whim, that this unimportant town might have some claim to fame. What do you suppose they chatted about on the road? What stories did they tell? What fears did they share? What hopes? Who did they meet on the way? Who was kind to them the nights they stayed en route to Bethlehem?

Another pilgrimage, another transformation, this time a transformation of all creation.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Luther and Ignatius: Reluctant colleagues?

As part of our grant, Lisa and I will be teaching a course on comparative spiritualities, Lutheran and Ignatian. To prepare myself visually, I tried to find an image of Luther and Ignatius together. After all, they were roughly contemporary, one from the Basque country of Spain, the other from Germany. Theologically, they had lots in common.

1. Both focused on the person and work of Jesus Christ, though Ignatius gravitated to the life of Jesus, while Luther remained in awe of Christ, his righteousness, and how he conferred it freely upon humans.

2. Each discovered divine mystery in everyday life, something Ignatius called "finding God in all things," while Luther marveled on the infinite God capable of the most finite expression.

3. Finally, both emphasized vocation, or calling, though in Ignatian spirituality, one is called to a path or pilgrimage, which entailed ongoing discovery and discernment. For Luther, vocation was more static, God calls everyone to his or her place in life, even the most humble baker or brewer. Vocation was not just for those in religious life, nuns, monks, and priests.

If Luther and Ignatius could agree on all this good stuff, you'd' think there would be an image of them together, arms encircled, lifting a glass to the mystery.

This is all I could find: Pierre Le Gros' statue (c. 1695-1699)in the Ignatian Church of The Gesu in Rome, "Religion Overthrowing Heresy and Hatred." It's located near the tomb of Ignatius, who is buried underneath one of the world's largest slabs of lapis lazuli, an opulence he would have abhorred. That's as close as Ignatius gets to Luther.

Truth is the female figure, lashing out at the male heretics writhing in fear at her feet, while malevolent little angels tear out pages of books. We could easily imagine the men to be Luther and his Genevan counterpart, John Calvin. If that's the case, we can almost read the title of the books, Calvin's "Institutes" or Luther's polemical, provocative treatises.

Close in time to the invention of the printing press and a general uptick in literacy, the Reformation was all about words, words, words. Hymns, tracts, even bibles in the common language were suddenly widely available for dissemination, and the common people could read them.

The Catholic Counter-Reformation's protest was visual: baroque and rococco (baroque on steroids!) images of salvation, grace, and, as depicted here, damnation. Particularly to the Reformers.

How will we parse all this conflict in a class offered more than four hundred years later, when the similarities seem greater than the differences, particularly at a time when religions swing wildly between expressive individualism and fundamentalisms of left and right?

Maybe in the end, it doesn't matter. We'll take the wheat -- and leave the chaff behind.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Immersion and pilgrimage: Setting my face toward Mexico City

Part two of this pilgrimage grant takes us to Mexico City, one of the world's largest cities. With six other students from Chicago and Berkeley, we'll be involved in a sixteen-day immersion in another culture. We'll learn a lot about Mexican culture, but the dominant culture we'll be immersed in is the culture of poverty.

I've been to Mexico City before several times. My initial visit was to an academic conference on "Justice and Justification" in 1985, and the dominant culture was the culture of the academy. To our cost, we had very little to do with our surroundings. I was in Mexico City again several years later, taking a break from language school in Cuernavaca. Then I was immersed in the culture of Polanco, a beautiful, upscale urban neighborhood bordering Chapultepec Park. I was immersed in the culture of some of the best art museums in the world.

This time will be different: we will be immersed in the culture of the poor.

Immersion and pilgrimage are alike in some ways -- and very different in others. I'm trying to count the ways.

1. Happily, we won't be walking! My feet are glad about that. Yet, because of the City's danger, our movement will be restricted. We'll reside in a gated community. It won't be safe to simply get up early and run around the stadium of the nearby uniersity, as I did during the academic conference. We'll have to watch out for one another. And that prompts me to wonder: how will I "watch out" for the people we'll be meeting, particularly when I return to El Norte? They live in the daily danger of poverty and hunger.

2. "You walk your own Camino," a fellow pilgrim counseled. He was right. Pilgrimage is solitary. In contrast, immersion happens in and with a group. Indeed, our first experience of immersion will be in the group with whom we're traveling. Scout camp was the last time any of us were herded around like we will be in Mexico City. Our behavior will revert to that chronological age: I'll be fifty-something going on fourteen! On the Camino you can act fifty-something going on fourteen -- and no one would be around to notice!

3. Pilgrims carry everything they need on their backs: each carries her own. Immersion, in contrast, creates a situation of interdependence. Between us, we'll need to cover our bases. For the fiercely independent among us, that will be hard. Interdependence, even dependence, though, is far more the reality of a global world, where what I buy, what I eat, what I wear affects people far away whose lives and livelihoods depend on unthinking habits of First Sorld consumers.

4. Like on the Camino, we'll be dependent upon the kindness of strangers, and like the Camino, they'll all be speaking Spanish. There the similarity ends. Our hosts this time will be sharing from scarcity, not abundance. They'll share what little they have -- and like the widow's cruse of oil, it will be enough.

5. As with pilgrimage, we'll need to prepare. But we'll need more than great, lightweight gear for this trek. We'll need openness, sensitivity, and simplicity in our backpacks. Indeed, for our next immersion trip in March to Santa Clara University's Casa de la Solidaridad in El Salvador, these three traits as listed as requirements. They come right after a qualifying GPA, language skills, and maturity. (

6. Finally, as with pilgrimage, we'll go as beggars. There's nothing we can do or fix or change. We will simply need to be -- and be present. Like pilgrimage, immersion is about receptivity, not productivity. We'll go with empty hands -- and return with full hearts.

I don't expect this to be easy, but it needs to be done. Poverty is the reality of the majority of the world's population. We need to be there to experience it.

Then we need to let it change our lives in ways we cannot yet fathom.

Then comes the doing.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Back to Mary, the Virgen de la O

It's called the Camino of St. James, and his relics allegedly rest in the crypt of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. But the route really belongs to Mary. We started our trek at the Hotel Eslava in Pamplona, located in a plaza abutting the western edge of Pamplona's fabled city walls. The plaza was dedicated to the Virgen de la O. Lisa and I entertained ourselves for hours trying to imagine what that "O" might stand for. I finally settled on the most mundane of meanings: "Oest" or "west," simply because that was the plaza's prospect.

Thanks to liturgical geographer Daniel Johnson for setting me straight and referring me to:

The truth of the Virgen de la O is much more interesting. "O" refers to the "O" antiphons, a series of traditional monastic prayers used at the vespers during the last days of Advent. The prayers anticipate Christ as fulfilment of divine promise, as the answer to ancient longing:

December 17: O Wisdom from on high (O Sapientia)
December 18: O Lord of might (O Adonai)
December 19: O Root of Jesse (O Radix)
December 20: O Key of David (O Claves)
December 21: O Dayspring from on high (O Oriens)
December 22: O Ruler of all nations (O Rex gentium)
December 23: O Emmanuel (O Emmanuel)

You'll recognize the "O" antiphons as verses to the Advent carol "O come, O come, Emmanuel." Backwards the first letters of the Latin titles spell: "cras ero!" "Tomorrow I will be with you." And indeed, the "O" antiphons end the day before Christmas Eve, the night of Jesus' birth. Chanting these antiphons, medieval monks inserted themselves into the mystery of the incarnation. Let the carol play as the soundtrack to the icon above.

The Virgen de la O is the human side of that mystery. She appears pregnant, for it will erupt from her body. Imagine what must be going through her head. She was pregnant against her will; she was engaged to someone who was not the father of her child -- and knew it. According to law, she could be stoned. Indeed, we're told that Joseph intended to "dismiss her quietly" (Matthew 1:19) after the birth of the child, so as not to expose her to public disgrace. Despite the complacency of the image above, Mary must have been terrified.

