Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Walking the Questions

In his "Letters to a Young Poet," Rainer Maria Rilke gives some good advice:

"Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."

Lisa and I were hiking the Claremont Canyon this afternoon, breaking in our hiking boots. Last year we were doing the same thing, only breaking in different boots. Kilimanjaro demanded stiff, warm mountaineering boots; the Camino requires shoes that are flexible and breathable. Different boots, but the same question: where will the blisters be?

I don't know about living the question, but we're well on our way to walking the question. Maybe we'll even walk into an answer. Other questions will find us on the way, questions we can't even frame now. We'll walk those questions too. We intend to take a few questions with us. Last year, though, everyone had a question for us: "Why do you have to climb Kilimanjaro?" The question always caught me up short. Then, Lisa would get this wild look in her eyes: "Because it's there!" I would just shrug and say: "Well, somebody invited us to come along." That usually shut people up.

In retrospect, those were pretty good answers, and they signal two habits of the heart we will need. Lisa invoked the spirits of George Mallory and Mt. Everest: "Because it's there!" She signals a spirit of surrender. Kilimanjaro had a "fierce landscape," as theologian Belden Lane put it. It reminded me of Job, stunned into silence after listening to the voice from the whirlwind: "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you...." (Job 42:5). Some in our party felt they "conquered" the summit, as if it were something they achieved. Lisa and I felt keenly that the mountain let us ascend -- and we did so with both awe and gratitude.

And my answer expresses the spirit of invitation. Kilimanjaro wasn't on my bucket list, i.e., something I needed to do before I died. When invited by friends, though, including a native Tanzanian, I could only say yes! I didn't have many expectations; I didn't even need to make the summit. I tried to respond in the spirit of Abraham, invited by God on a journey --without being told where he was going! He trusted the one inviting him.

Surrender and invitation: these will probably be good to keep in our backpacks.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Mechanics of Walking: Physical and Spiritual

I've been thinking about walking -- we'll be doing lots of it. It's a push-pull affair: one foot steps out, pulling the rest of the body forward, while the other foot pushes off from behind. If it were all about pulling from ahead, you'd get exhausted dragging everything else along like a dead weight. If it were all about pushing, you'd do a header on the rocks. An unconscious rhythm of pushing and pulling keeps a hiker moving forward.

Thinking about walking helped me make sense of two biblical texts that have been floating around in my head for the past week. Throughout the journey to Jerusalem and beyond, Jesus tells his disciples to "Follow me." And like cyclists following a strong leader, they draft him, careening along behind, as he pulls them forward. It's the pull of his energy that keeps them moving.

Then there's the beautiful passage from the prophet Isaiah: "And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, 'This is the way; walk in it'" (30:21). This is energy from behind, the push-off the hiker needs to move forward.

I've been amused by the difference between Isaiah's push and Jesus' pull. Considering the mechanics of walking brought them into necessary connection. The hiker in the photograph demonstrates the synergy: left leg extended pulling the body forward, right leg behind for the push-off. One seamless, unconscious movement.

This is how the body mentors the soul.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Why Sweat?

