Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Lessons contextualized

In recent days, we've been talking about the lessons of the camino, which very often slide into easy metaphors for spiritual life, ecclesial life, or just life in general. Sometimes we learn that the lessons of camino apply to some contexts, but are dangerous or wrong in others.

I've heard the same lesson from two different men in recent days. One was a "hard-core" camino-ista, walking his first time already planning the second. The second will be without comforts like vino at the end of the day, perhaps with more silence. He and his wife (far more moderate in her desired degree of asceticism,) were staying in nice hotels, eschewing the albergues, which I assume will be part of his more "difficult" camino. He spoke, though, of one lesson of the camino being open and ready to meet people on the road, but also to let them go. The taking in, the letting go are both important.

Then there's Richard, a young American from Chicago, who decided to spend some time as a hospitaler--running a refugio--along the trail. For Richard also it's the welcoming and the letting go, letting the pilgrims he meets, especially those he'd like more conversation with, continue their camino, while he continues to clean, welcoming a new cohort of the sweaty, scruffy and lame daily.

The taking in and the letting go. As a teacher, I know this process well. Each fall brings a new cohort of delightfully intelligent and well-motivated students to my school, and their gifts enrich our community. When their education is completed, I mourn their graduation as I congratulate them, and I console myself with hopes for their future ministries in parishes, schools, prisons, or wherever that still small voice calls them. If I fail to really engage them as fully as I can while they're here, I miss out on the richest part of the teaching gig. But I must always let them go with grace and good wishes.

However, this lesson can't be taken too far without danger. In our lives in general, and especially our spiritual lives, we are shaped most deeply not by those we take in and let go, but by those few to whom we commit ourselves in love. We take them in and at least intend never to let them go. Partners, children, a few close friends. The holding on must always give freedom to the others, not constrain them, but it remains a holding on which shapes the holder and the one held. It can be scary to hold, and even more so to be held, this way, but it in those connections that our true selves are formed. I know people who take the letting go too strongly--men especially who never let anyone come close. They miss the point of the taking in and the letting go--that sometimes one doesn't.

The hard-core camino-ista may not yet have learned this. Richard the hospitaler has--he knows that the coming and going of relationships are for a time, but only for a time. For some contexts--teaching, running a refugio--but not for all of life. Jesus said to the rich man "sell all you have, give to the poor and follow me." He never said "sell all you have, engage no one deeply, and follow me." How could he? Jesus wasn't the kind of guy to hold and then to let go. Good thing.

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