Medieval Spanish piety gets this, for one of the most popular images along the Camino depicts Mary with seven swords coming out of her heart. This is a graphic depiction of the "seven sorrows." By all accounts, though, that's a very low estimate.

St. James gets to be a knight, slaying whomever the locals were afraid of. But Mary is closer to real life.

O Virgen de la Camino: we remember you in this season too -- and all for whom and with whom you stand!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

UCA martyrs

This post finds me in San Salvador, where, 20 years ago yesterday 6 Jesuits, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter were dragged out of their beds and shot to death. The Jesuits' "crime" was speaking out on behalf of the poor against the government. The women were their companeras just by being there, killed for being unwise enough to hang around with people with such a dangerous insurrectionist (resurrectionist?) message. A few days before we went to the place where Oscar Romero lived for a time, where his little Toyota still sits. Inside you see quotidian stuff--a robe, a razor, dental floss, books both scholarly (including, how "scandalous"--Hans Kung!)and popular.
This is a pilgrimage of sorts--the students leading our delegation are speaking of it as such, while, as Marty mentioned, I'm no longer certain what the word means. Our student leaders worked here as part of the Casa de Solidaridad, a study-abroad program that combines academics with service. This is a reunion for them, a time of poignancy as they see old friends, but also see that not much has chaged or seems likely to change. Our second day here we went to an area devastated by Hurricane Ida, and spoke with folks still digging out from the wreckage. Many lost everything, and if everything wasn't much to start with, does that make it better or worse to lose it all? The folks stood in line to get clean water, and whatever other aid would arrive that day. Yet they smiled and took the time to speak with strangers from abroad. And they try to clean, though how do you get ahead of the mud when the water available to clean is too polluted to be of much help? The line to which the water rose in shacks built by a river were over my head, now receded but leaving behind a record of mud and debris stuck to the walls.
We mustn’t miss the point.
Today at UCA groups of students are making lovely alfombras in the road (colored road salt is carefully piled in pictures, in the way of a mandala.) There are salt images of the Jesuits and the women, and also of the 4 American women slaughtered here earlier, three Maryknoll sisters and a lay woman, Jean Donovan. Romero is everywhere. In a room at UCA there are photo albums of the Jesuits’ quarters before and after the raid that destroyed them. There are graphic photos of their destroyed bodies. Carefully preserved are their bloodstained clothes, a bible stained with blood, grass from the rose garden where they were dumped, labeled with the names of each of the Jesuits. At the Romero site also were graphic photos of the bloody corpse, carried out to a pick-up truck to be rushed pointlessly to the hospital.
We mustn’t miss the point.
Their bloody deaths separate them from us, in the way that the dead are always separated, for a time at least, from the living. The temptation is to see the extraordinary only, the love that gets dragged out of bed and killed, kidnapped, raped, shot, on the road and dumped as the women were, joining the hundreds of ordinary Salvadorans who had no choice but to be caught in the savage vortex of power and oppression that ruled their world. The UCA martyrs, the churchwomen, Romero, are separated from the ordinary Salvadoran martyrs because they had a choice. Each of them was here, in one way or another, voluntarily.
But the point we must not miss, I think, is that neither the death nor the voluntariness is the core of what made them memorable, but the simple daily work they were involved in. The quotidian hassles of being university professors, of being workers on behalf of the poor, of organizing and speaking, trying to make sure the talk they’re to give sounds good, trying to stay ahead of the laundry, trying to make sure the car has gas, dealing with difficult colleagues in the church, the community, the school. Working when you’re tired, trying to be pleasant when you want to snap at someone who deserves it, trying to see the value in the mountain of quotidiana.
Sanctity isn’t in death. It’s in life. Solidarity isn’t in mere physical presence but more in taking on concerns as one’s own, in the midst of, along with, the wheat and chaff of our lives. To be a pilgrim isn’t in the arriving, it’s in the walking, the step by step by step. That’s what we share with them. That’s what we owe them.
We mustn’t miss the point.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"If everything's a 'pilgrimage' ....." Toward a definition

My colleague, Lisa, is in El Salvador for a commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the martyrdom of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the Jesuit university in San Salvador. She promises to post on that, but finds herself with limited on-line access. In one of her brief notes, she verbally threw her hands up in despair: "I'm not sure I know what pilgrimage even means anymore...."

I feel the same way.

Actually, so did Geoffrey Chaucer, who lamented the popularity of pilgrimages at the beginning of "Caunterbury Tales." After a winter of being cooped up in tiny houses and rained upon, April found people chomping at the bit to get out. Pilgrimage was a good excuse. Read the opening of "Caunterbury Tales" again -- and remember that good old Geoffrey had a ready wit.

Seven centuries later, pilgrimage is everywhere: to Jane Austen's or George Washington's home -- even to Paris Hilton's MacMansion!, to The Holocaust Museum or to Auschwitz, to Gettysburg or Culloden. You can do "pilgrimage" past the homes of the stars in Malibu and Beverly Hills. With the spectre of the Paparazzi-Pilgrim out there, no wonder we're worried.

Should pilgrimage always involve physical exertion -- or is there something to inner, psycho-spiritual pilgrimages, whose "exertion" comes in the form of disciplined breathing, mantram repetition, or meditation? Must pilgrimage always be to a "religious" site -- and who's in charge of defining what counts as "religious" again, please? Can pilgrimage also embrace visits to places hallowed by sheer carnage, like the Twin Towers, or Auschwitz, or the beaches at Normandy?

Certainly, Lisa would be on "pilgrimage" at the moment, visiting the site of Salvadoran martyrs -- and behind them all the people who were killed in that awful war.

I like the broad definition Phil Cousineau offers in his book "The Art of Pilgrimage:" "a transformative journey to a sacred center" (xxiii). He outlines four components: mindful preparation, respect for the destination, attention to the path -- both its physical aspect and the people on it, and a focus that deepens as the journey continues. Intensity and intention mark pilgrimage -- and set it apart from mere tourism.

Pilgrim and tourist may share the same sites: I surely saw "tourists" along the Camino. At times, I was one of them! But I shifted back into "pilgrim" mode again, looking for depth, not breadth of impressions along the way. These four components are supplied by the pilgrim; they aren't inherent in the destination itself.

This may be different from Chaucer's pilgrims, for whom the journey may have been more religious obligation than "vision quest." More "religious" than "spiritual," as one of our comments suggested. But Cousineau's components work for today.

I'd only add a fifth component: on-going rumination at journey's end. I know that makes us sound like cows, but it's as important as "mindful preparation" before you even set out.

So onward -- and mooooooooooooo.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Always Coming Home: Going in Circles

I'll borrow the title of Ursula Le Guin's luminous novel to start this posting. She writes across the genres of science fiction and fantasy, always to create heterocosms, literally "other worlds." In her books, she creates "other worlds" -- so that we can more sharply see our own. Reading her book "Always Coming Home," I was transported into a landscape suffused with the light and season of northern California, all projected into a very different time. Closing the book, I felt dumped back into my familiar. Home again -- but with a twist.

That's pilgrimage: you come home again. But with a twist. The point wasn't to get to Santiago; the point was to come home again -- with a twist.

In our post-pilgrimage postings, Lisa and I have been trying to figure out exactly what's altered. It seems like pilgrimage goes in a straight line: ours went from Pamplona to Santiago. But in fact, the real journey was from California to the Camino -- and back again. Something's different: we're trying to find its pulse.

Over the weekend, I joined a group of seasoned and potential pilgrims at a gathering of the American Friends of the Camino ( As I looked around the room, I had a sense of what's changed. Turning to the other Marty in the group, I said: "I came back speaking a language no one else understood. I could barely communicate. You all speak that language." Without identifying the difference, my comment expressed it.

In his presentation to the group in the afternoon, Phil Cousineau observed that "every great journey is a circle," and he cited Kierkegaard: "Life is lived forward, but understood backward." I flashed on the image of all those cairns, monuments of stones that pilgrims had picked up in the morning and set down somewhere later in the day. These displaced stones swarmed certain places along the way, monuments to the circle of pilgrimage. Spiritually and physically, the trek goes forward only by journeying back to pick up pieces of the past, turn them over, travel with them for a time -- and lay them down.

