Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Practices, Ordinary -- and Not!

Of course, not everyone can simply pack up and go on pilgrimage. It takes time, money, good feet -- and, of course, gear! That combination comes rarely, if at all. Medieval Christians recognized that a trip to the Holy Land simply wasn't going to fit the calendar or the pocketbook of everyone who wanted to go. Labyrinths evolved as more local alternatives. People walked them instead, hoping physical exertion would prompt spiritual awakening. Anyone walking the great labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France on a sunny afternoon, though, might forget all about Jerusalem! By careful design, light from the stained glass Rose Window spills onto the labyrinth below -- it's like walking inside a divine kaleidoscope! Chartres was closer than Jerusalem; still, not everyone made it to Chartres.

For most people, then and now, more ordinary practices sustain spirituality: journaling, prayer, worship, devotion to local saints who come to you and don't require much travel. These quotidian practices contrast with more liminal practices like pilgrimage or retreat. Quotidian practices, those everyday disciplines, challenge people to find insight in the ordinary. A friend tells the story of a nun who's read scripture everyday for most of her eighty years. He asked how she could stand it. She paused for a moment, and then said: "I simply read the text until it surprises me." The daily discipline of sitting with scripture held all the grace she needed.

In contrast, liminal practices, those rare or once-in-a-lifetime experiences, prompt insight by dislocation. Liminal practices remove people from their ordinary surroundings, placing them literally at the margins of comfort, even safety. On Kilimanjaro, it didn't matter how many advanced degrees I had. The thing that mattered was finding a pace, no matter how slow, so that I could keep moving forward without stopping and starting all the time. Thankfully, that pilgrimage was not an "ordinary" experience. But it certainly changed the way I live my life at sea-level.

Yet there's an important interdependence between quotidian and liminal practices: they work together. On one hand, precisely because it dislodges people from familiar surroundings, the liminal practice of pilgrimage affords a critical perspective on everything one tends to take for granted. From the top of Kilimanjaro, we could see the earth's curvature. We could look down on where we'd been -- literally and spiritually. Today, when I get bogged down in my work, I do a quick mental summit to look down on all the madness. From the summit, it all seems pretty small. Climbing Kilimanjaro -- even in imagination -- helps me keep things in perspective.

On the other hand, extraordinary practices like pilgrimage depend on ordinary practices like prayer and ritual to stay grounded. I read the daily lectionary, and I wanted to make sure I had those texts with me on the mountain. We read them aloud every morning before we got out of our green mummy bags. Most of the time, we'd offer irreverent counsel to whomever was speaking -- Isaiah, Jesus, the psalmist, advice that got us giggling so much we look like maggots wriggling on the tent floor. But the texts stayed with us for the rest of the day, and I needed them like air, like water. They kept me breathing, kept me hydrated. The daily disciplines keep these mountaintop experiences grounded.

All of these practices, whether ordinary or once-in-a-lifetime, whether quotidian or liminal, all use the body to mentor the soul, as Peter Brown puts it in his book, THE BODY AND SOCIETY (Columbia University Press, 1988). For more on the distinction between quotidian and liminal practices, see Gordon S. Mikoski, "Educating and Forming Disciples for the Reign of God," in Dorothy C. Bass and Craig Dykstra's FOR LIFE ABUNDANT (Eerdmans, 2008).

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Service Learning

Part of the hypothesis that we carry into this project is that the ends of traditional pilgrimages are now met in other forms, of which two might be immersion experiences and service learning programs. Our pilgrimage will be followed by two immersions--but what about service learning?

Before coming to Berkeley, I taught at a small Franciscan-affiliated university in the mid-west. During my time there I started a service learning class as an option for students needing to fulfill their theology requirement. The students committed to spend 5-8 hours a week in direct service (i.e., no stuffing envelopes or administrative work,) at a service site of their choice. Students commonly spent their hours at a local VA hospital, a nursing home, or a local school. Class time was not unlike some forms of group spiritual direction, where students would share and reflect together on the events of their week. Reading was light, but short papers were turned in every week.

The reflection papers over the semester followed certain patterns from class to class. At first, the new task of service was just another obligation in the already-crammed schedules of the undergraduates. Their reflections dwelt on shuffling other commitments, learning the ropes in a new place, learning names, and other prosaic details. In the next stage, generally about 3 weeks in, for some students the time had become routine. Mrs. Johnson at the home wanted to place Scrabble AGAIN, AS ALWAYS, and the old lady was an absolute shark at the game. Mr. Benson wanted to talk about his time on active duty 30 years ago, and his recent medical problems. Young Shelly still can't quite get her times tables down, and clearly she gets no encouragement at home at all. Reflections were about steadiness--service was something they showed up to do, and they were welcomed for the help they offered.

But then, about 6 weeks in, for some students, something changed. They began to speak of their service as a welcome break, but even more, an experience of a kind of companionship based on--well, based on nothing beyond the students showing up. It wasn't so much the score of the Scrabble game (always dutifully reported,) but the fact of the shuffling of tiles and reconnection of the people over the board. It wasn't like family--family is a given, not chosen in the way these connections were chosen. It wasn't friendship, because these connections weren't freely chosen, either, and often crossed boundaries of age, class and experience that friendships rarely can. It became something like simply being human together, welcomed and valued just for breathing the same air. Reflections went deep--WHY is Scrabble so important? What's the source of the real joy at finally getting all the way through the Twelves on the times tables? Why does Mr. Benson's family never seem to have time just to visit, when they live right in town?

And when Mr. Benson died, the student who'd been with him all through the end of his life noted that he'd never thought of that wing of the VA as a place where people went to die, but of course, he said, it is. I asked if Mr. Benson's death made him think about his own mortality--and immediately another student snapped "Why do you ask that?" I said, well, sometimes, when we're with someone we know who passes away...and she said "because my own work at the nursing home makes me think about that." We were all silent for a bit, and then spoke of the brilliance and frailty of human life.

One of the essentials of pilgrimage is the shared experience of the trek with others sharing the trail. Pilgrims leave behind the markers of our status--the education or the jobs or the responsibilities that make us significant contributors to our societies. Pilgrims really contribute nothing to the larger world in terms of work done or money made. We are slackers on the move. Traditionally, of course, pilgrims begged alms for their support--as if not contributing our labor to the common cause weren't bad enough, we were a drain on the rightful earnings of those from whom we begged our bread. But the bonds among pilgrims, and at least sometimes, the bond between almsgivers and the pilgrims they fed, was one based on nothing other than breathing the same air. We value each other and are valued because we share the brilliance and frailty of human life, and that's enough. My students started as almsgivers, donating their time to those who they thought they could help. They did help. But what they were given--some of them--was an insight that, like the people they served, they were valuable just for being, not for anything they did or how well they might do it. A brilliant, fragile insight that turned them into pilgrims, too.