One of the questions that has interested me in thinking about pilgrimage (and in the Kili climb,) is this: what's the connection between physical effort and even the arduousness of that effort, and the spiritual work of pilgrimage? Marty speaks of the body mentoring the spirit, showing it what it can do, or inviting it to extend itself in new ways. (Marty--say more about this?) I've wondered if in part the body merely distracts the mind, allowing the "real" work of pilgrimage to percolate under the surface. If I set myself out on pilgrimage, I begin with a spiritual as well as a physical aim. But the physical aim requires constant attention--step, now step, now step, now scramble over rock, stop to drink, now step again, and step. As a parallel, when I make an 8-day retreat, it usually takes me at least a day or two to quiet down the "monkey mind," the continual chatter of ideas and general busy-ness that is the state of my mind most days. The work of the retreat starts when the chatter subsides, but the benefit of the retreat includes the FACT of quieting the noise to enter silence. I wonder if the walking quiets the chatter of the body AND the mind, by giving them something to do that is simple and repetitive enough to allow deeper prayer--conscious or unconscious--to begin. This is a parallel to the fingering of rosary beads, or perhaps the practice of some who like to exercise before prayer, to settle the body. Muscles content, the mind can pray.
Lisa Dahill, professor of worship and spirituality at Trinity Seminary in Ohio, suggests a third relationship of body to spirit on pilgrimage. The step, now step, now step is a way of keeping the pilgrim focused in the present--the "now" is as significant as the "step." Likewise rosary beads, or the specific tasks of a student in service learning, or the repetition of a mantra/word in meditation. For monks, perhaps, the chanting of the office, the same 150 psalms over and over again, starting anew every week for one's entire life, has the same function. Now we use this antiphon, now we chant this psalm, now I stay on key and in synch with my brothers or sisters.
In sum, it seems obvious to me that the physical and the spiritual are deeply connected in pilgrimage. Where the physical is absent or downplayed, something crucial is lacking AS pilgrimage. It's connected to the fact of our incarnation. But, exactly, how?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Pilgrimage at Gettysburg: The mix of commerce and commemoration

I've always been a slow learner. I was three days into teaching summer school at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg before I realized: this is a place of pilgrimage! All week I'd dodge cars packed with tourists rubber-necking along the road that bisects campus -- this was, after all, the seminary featured in the charge at Seminary Ridge. Every morning I'd jog out Confederate Road, past monuments to the armies of Tennessee, North Carolina, Northern Virginia. This was a site of pilgrimage: I'd better check it out.

My colleague Leonard Hummel took me around the battlefield and showed me how to "read" the monuments. A square pedestal signaled a Union monument; rounded pedestals marked the monuments of the Confederacy. Officers were always on horses: if the horse had one hoof in the air, the officer had been wounded in battle; two hoofs flying meant he'd been mortally wounded; four hoofs planted firmly on the ground told us he'd lived to fight again. The battlefield read like a three-dimensional script.

Signs in town were easier to interpret: "Authentic Civil War Artifacts!" "Military Antiques!" "Ghost Stories in Haunted Cellar!" "Are Ghosts Real? The strongest emotion of mankind is fear of the unknown. Nightly Ghost Talks: 7:30pm." Gettysburg managed to be simultaneously a place of commemoration and a busy marketplace. I sat on the porch of a cafe and let it all wash over me.

Here's what I learned: Travel flirts with the unknown -- that's why we do it. There are a lot of responses appropriate to the unfamiliar. Fear is only one of them: there's' also resistance, denial, delight, hope, attention. Tourists respond to the unknown by consuming it, whether by purchasing artifacts or doing ghost walks or buying postcards. Pilgrims respond to the unknown by simply being there. It occurred to me that we'll see the same mix on the Camino, in our immersion trips to Mexico City and El Salvador, and in ourselves, as I saw on the battlefield.

It's unavoidable, but it's worth noticing.

I'm building out the distinction below between service learning, pilgrimage, and now tourism: servants go to do, tourists go to consume, and pilgrims go to receive. We'll probably do a little bit of everything; we'll probably be all three.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Mountain Anniversary

It was a year ago today that we summitted Kilimanjaro. We'd started climbing at 11 the previous night, hiking by headlamp up the trail. The little circle of light showed basically scree (loose rock,) which gave way to snowpack as we went higher. We talked quietly among ourselves, but mostly just put one foot in front of another. We summitted at sunrise, about 7 a.m., a glorious vista spread out before us. We were so high we could see the curve of the earth.

The summit of Kili is a tad over 19,000 feet. You don't NEED oxygen to be that high, but you sure notice that you don't have as much of it as you'd like. The thin air limited our pace, but the cold kept us moving. Too slow, and the cold became very uncomfortable. Too fast, and breathing was difficult. Our pace as we got near the top was about the pace you'd walk a labyrinth..deliberate, slow, steady. We took breaks to try to chew through frozen Clif bars, but soon had to be moving again.