During the course of the long days of walking, we kept running into pieces of the past. We told lots of stories from our own pasts; we met people from all over the world. With many of them, we found some strange common connection: a city we'd loved, a rock band we'd followed, a person we knew. Each connection was charged with memory: uncanny -- and not a coincidence. Stones from the past, picked up again, and set down in a new configuration.

Indeed, during Kathy Gower's evocative slide show of her journey along the Camino d'Arles a few months before, she showed a picture of a fellow pilgrim she'd met along the way. The man and his dog rested by a stream. I looked more carefully: it was Richard and Alcabar, the American from Chicago we'd met as a hospitaler in Las Herrerias and then ran into as a pilgrim outside of Santiago. I burst out with his name, and Kathy grinned: "I'm glad you ran into Richard."

All I could say was: "I am too."

Le Guin put it more poetically: we're always coming home.

And thanks to Kathy Gower for the photo of Richard and Alcabar!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Practices: Calming....and Expressive!

As it hovers over the crucified body of Christ, Giotto's angel is in anguish: full-face, full-body anguish. Pain registers in the eyes, the mouth, the arms rigid with grief, right into the twisted spine -- if an angel even has one. This is lamentation.

I hasten to call lamentation a practice, even a contemplative practice. It's not one directors of the soul and spirit turn to when they seek to help their clients find solace and reduce stress. It's not a mantra, a spiritual passage, or a pattern of steady, rhythmic breathing. In contrast to these calming practices, lamentation expresses suffering: it encourages the one suffering to give voice to that pain.

Fully a third of the psalms in the Hebrew scriptures are psalms of lament:

"Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts;/
all your waves and your billows have gone over me..../
I say to my God, my rock, 'Why have you forgotten me?/
Why must I walk around mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?'/
As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me,/
While they say to me continually, 'Where is your God?'" (Psalm 42:7, 9-10)

Lamentation puts anguish into words: it directs suffering to someone, because it counts on someone being there -- and there listening. Further, lamentation banks on the fact that rage will not break relationship. Finally -- and maybe this happens only sometimes -- the one lamenting falls into the arms of the one listening, the way someone who's cried himself dry or shouted herself hoarse finally falls into the arms of the friend who's been there all along, helplessly witnessing the pain.

Giotto's angel may not be there yet: it appears to be still in the raging stage.

But we need these expressive practices, because we can't be expected to show up before God or the Divine Mystery with only our positive feelings. If the psalms are any indication, God can handle the full-bore, full-body, full spectrum of human emotions.

Pilgrimage is an expressive practice. Last night at dinner a friend asked: "Did you pray a lot on the Camino?" I had to answer: "Not the way I thought I would." Pilgrimage revealed a different register of prayer, prayer that embraces curses, pain, even boredom.

I don't want to lose sight of these expressive practices. They count as contemplative practices, because they connect us in deep ways to the divine when we most need connection.

Someone's there, ready to catch us.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Hajj II: Hajj and Exodus

Commentator Laura made an important point a few posts ago. We found the camino to be spiritual but not religious, and I wondered if it had always been so. Laura suggests I might have it backward--that in older times the camino may have been religious but not spiritual--in an age in which people were awash in religion, many, perhaps, hit the trail without a lot of what we'd call spiritual motivation--seeking or open to transformation, navigating major life decisions, etc. Some may have been seeking the "get out of Purgatory free!" card of the major pilgrimages, others may have been doing what was charged to them as a penance. And while for Marty and I, the camino marked a stark change in mode of transportation, Laura asks also to consider how pilgrims in the old days got to the trail in the first place--their travel to the starting point may well have been nearly as challenging as the pilgrimage itself.

The hajj is a pilgrimage in that it requires travel to a holy place, carries a deep religious and often spiritual resonance, is marked by ritual observances before and during the trip. Like traditional Christian pilgrims, but less so for moderns, the muslim community has expectations of hajjis--they are to have been changed in a way that serves as a model to others. It is physically a liminal experience, but not in the same way as the camino.

I'm thinking about another form of religious walk. After some preliminary sparring back-and-forth between Moses and Pharoah,involving frogs, locusts, and other annoyances, God gets serious. The Israelites ate supper dressed for travel. It's striking, really--the story get right up to where God tells the Israelites to get ready to go, then the narrative shifts to how Israel today is to celebrate Passover. The people are to be marked by the experience of the exodus.

But I'm interested in the wandering in the desert part. Was it a pilgrimage? Was it like a pilgrimage? Was it like the hajj or the camino, or is it something else?

Pilgrimage and Immigration: An outer edge of a contemplative practice

At the end of October I had the privilege of participating in a conference on "Contemplative Practices in Action," organized by Thomas Plante, professor of psychology at Santa Clara University. The conference aired chapters for a book exploring how contemplative practices reduce stress and contribute to spiritual well-being. Participant-authors drew from religious traditions old (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism) and new (Eknath Easwaran's Eight Point Program of Passage Meditation or EPP, use of a "mantram" or centering word). Sonny Manuel SJ and I co-authored a case study, drawing on a very particular form of stress, suffering, and working deep within a very particular religious tradition, Christianity.

Entitled "A Pilgrimage from Suffering to Solidarity: Walking the Path of Contemplative Practices," the contribution began with three characteristics of suffering: denial, isolation, and the need for control. We offered a practice addressing each dimension. Lamentation moves one from denial to acceptance; intercession invites suffering out of isolation into a place of communion; with pilgrimage one quite literally walks out of the need to control into a spirit of surrender.

In the course of our research, Sonny and I discovered "outer" edges of each practice. Not only does contemplation address individual need; it points toward solidarity. Advocacy is an outer edge of lamentation, as the one speaking out her own suffering discovers her words have given voice to others whom affliction has silenced. Accompaniment is the outer edge of intercession, as one asking for what he needs finds himself alongside others in similar or even greater need. Finally, pilgrimage points to immersion, the ability to simply surrender to another person or culture without judgment or distance.

Of course, we wrote the article before the actual experience of being on pilgrimage.

I confessed that to the group, explaining that I'd found a deep resonance between the practices of pilgrimage and centering prayer. Both share a similar trajectory: letting go of all excess baggage, a spirit of receptivity or dependence, and finally, the need to rest, whether in the Lord -- or on the nearest patch of dry grass!

As we concluded our presentation, Santa Clara political science professor Eric Hanson grabbed me and said: "Think about another outer edge of pilgrimage: immigration. Immigrants have the same experience. They've left everything behind; they are dependent on the kindness of strangers, the hospitality of residents. And they are in a strange, often hostile land, where they can't control anything."

Something deep clicked into place.

Thanks, Eric, for the insight. I invite you to check out the website he runs under the auspices of the Markkula Center at Santa Clara University:

Thanks to Sonny, my co-author and fellow pilgrim in the strange (at least to me!) world of counseling psychology. Thanks to Tom for the invitation to be on the journey.

We still don't quite know where it's taking us.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hajj I: Malcolm X

Perhaps the most significant religious pilgrimage in the modern era is the Muslim Hajj. All Muslims who are able are expected to make the Hajj at least once in their lifetime.

The thematic structure of the Hajj echoes events in the life of Abraham. The pilgrim is invited to offer to God the same radical "yes" to God that he did. The Hajj is a symbolic journey to God--indeed, the Hajji is to make the Hajj as though never to return. All one's earthly responsibilities are to be settled before leaving. Those who return are expected to be different, transformed by this encounter, by saying this radical "yes."

Pilgrims make the Hajj by the millions, setting off to Mecca from all corners of the world. While the physical challenges in terms of distance covered in the Hajj are minimal to those of the Camino, I suspect the event becomes difficult in one way the camino is not. The crowds themselves become a significant factor. Pilgrims are crowded together into a huge throng: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Hajj has a website with the message, "Be peaceful, orderly and kind. No crushing."

