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.