Aristotle says virtue is in the mean between excess and deficit, between, in this case, being too cold and being too breathless. The mean is a prudential judgment that constitutes excellence for that time. I've been thinking lately of a friend who never takes chances, never reaches outside himself, has no one he trusts, and has never dared love--somewhere in his life he slowed down and froze into himself. Conversely, we all know stories of people who race breathless but cannot continue--Janis Joplin is one example, perhaps. The pilgrim's walk is also a mean, between "go as slow as you need to," and "don't stop," and invites us to see the excellence in the mean. That mean is also the pace at which contemplation occurs--or, in life generally, what some might call awareness.

Today a 4-mile hike on the rim trail of Lake Tahoe--a mere 7,000 feet or so up. No Clif bars, though--how ascetical! :-)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Insights along the way: On "being" a pilgrim

People ask: when are you going to Santiago? And my immediate response is: we're already underway. As we discovered when we climbed Kilimanjaro, an important part of the trip is getting all the gear together. We were climbers -- and climbers have lists! We made sure we had everything on our various lists. And then a little extra, in case one of our fellow climbers needed it. We knew there wouldn't be an REI on the mountain.

The "gear" for pilgrimage is quite different. Indeed, it's a journey where emptiness is a virtue. Pilgrims travel light, with open hands and open hearts. Open to what, you might ask? Open to the moment. This moment tells the pilgrim where the path leads.

This week two moments have shown me the way forward. One was a conversation with Ed Peck, PhD, Director of the Ignatian Colleagues Program, which runs out of John Carroll University in Cleveland ( Colleagues is an immersion program for administrators, faculty, and staff, supported by, but not limited to, Jesuit institutions of higher education. Peck has thought a lot about pilgrimage and immersion, and he distinguishes it sharply from service learning. Service learning sends people into another country to "do" something, build a school or dig a well. Immersion sends people into another country to simply "be" with the people there. "You're not there to give; you're there to receive," he observed.

Of course, that "being" may lead to "doing," as Lisa points out in her post below. But the first move is to be there, in simple solidarity. And the affective expressions of solidarity are love of the people, gratitude for their hospitality -- and anger at the systemic injustices that lead to poverty. Colleagues offers a careful and thorough Ignatian pedagogy to help people experience, reflect, feel, and then put those feelings into action in their institutions at home.

A second moment came in a conversation with Orv Gingerich, Director of Augsburg College's signature Center for Global Education in Minneapolis ( Like the Colleagues program, CGE sponsors global immersions, only these involve students. And like Peck, Gingerich is quick to separate these immersions from mission trips or service learning projects: "We encourage people to go as receivers. We want to disabuse them of the idea they have something to offer. We want them to simply receive."

Not surprising that these two programs collaborate, sharing sites and personnel in their immersion programs. These two conversations clarified several things for me, as I prepare for our journey. But equally, they show me I'm already on the way.

I'm grateful to have such wise and gracious companions.
And yes, that's an icon of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus -- and fellow pilgrim.

Monday, July 6, 2009

My usual ethical turf is virtue ethics, a mode of ethical reasoning that pursues questions of character and character formation. Virtues are built in small actions, and inhere in the accumulated perfection (or imperfection) wrought by our daily actions as they become habits. We don't acquire virtues (or vices) overnight--we build the content of our characters step by step. The Shaker hymn says it right: "To turn, turn, will be our delight, 'til by turning, turning we come 'round right." Think about it: acts that look superheroic tend, on closer inspection, to be the product of habits of daily life. The mother who "miraculously" lifts a car off her trapped toddler is not suddenly strong--the love for her child that led her to lift the child into her arms, what, 40 or 50 times daily had made her strong, and the adrenaline of the moment completes the "miracle." Conversion likewise, is rarely sudden--Paul, e.g., was likely haunted by the witness of Stephen before he met Christ on the road. Pilgrims are also made in steps. Step by step the road unfolds. Step by step the journey deepens. Step by step we become what we do, moving from who we were to whoever the road will help us to become.