The first account I read of the Hajj was in The Autobiography of Malcom X. Malcolm went to the Hajj as a man deeply formed and scarred by his experience of the senseless racism in which he was immersed in America. His involvement with the Black Muslims reversed but did not fundamentally alter that race-centered world-view. The Hajj did:

"Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this ancient holy land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other Prophets of the holy scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors....
There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. 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 non-white. America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. ....I could see from this, that perhaps if white Americans could accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps, too, they could accept in reality the Oneness of Man - and cease to measure, and hinder, and harm others in terms of their “differences” in color." (Autobiography)

Malcolm's Hajj didn't end America's racism, of course. It did heal Malcolm's.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pilgrimage and prayer: A extraordinary practice in ordinary time

Of course, not everyone can go on pilgrimage. Not everyone has the time, the money, the inclination, the stamina -- or the enabling grant from the Lilly Endowment. How can we talk about our experience in ways others can relate to?

That question points to another: how can we find pilgrimage in everyday life? For of course, no one can be on pilgrimage forever. No one has the time, the money, the inclincation, the stamina -- and no foundation would ever fund it, even if they did.

How can we translate this experience into ordinary time -- for ourselves and for others?

Thanks to some illuminating conversations I had at Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota, I'm closer to a translation. This congregation commits itself to practicing their faith, and they've focused on centering prayer as a key practice that empowers disciples to become apostles, i.e., move from following Jesus to serving the world.

I'd been invited to speak about pilgrimage, another practice of the Christian faith and many of the world's religions. As I prepared for this community, I began to see the connections between pilgrimage and centering prayer.

First, both practices aim at emptying. I related stories of how we literally "shed stuff" across the top of Spain, building tiny altars of things we discovered we really didn't need: that extra shirt, a book we weren't going to read anyway, a cherished hairbrush that simply weighed too much. After days of pain-filled walking, I even let go the goal of reaching Santiago on foot! And that was ostensibly the reason for the entire trip. We learned to let go of everything -- and we learned it the hard way.

Centering prayer is the practice of letting go: you let go of distractions, worries, and those rat-wheels of anxiety that spin without ceasing. A kind of kenosis, or pouring out, centering prayers tips the soul like a pitcher -- and lets worry drain out.

Second, both practices focus on receiving. And in a world that rewards production -- produce more! better! more efficiently! -- that's supremely counter-cultural. Yet, as pilgrims we had to receive: we couldn't carry it all. We depended on others for food, shelter -- and, on that rainy day in Galicia, clothing. I'd lost my poncho; Lisa shredded hers. We needed industrial strength raingear -- and we found it one night in a hardware store in the gritty village of Palas de Rei. Pilgrimage accustoms people to begging; we became dependent on the kindness of strangers.

So too with centering prayer: it empties people so that they can be filled. They let go the spirits of anxiety, worry, and distraction, so that they can receive the Spirit. They become dependent on the kindness of divine mystery -- and there is nothing stranger, more wonderful, and more deeply familiar.

Finally, both practices invite people to rest. Lisa joked about our daily need for "horizontality," but moving from the vertical posture of hiking to simply lying down restored us immeasurably. We needed these pauses like we needed air to breath, water to drink -- and cafe con leche to begin the day!

Similarly, centering prayer invites pray-ers to rest in God. Sabbath is any time you lean into the Holy. Centering prayer is the practice of the presence of God. One way to move into this prayer is to simply sit with from Psalm 46:10, gradually letting the silence overtake the words:

"Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
Be still.

And thanks to you dear people at Colonial for finding the correct reference!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Things I was Wrong About, Part II: Pain

Before I get to my mistake, I want to get to one thing I'm finding was true. We found that one of the principal joys/graces of the camino was connecting with other pilgrims. We were all together the body of Christ on the road, sharing the joys (wine!) and pains (back-ache!) of incarnation with each other. Similarly, I suspect that pilgrims for centuries have sought contact with the holy--to touch the holy, one way or another. It might be finally coming to view "the bones of St. James," (or at least the box said to contain them,) by a process of walking that entailed imitatio Christi at least in the painfulness of the walking. (I hope that for many, the incarnate joys--wine! A tasty bocadilla!--were also understood to be part of imitatio Christi.) They were on the road with Christ, on the road to Christ (or at least to one of his pals,)imitating Christ. And one's sins, well, they drop away like the tiredness and the blisters as they heal.

However, on to my mistake. I underestimated the pain. I can admit only in retrospect (on the trail only after it was better,) that it shook me. I understand myself as strong--and I still think I am--but it really hurt, especially the first week or so, after the halcyon first day. I was surprised. I was comforted, in part, but the evident pain of my fellow pilgrims. Not schadenfreude, but solidarity.

I think the pain was important, but I'm still not sure how. In immersion experiences and service learning, pain is never intrinsic to the process. Exertion may or may not be part of the process--but it is not important. Social dislocation, yes, and we had some of that, though perhaps not as much as participants in a well-run immersion. Service learning often takes us out of our "comfort zone," likewise, but it is not painful, at least not physically.

One more similarity, though. Contemporary "immersers" of course also seek to be the body of Christ, but we do so not by imitation in suffering but by the practice of solidarity. We seek to be attentive to the body of Christ in the populations we visit (service is not intrinsic, and may be inimical to an immersion experience.) We seek to form some kind of connection in basic humanity. We did so on the camino in the solidarity of the limping--and even then, as Marty noted, hierarchies emerged--perhaps another echo of original sin.

There's more to the pain than its capacity to draw us together. Indeed, the first effect of pain is to threaten to isolate us each in our own bodies, as the painful part commands more and more attention. To a person with a bad tooth-ache, the world becomes that small but hugely painful spot. Depression and loneliness can do the same. Perhaps it is the vulnerability, but, more so, perhaps it is the self-doubt that is important, and then the key question--can I share my self-doubt with my fellows? (Medication for depression is said to dull the pain enough that the sufferer can begin to engage the world again.) Pain can also be a physically liminal experience that draws us to the edges of our capacities, to see if we're faithful enough to the journey and patient enough with ourselves to continue on at whatever pace we can, with whatever aids of Advil, good wine, and conversation are needed. After all, I think that all God really asks of us is to try to keep on, even if we have to stop for a while (like Eric the Lame did,) or if we go on but slowly, slowly. And when the pain eases, and we are strong again, that we be gentle with those who still suffer, because they are our community, too. "My father was a slave in Egypt."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Things I was Wrong About, Part I

When Marty and I began talking about this project, I thought I had a fairly clear sense of what the camino would be like. We were setting out to compare "traditional" pilgrimage to immersion experiences and service learning. We wanted to do the camino as a benchmark, and basically I thought my sense of what pilgrimages like the camino are about would more or less be confirmed. And while I bought several camino books, I'd stayed away from them on grounds that things like the camino (as also, e.g., the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius,) should be experienced first, and only then read about.

Well, my understanding of the camino changed considerably in the walking.

I'd like to begin to 'fess up about some of the things I was wrong about in my intellectual noodling about pilgrimage. Some of these repeat themes picked up before, but now I begin to see them as lessons--or un-lessons, since these are things I was wrong about before we hit the road.

1. I expected more explicit religiosity among the pilgrims, and within myself. While many pilgrims doubtless had religious motivations for the trek, many more that we spoke to did not. I did meet one man wearing a two and a half-foot crucifix slung across his chest. He asked where the closest albergue was. I told him, but didn't pursue the conversation. Most of the churches we passed were closed, which contributed to this post-religious sense. The rare open churches tended to have a person sitting by the door stamping people's pilgrim credentials (the cards we carried to get stamped at the various towns,) and collecting donations. The few congregations we intersected at worship times tended to be a few elderly locals, an elderly priest, and a number of pilgrims. I don't know if the other pilgrims felt "fed" by these half-hearted services, but I did not, and didn't stay more than a few minutes. Marty had more patience for these than I did.
The churches are magnificent, and closed or nearly empty. The pilgrims are often motivated by a powerful spiritual purpose that is no longer, for most of them, expressed in the language of traditional Christianity. Immersions and the kind of non-walking pilgrimages that people go on tend to be much more explicitly religious--really, I think many times people who travel with religious motivation call their trips pilgrimages, even though those trips bear little resemblance to the camino and its ilk. Marty has written here about the incarnate spirituality of the trail that, even for us theological/religious types, was more about experiencing the walking of the day and the companionship of the road than praying across Spain. This may be a failing on our part, but if so, we seemed to share it with most of those we met.
The camino, like many people in the contemporary West, is spiritual but not religious. I am not certain, but I wonder if this has always been the case.

Next mistake--next post--pain.

Monday, October 19, 2009

De-mystifying pilgrimage: The pilgrims

We all look so happy. We'd been walking through forests all morning, and we were on the down-slope of the third "summit." The hardest part of the day was behind us -- and it was not yet even noon. We knew San Juan de Ortega had a wonderful round chapel that Queen Isabella built in 1477 to celebrate a longed-for pregnancy. Every equinox the sun shines directly on a stone column inside with a sculpture of the Annunciation. Mary is pregnant, Isabella is pregnant, and the spherical chapel feels pregnant as well. We've just visited the chapel, and we're toasting all that fertility.

Pilgrimage is a great leveler. Regardless of background, economic status, education, profession, pilgrims literally share common ground. Everyone in this group made the steep ascent out of Villafranca that morning in the dark. No one slept well the night before, because all the hostels hugged a road that truckers plied all night in their big rigs. And the tiny lyrical villages were beginning to blur for all of us. To a woman, we longed for Burgos and the Big City.

There was also the common ground of gear talk, pilgrim lore, and finding internet access. We shared food, first-aid creams, and strategies for dealing with tired bodies. It didn't matter what you did for a living, how much it paid you, what your relationship status was, or how many initials came after your name. On pilgrimage everyone is just another body in motion. There's something marvelously democractizing about that.

But lest this sound too utopic, pilgrims quickly develop their own class distinctions. "Where did you start?" becomes a loaded question: hard-core hikers started in France at St. Jean Pied de Port and crossed the Pyrenees. They were hiking every step of the way, including the hot, dry Meseta. I took to confessing that we'd "only" started in Pamplona -- and taken the train from Burgos to Ponferrada.

Super-Pilgrims carry all their own gear -- including cooking utensils and Thermarest mattresses. Averaging about 18 miles/day, they'll be in Santiago weeks before we will, having walked every step of the way. They are always in the hostel by 1pm, having roused themselves long before dawn to begin walking.

Then there are the Plodders, who hike about 13 miles/day, occasionally stay in pensions or B&B's. You'll find them in cafes have that second cup of cafe con leche.

Then there are the Partiers, most easily identified by the distinguishing breakfast ritual, The Breakfast of Champions: a beer and bocadillo, that crisp round roll filled with slices of cheese and Spanish ham.

Then there are the Tourist Pilgrims, who carry only a small backpack with water and raingear, the rest having been taken by car to the next four-star hotel. I always envied how well turned-out this last group was, fresh clothes at dinner while we wore the only other shirt we still had left. Clean or not.

Lisa and I jumped class a lot, which was fun and introduced us to lots more people. We carried all our own gear, but no cooking utensils -- and we abandoned our sleeping bags in the other Villafranca. We were not hell-bent on Santiago: it had been around for centuries; it wasn't going anywhere. While we veered away from The Breakfast of Champions, we always lingered over that second cafe con leche. We did hostels a few times, but our grant allowed us to find B&B's most nights -- and snore-free sleeping was a blessing. And we did have a grant behind us, knowledge of which quickly spread around our circle of fellow-travelers. As in, "..but then YOU have a grant."

Despite the common ground, literal and figurative, pilgrims create distinctions among themselves. Even pilgrims figure out how to look up at others -- or down.

But hey! we're only human.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

De-mystifying pilgrimage: The spirituality

"I thought it would all be somehow more...spiritual," Lisa said as we chugged up the Claremont Canyon. We can't seem to stop walking, and this particular hike is quick, dirty, and close by.

She's right: I thought it would be more spiritual too. We thought we'd be walking the questions posed in John's gospel, pondering one question each day. There are some great ones, worthy of weighty consideration: "What are you looking for?" (1:38) "Do you want to be made well?" (5:6) "Do you also wish to go away?" (6:67) And Pilate's hauntingly cynical: "What is truth?" (18:38)

But the questions we were really interested in were questions like: "Was that the alarm?" (every morning -- without fail) "Should I be paying attention to this pain?" (at the beginning of every day) "Can we stop for a cafe con leche?" (about two hours into the day's hike) "Are we there yet?" (about two hours before the end of the day's hike -- again, without fail).

So much for John's questions. Ours were more immediate and more mundane.

I had the daily readings along, which I would usually read as we got into the rhythm of the day. As we did on Kilimanjaro, we'd speculate on what Jesus must really have said, had the evangelists not mis-quoted, mis-remembered, or simply edited his words.

But we spent lots more time making up stories about our fellow travelers than attending to the gospel's stories about Jesus.

So much for deep theological insight.

But we could tell you the phases of the moon along the trek, when first light comes, how the sun glints off the lantern of the Cathedral of Santiago. We could describe Tolkien-esque forests in Galicia and how the morning mists create islands of the hills surrounding O'Cebreiro. We now know how to get laundry done, where to find the laundromats, and what "auto-servicio" means: bring us your wretched refuse longing to be cleaned, drop it off, pick it up two hours later, and fold it. We could tell you about Spanish religious iconography: the Madonna de la leche, the Mater Dolorosa, and the crucified Christ -- discreetly wearing a skirt.

This is not the spirituality we anticipated; it's the spirituality we encountered. Is it real spirituality?

Here's what I know. First, the spirituality we met on the way was deeply embodied. As scholars we tend to live in our heads. We couldn't do that on pilgrimage. We tended to our feet instead -- quite literally. If they didn't work, there was no going forward.

I apologized to a dear friend and acclaimed historian for the "unscholarly" character of our blog postings. With a smile she replied: "On the contrary, you had quite a lot of footnotes." She was right: we wrote a lot about our feet.

Pilgrimage made me appreciate how we are "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14). It also made me understand the organic integrity of bodies -- and how powerful is the image of the "body of Christ." The apostle Paul spells it out for the smugly cosmopolitan Corinthians: "...there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.'" (1 Corinthians 12:20-21). An "inferior" member of the body became all-important: we had need of our feet.

Second, we came to honor the Sabbath -- whenever it fell. Lisa joked about the need for "horizontality," but rest restored us. Immeasurably. We'd fall into bed or onto a patch of grass, aching for an alternative to standing up. We made a pact to break for no less than thirty minutes -- unless it was pouring rain or a herd of cows ploughed into us. Sleep simply repaired us. And when we needed a "day off," we took it. Without apology.

Finally, we shook our independence -- at least a little. I counted on Lisa's unfailing good humor: nothing blunted her wit. Not fatigue, not rain, not blisters. I depended on the people we'd meet along the way: we cheered each other on. Then, we knew we had lots of good wishes and prayers behind us. We felt that support pushing our pilgrim butts forward. Thanks.

Not the spirituality we expected, perhaps, but the spirituality we were given. We scooped it up and let it pour over us.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Knights Templar

Over and over along the camino we saw signs of the Knights Templar, usually their equal-armed red cross etched into the walls of a church. Ponferrada, our starting point for the second half of our trek, is the site of a Knights castle that we toured, feeling the presence of knight-ghosts.

I know very little about them--I'm reading a history now. Here's a thumbnail: the knights were a military order, founded to provide armed protection for pilgrims to the Holy Land. "Templar" refers of course to Solomon's Temple, their spiritual HQ. They made a name for themselves also in the Crusades, which, along with their support of pilgrims, made them, for a time, a popular cause to give money to: though their individual lives were quite austere, the order became very wealthy. The seal of the order shows two knights on one horse, symbolizing poverty solidarity (which may also have contributed to accusations of homosexuality in the ranks. Well, gee--an all-male society of guys who've sworn off female companionship, could that appeal to men attracted to men? Duh!)In fact, the rule forbade sharing horses. Bernard of Clairvaux, nephew of one of the founding Kinghts, was an effective advocate in their formal recognition in 1129.

Despite their military charism, realtively few were actually combatants. One non-military way they protected pilgrims was this: people starting out on pilgrimage could present cash to a local Templar spot, and get a letter of credit that could be cashed at another Templar spot down the road. Pilgrims were safer not carrying cash, (in fact, before this they were routinely killed for money,) and the Templars became an international banking system. With cash on hand, the Templars also began loaning money, including an unfortunate large loan to King Phillip IV of France.

Church and State colluded in trumped-up charges against the Kinghts. The Pope readily agreed to accuse them of heresy and other enormities, and on Friday, October the 13th, Philip orchestrated the arrest of Templars all over France (who repays debts to heretics?) Other arrests across Europe followed. Many were tortured into false confessions and burned at the stake. The last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was burned at the stake in Paris, 1314.

In 2001, a parchment was found in the Vatican Archives that revealed that the Pope had absolved the Knights of all the charges of heresy--in 1308, 4 years before he disbanded them anyway. (And of course long before the burnings at the stake stopped.) Political pressures, you know--what's a Pope to do?

I can't help but think of the upcoming investigation of US women's apostolic religious orders in light of the history of the Templars. No Church-State collusion here--it's all inside the Church. And it feels all political. And, at least so far, no credible justification has been offered for their investigation. At least we don't burn people at the stake any more.

Friday, October 9, 2009

"You walk the Camino -- then the Camino walks you...."

One of my friends asked for the address of the blog again: "I didn't know you were still posting," he said. He seemed surprised.

I'm surprised too. We've stopped walking, but the Camino isn't over. I rehearse the days' destinations like a mantra: Puente la Reina, Estella, Los Arcos, Viana. I wonder about our fellow pilgrims: how they are -- and where. I continue conversations started along the way.

So, the Camino continues.

One of the followers of this blog -- we call you dear people our cyber-Caministas! --put it powerfully: "You walk the Camino -- and then it walks you." That's exactly what's going on. That's why we can't shake the experience. Nor would we want to. We enjoy a great meal all over again by telling the stories. We resurrect the dead by remembering them, whether with tears or with laughter. And as we tell the stories, as we share the memories, we continue to learn from them. So it is with the Camino.

I shared dinner last night with a dear friend, whom I hadn't seen since the trip. Talking with her brought an insight out of a Camino story I'd told many times before, but never to her. She brought to light something I hadn't seen before; she showed me where to go with an insight.

On the Camino we looked for yellow arrows like the one in the photo above. Now we look to our friends for direction. They don't fail us, but the markings aren't bright yellow either. The way forward is more subtle, more nuanced.

The Camino continues.

So will this blog.

The Camino was the first of a three-stage project, each stage involving some form of pilgrimage. In January, 2010 we'll accompany a delegation of seminary students to the Lutheran Student Center in Mexico City, where they will do a two-week "cross-cultural" experience in one of the world's largest and most complex cities. Then, in March, 2010 we'll visit an on-going immersion program run by Santa Clara University at the Casa de la Solidaridad in El Salvador. Affiliated with the Jesuit university in San Salvador, the program starts in January. By March the students will be well into their semester, well-integrated into their community learning sites, and well on their way to processing the experience.

In stages two and three, we'll be particularly interested to see how these two immersion experiences work as post-modern versions of the ancient practice of pilgrimage.

Yes, the Camino continues. Thanks for being on the way with us.

Poor in Spirit

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God." Matthew's first beatitude is a softer version of Luke's: "blessed are you who are poor." Luke is clear that he means material poverty--the matching "woe" refers to "you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort."

In Christian tradition too often we sentimentalize or soften material poverty. Real poverty is not when you don't own three Lexuses, ("lexi"?) Neither is it as seen in some interpretations of religous poverty in which they don't actually own this or that material good, but have full use of it. How absurd. "I don't own the villa." But if you can use the villa, isn't that pretty close to owning or co-owning it, except that there's no personal responsibility for its upkeep? After all, none of us takes our belongings with us when we die. We use them here, and leave them behind. The difference between this form of "evangelical" poverty and ownership is responsibility, not possession.

But those aren't real poverty. Real poverty is when you don't have what you NEED. When you can't feed the kids. When you can't pay the rent. Or when the struggle to do so is real and every-day and the outcome is uncertain. Real poverty often means living in dangerous situations, and enduring the daily indignities of disdain from the better-off. Analogously, what's poverty of spirit? When you don't have what you need. Sometimes I think of this as not having faith, not having hope. Depression might be a form of poverty of spirit. Isolation, loneliness. Despair. Joylessness. But in light of walking the camino, I have another idea, too.

Luke's Jesus says that the rich "have already received their comfort." In other words--they don't know that they need anything more. Their noses aren't rubbed in their need. To be poor in spirit, perhaps, means exactly to have our noses rubbed in our need--to recognize our radical self-insufficiency, spiritually and socially as well as materially, and to live in the real possibility of not having it met.

Both Luke and Matthew's Jesus says that the poor are blessed because theirs IS the kingdom of God. Not "you'll be paid off big-time in the afterlife." Now. The kingdom of God IS yours. Walking the camino we were continually faced by our need--for the fellowship of other pilgrims, for insight on dealing with blisters, sore muscles, and hurting backs. For cheerleading, for us and by us. We needed the hospitality of Spaniards not put off by scruffy travelers with poor command of Spanish. We needed the power of the path itself--the faith of centuries of seekers walking the same road in search of numberless different hopes. I needed Marty's good humor and story-telling, and shared my own. I've remarked before how tourists are far more solitary than pilgrims, who are far more communal. It's because pilgrims need, and know they need (or learn that pretty quickly, if they're paying attention at all.) Even though walking the camino feels like an accomplishment--and it is!--it is also a celebration of need. The kingdom of God is AMONG us. It's a kingdom of we who need.

Lest I be too sentimental myself, it is also true that there are those who are destroyed, physically, psychologically and socially by need. It is not automatic that the Kindgom of God is given to those who need. But the fault for that destruction is ours--for failing to be responsive to the needs of those who need as we need. The challenge of the camino is to need. One challenge of re-entry is to continue to need--and to try to respond. To continue to be that experience of the kingdom among us.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Lightening the Load: TMB

At dinner my niece cuts off a too-graphic description of handling blisters along the Camino: "TMI!" She shoots me a look, and it's one that I know she's received in recent memory. She's a quick study. She's also right: this is not genteel dinner conversation. TMI! Too Much Information!

I file the insight away. What counted as appropriate table talk on pilgrimage doesn't work off the trail. Pilgrims are hungry for any miracle foot treatments -- and it's appropriate to impart them at any time of day or night. Normal people, however, are not. Chalk that up to the jolt of re-entry, about which Lisa wrote earlier.

There's another jolt of re-entry, one I want to attend to. Just as we shift conversation topics, so we find our needs altered. Again and again, I've run into the feeling of simply having too much stuff. After carrying everything on my back for four weeks, I come home to a house full of things I seem to have needed four weeks ago. They suddenly seem superfluous. TMS! Too Much Stuff! Or more pointedly: TMB! Too Much Baggage!

I read a book on Camino, tearing off chapters as I finished them. Wally Lamb's smart coming-of-age novel, "She's Come Undone," got filed in trash receptacles across the top of Spain. I took the daily lectionary readings, which lived in my back pocket, until I found the right place to leave them. Once it was on a cafe table in Villafranca del Bierzo -- and the waiter crossed the plaza to return them! During the first week, we'd systematically go through our backpacks to identify everything we'd brought that we didn't really need, arrange it into a tiny shrine in our hotel room -- and walk out the door, never to see it again.

For a while I looked for our discarded gear on people who'd pass us. Then I even stopped looking. The backpack in the photo above weighs about 18 pounds, down from about 24. I didn't even really need all of that.

Now, back in ordinary life and surrounded by normal people, it's easier to adjust my table talk than shake this feeling of simply having too much baggage. What can I get rid of? That's a negative way of asking the real question: what do I really need?

This winnowing process works on several levels. Possessions are the easiest to identify -- and deal with. But we also carry relationships. Some we should, and some we carry out of habit, familiarity, or inertia. Relationships too can become just extra "baggage." Finally, there's the baggage we bring into relationships. I'll confess: I come encumbered. How can I unburden excess possessions? How can I lighten relationships that have become onerous? How can I unburden myself? How can I be a lighter spirit, present in a more gracious way?

Finally, even more baggage: I'm a world-class worrier. I always have a Plan B in place, should Plan A fail. Moreover, I not only have the plan, I even have all the gear for Plan B. I even have gear for Plans C and D!

What usually happens, of course, is Plan Q. Which turns out to be better than anything I could have scripted -- and for which all the right "stuff" miraculously appears.

So how can I unburden myself in that way? I'm carrying about 25 pounds of possible outcomes and all the attendant frets that go with them.


Sunday, October 4, 2009


I'd like to pick up Marty's great question of return--how do we return from pilgrimage. What changes, what remains the same? Like Marty, I miss the simplicity of the road (and the company!) As one of our companions remarked, the camino isn't easy, but it is simple. My feet are rapidly returning to their urban-wimpy pre-camino state, back from their road-ready, almost hoof-like condition at road's end. I'm a little embarrassed by that.

One question keeps at me, though. On pilgrimage, we were largely people receiving. We needed the townspeople to be offering meals, lodging, (showers!!) laundry. The injured needed doctors. In the past, of course, we'd have been begging our way--nowadays we pay. But still, without the daily labor of those whose livelihood is some form of hospitality, of giving, we'd never have made it. In order to be mobile, we needed the stability of others. They, in turn, needed the constant flow of pilgrims for their livelihood. There was a true symbiosis of pace.

Now I've returned to a basically stationary life. I sleep in the same town night after night. I know where things are, how to access the resources I need. Heck, I speak the local language here in California pretty well. I am not always receiving. But am I giving? I think one measure of the spiritual profit of pilgrimage is to be aware of the ways in which we are all always receiving, and to receive lightly and graciously. But no less, I think I need to focus also on how this affects my ability to practice the virtues of stability, of being the kind of resource that others need. Hospitality, not limited to the question of livelihood (I do not expect to open a hostel in Berkeley, though I've worked at shelters here in the past,) but the deeper hospitality of those who support the others who travel through our lives, perhaps only for a moment, a day, a short time. Will I help them on their way?

Friday, October 2, 2009

What is it like to be back? Footprints of Pilgrimage

That's the question everyone asks. Some people want the nano-second response; others want more. As always, the answers vary depending on who's asking. But with the Camino, I have a hunch the answers will also alter with time.

Most obviously, it's just plain strange not to be walking. We teased our friends on the Camino about how hard it would be to shake pilgrim rituals. Like zombies we'd get up, pack up, and hit the road before daylight. While the spectre of Zombie-Pilgrims cracked us up in Santiago, back home in San Francisco, it's close to the truth. Several mornings, particularly as my body crawls back into this time zone, I've been up before dawn, in my boots as soon as my feet hit the floor, and first in line at Peet's Coffee in the village.

I also miss people, especially my excellent traveling companion, Lisa. I joked that we'd talk our way across the top of Spain --and we did! We made up stories, retold the plots of every book we'd recently read, and replayed all of our favorite movies. We literally talked for miles.

Then there was the easy camaraderie of the other pilgrims we met along the way. Some of them have names and stories of their own; others we came to know only by sight. Because the Camino attracts people from all over the world, we found ourselves using all the languages we knew -- and even a few we didn't. "Buen Camino!" became the universal greeting.

Pilgrim banter taught me the enormous value of "encouragement." In the Christian scriptures, the pastoral epistles constantly invite believers to "encourage one another" (e.g., Hebrews 3:13f.) It always seemed like filler to me.

The Camino taught me the importance of encouragement: stray conversation and simple greeting alike spurred us all on. I remember sitting with Lisa at an outdoor cafe in Viana, a tiny town in the eastern region of Navarre. The pilgrim route ran right past our cafe, and we spent the late afternoon cheering on everyone who passed by. We'd taken a "slow" day; they were walking on to the next big city. For that one night, we were the cheerleaders of the Camino.

And believe me! the favor got returned, repeated, recycled. Maybe I'll figure out how to do a little more cheerleading back on the home front.

A final, tentative answer to the question: what is it like to be back? Everything seems hopelessly and unnecessarily complicated. For weeks all I did was sleep, walk, eat -- and walk some more. Everything I needed was in my backpack. All I worried about was reaching the next village. Now there are schedules to coordinate, appointments to make, obligations to tend to, articles to write. I'm not complaining: this is life. My life -- and it delights me. But it's different.

Where are the footprints of the Camino in all of this? I find myself handling things with a lighter touch, a lot of humor, and a spirit of what-the-hellness. My computer screen has cataracts? Well, gosh: maybe I can move them around like a desktop icon. The contractor didn't show today? He'll come tomorrow. There's nothing for dinner? Bread and olive oil worked well enough on the road....

It's a welcome attitude. Here's hoping it outlasts the blisters.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


When on retreat, I've learned to pay attention to the songs that spring up in my mind. Very often, they're telling me or reminding me of something that hasn't yet percolated up to the upper levels of my awareness. Since my musical turf tends toward rock and folk, very often I find myself mentored by unlikely gurus--one retreat day I spent several hours pondering a tune by Tina Turner that wouldn't get out of my head.

On camino, it was Joan Baez' song "Blessed are" that kept springing to mind. (Along with the sound track to "Jungle Book," but that's a different post...)

Blessed are the one way ticket holders
on a one way street.
Blessed are the midnight riders
for in the shadow of God they sleep.
Blessed are the huddled hikers
staring out at falling rain,
wondering at the retribution
in their personal acquaintance with pain.
Blessed are the blood relations
of the young ones who have died,
who had not the time or patience
to carry on this earthly ride.
Rain will come and winds will blow,
wild deer die in the mountain snow.
Birds will beat at heaven's wall,
what comes to one must come to us all.

For you and I are one way ticket holders
on a one way street.
which lies across a golden valley
where the waters of joy and hope run deep.
So if you pass the parents weeping
of the young ones who have died,
take them to your warmth and keeping
for blessed are the tears they cried
and many were the years they tried.
Take them to that valley wide
and let their souls be pacified.
(© 1970, 1971 Chandos Music (ASCAP))

The connections of this song to our trek require no deep insight to catch--I think it was the sense of one-way-ness that first grabbed me. The arrows on the camino all point to Santiago. There's no going back--like life itself, there's a single direction, and we try to progress, slowly or quickly, alone or together, limping or sound. At the end of the day, pilgrims commiserate and rejoice together, we share information about the trail or the towns. ("Remember that labyrinth at the top of the hill?") Such is not merely what's on our minds--it is a kind of responsibility. The story of the camino is found not just in the walking, but in the story-telling, the pointing out of what caught a pilgrim's eye, or soul, that day. In this song it is mourning that we are called to share--but it is also true that the one-way street "lies across a golden valley, were the waters of joy and hope run deep." We do need to hear that sometimes.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Oh beautiful, for pilgrim feet...."?!

Believe me: they aren't! Clearly the author of "America the Beautiful," Katharine Lee Bates never went on pilgrimage. She didn't know what she was talking about. But she betrays a romanticized view of pilgrims and pilgrimage that we encountered on the road -- and in ourselves.

Like ooze from a blister, evenings quickly drained the romanticism out of us. Evenings often brought us to little villages whose only livelihood was the Camino. We could find little else going on. One town, Triacastela, had a listed population of about 90. That meant that when the three pilgrim hostels were full, the town's population more than doubled.

We sat one night on the main drag of Triacastela, writing postcards and watching people's feet. Most folks traded in their hiking boots for Crocs or flip-flops at night, so our view was unimpeded. As we observed them first-hand, pilgrim feet are not at all beautiful: they are bandaged, blistered, and wrapped in every manner of gauze. And the people attached to those feet were limping, leaning, and moving very slowly. A lot like us.

We packed sewing kits for potential wardrobe malfunctions; we used them on our feet. Both needle and thread: thread turns out to be cleverly helpful in keeping blisters drained. Applying the contents of a sewing kit to the feet, however, also invites infection, which could close down a pilgrimage. People walk through blisters; you can't walk through infection. That means a couple of days of topical and internal antibiotics. You toss a coin; you take your chances. Mutely offering a prayer to Nuestra Senora of Second Chances, we sewed our feet.

All the books tell hikers to break in their shoes. All the books tell hikers to pad the points of friction. All this we did. What the books didn't tell us -- at least not the ones I read -- is that everything I put in my pack would create a large sole-shaped pressure zone between my foot and the ground. Every ounce in the pack registered on the soles of my feet. I had to think about what I needed, ounce by precious ounce: my feet demanded it.

After a few days in Santiago, I ran into some fellow-travelers from an earlier stage of the Camino. "You look great!" someone said -- to me! But of course, she was right: I'd spent time that morning making up my face, not my feet. Dressing our feet became a necessary morning ritual. When we reached Santiago, we stopped. Our feet weren't carrying 20 pounds around all day, which lightened our load -- and our spirits. When I got to Santiago, I bought the Spanish pair of jeans I'd been fantasizing about for the last 100 miles. I did look great: I'd shifted from pilgrim to tourist with stunning speed.

Pilgrims don't look great: they look tired, weary, and stressed. Katharine Lee Bates gets the stress. She continues: "Whose stern impassioned stress/ A thoroughfare for freedom beat/ Across the wilderness!" But goodness! how purposeful pilgrims sound! In reality, we dawdle. I can't tell you how many times I packed and unpacked my frame during the course of a day. One friend told the story of a traveling companion who simply had to taste every blackberry bush she passed. This quickly became an ex-traveling companion: my friend went on ahead, leaving her behind to taste every berry in La Rioja. With all her companion's pauses, she simply couldn't get any forward momentum going.

Blackberry bushes aren't the only temptation. We so often saw people taking a break mid-morning for a bocadillo and a brew that we began calling this combination "The Breakfast of Champions." I won't even comment on the hordes of people standing outside the smoke-free zone of a hostel having a cigarette.

The reality of pilgrims and pilgrimage is pretty gritty. We're not Bates' beautiful and beautifully determined band of soldiers. We didn't march -- we writhed into Santiago, like some spineless, gelatinous mass. When we got there, we stank, we ached, we wanted nothing more spiritual than a shower. There's a big pot of incense that's often swung at the daily noon pilgrim Mass in the Santiago Cathedral, the butafumeiro. It's not there for decoration: it cuts the smell, it may even de-fumigate us all.

St. Augustine (d. 430) turned again and again to pilgrimage to describe the reality of the Christian church; he called the people in it pilgrims, peregrini. I used to hear "America the Beautiful" in the background whenever I read this. No more! Now I see that smelly, writhing mass that oozed into Santiago.

It's not pretty, but it comforts me.

It's a lot closer to the truth.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Saints -- and more saints

As a cradle Lutheran, I didn't grow up with a robust spectrum of saints. Although Luther included the "Hail Mary" in his prayer book, he generally frowned on intercessors, advising his flock to intercede for and with each other. Good advice, but it leaves personal prayer a lot of distance to cover on its own -- and it leaves Lutheranism with a very weak grasp of the feminine.

Katy Luther reputedly made great beer, but apparently not good enough for Luther to beatify her. Very quietly, though, some of us already have. At the very least, she gets points for putting up with Luther's rants.

Perhaps that's why I've been moved by the presence of the Virgin along the Camino, particularly the Camino Frances, or the French route. Mary is everywhere: Nuestra Senora de la Vega, Santa Maria de las Estrellas, Santa Maria del Perdon, respectively, Our Lady of the Meadow, Mary of the Stars, Mary of Forgiveness. Indeed, our journey started in Pamplona at a hotel located on the mysterious plaza dedicated to the Virgen de la O. We entertained ourselves for hours imagining what that "O" might stand for.

At a Franciscan church in Santiago, we discovered the delightful Nuestra Senora de Valvanera, Our Lady of the Valley of Venus. My particular favorite is the Madonna de la Leche, the Virgin nursing an infant Jesus. Jesus either looks divinely disinterested or he hungrily reaches for the breast.

The images of Mary are as abundant as her names. The Mater Dolorosa, Our Lady of Sorrows, always wears a black triangular garb, and she often appears with seven swords piercing her heart. We often found her at the altar of a side chapel, the crucified and entombed Jesus lying below her. This was a kind of Pieta, all the more anguished because Mary reaches out for a dead child separated from her by the marble slab of an altar.

More often, though, we saw Mary as the Madonna, with Jesus on her lap. One of them was holding an apple, for historically Mary inaugurates a new creation. She represents the New Eve, just as Christ stands in as the New Adam: Nuestra Senora of Second Chances.

As she participates in the ordinary joys and sorrows of human life, Mary becomes a very plastic image. Perhaps she's everywhere, because she is closer to us than the rest of the Godhead. She's on our side.

Mary really is the Lady of the Camino. The route may be called the Camino of St. James, but Mary presides over the French route.

St. James plays a strange role. He's there -- and in equally fluid form, but the figure of James is more ambiguous. Sometimes he appears as the Pilgrim Saint, having been deputized by Christ to go to Galicia and turn all the Druids there into Christians. He had very modest luck and returned to Jerusalem, where he was promptly beheaded around 44 CE. Legend tells us that his disciples returned with his body to Galicia.

There James gets reincarnated as the Knight, and we found many images of Santiago Matamoros, James the Slayer of the Muslims. Historically, he could never have done this; Muhammed's death is a good six centuries after James'. But the Moors inhabited much of Spain in the early Middle Ages. Once Christian armies found victory marching into battle bearing the relics of James, religious iconography caught up. Who cares about history?! We found lots of images of James alive, well, and on horseback, beheading Muslims. At least, he knew something about beheading....

In the fifteenth century, the conquistadors brought James the Knight with them to the Americas as part of the Conquest. He took on another job description: slayer of the Aztecs, the Incas, the Mayans, and anyone else who got in the way of the Spanish Empire. There are images of James alive and on horseback, this time killing the native peoples.

Those who weren't killed were Catholicized, but the saints of New Spain's Catholicism only thinly covered the already existing gods and goddesses of the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan religions. Native peoples adopted Catholic saints -- and then adapted them. In the Guadalupe, Mary takes on the traits of Tonantzin, Aztec goddess of the heavens. James the Knight takes on traits of Illapa, the Incan god of lightning, thunder, and rainstorms.

With nationalist movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we find images of James the Slayer of the Spaniards, Santiago Mataespanois. The conquering saint takes the side of the conquered.

We studied the rich spectrum of saints affiliated with pilgrimage at the fine Museum of Pilgrimage in Santiago. Their images are powerfully labile, telling more about the people who revered them than the saints themselves.

But then, saints always do: they embody the deepest needs of the human heart, both its darkness and its beauty.

I am struck with these two saints and their images, one of carnage and conquest, the other of nurture and compassion. Despite the peace Jesus preached, lived, and simply was -- those hard teachings about loving the enemy -- we still want James to fight for us. But we will always need Mary to feed us and to share our tears.

I'll take Mary, Nuestra Senora del Camino -- the mysterious Virgen de la O.