Monday, November 29, 2010
"The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect for whom the entire world is as a foreign land." -- Hugo of St. Victor, Didascalicon iii
This twelfth century monk knew what he was talking about. He'd come as a boy to Paris from Saxony. The French city did not feel like home to him. He disclosed to students who might have suffered from a similar homesickness: "From boyhood I have dwelt on foreign soil, and I know with what grief sometimes the mind takes leave of the narrow hearth of a peasant's hut, and I know too how frankly it afterwards disdains marble firesides and paneled halls."
Hugo of St. Victor was himself "someone for whom the entire world is as a foreign land." In short, he was a pilgrim, "peregrinus," and he leaned on an image from his Augustinian training. In his "Confessions," Augustine used "pilgrim" to describe the Christian's sojourn on this earth, a spiritual displacement. For Augustine had experienced a physical displacement similar to Hugo of St. Victor's when he left North Africa to continue his studies in Milan. There he encountered the cultural disdain people reserved for someone born in one of the Roman colonies in North Africa. Like Hugo of St. Victor, Augustine was spiritually and physically a "pilgrim."
For my part, I feel spiritually at home, maybe more so than in Berkeley. The dominant place of worship on Sundays is not the coffee shop, where Berkeley gathers its devotees of the Church of the Latte Day Saints. Here lots of people are in church on Sunday. And many of those who aren't, are at the mosque or synagogue on Friday. There's a spectrum of practicing believers, with a richness I'm just beginning to appreciate. It's not the dismissive divide between the "churched" and the "unchurched."
Such worship is not just habit: a deeper mystery sustains it. Something gets people through these fierce winters; something animates their evident civic spirit; something engenders ready discussion of a common good. So spiritually, this feels like home, and I can't share Hugo of St. Victor's spiritual displacement.
But physical displacement registers keenly. Though I love the skyscape and its palette of gunmetal blues, it's not home. The river is mighty, but it's not the grey Atlantic. And I fiercely miss friends and family in Delaware and the Bay Area, but I can't imagine them here.
Nor does being in any of these other places satisfy. I'm eager to get back, because I'm supposed to be here. More accurately, I'm called to be here. But home is not where your mail comes, nor is it where you have a job. Home is not even where you've found a calling. I'm honestly not sure "what" it is, possibly because I'm not even sure "where" it is -- at least not at the moment.
Is this the "perfection" Hugo of St. Victor was talking about? I won't aim for so lofty an ideal. But the image of the pilgrim is consoling....
Friday, November 19, 2010
The highest point on the Camino Frances ascends to O'Cebreiro, a tiny mountain hamlet of slate roofs and stone houses. Lisa and I sweat buckets climbing up to O'Cebreiro. Once there, however, we put on every article of clothing we owned. On that late September afternoon, an autumn chill crept into the air before the sun set, and we huddled around vats of steaming sausage just to keep warm. A street festival was in progress, and Galician folk music -- Celtic with strong hints of the Middle East -- filled the streets. The air smelled of snow, and I tried to imagine how medieval pilgrims made it up to O'Cebreiro in winter.
They didn't. Most of them took the Camino de Invernio, literally "The Way of Winter," a route that heads south from Ponferrada to cross the mountains that border Galicia, the region of northwestern Spain where Santiago de Compostela is located. Galicia reminded us a lot of Ireland, with thatch, sheep, stone fences, and houses huddled together against the chill.
I feel like I'm walking the Camino de Invernio right here in Minnesota, only it's not the highest point of the journey -- but the lowest. Everything leans into darkness. The sun can barely lift its head above the horizon, as if it too were weighted down by the cold. Fall's rich yellow glow has already given up, ceding to that thin watery winter light. Runners along the River Parkway have a grim set to their faces.
And I need extra time to stop for stop lights, extra distance between my car and the one ahead, extra minutes to layer on clothing before I go out and to take it off when I return. The "What-Ifs" rent too much space in my head: What if the temperature plummets before I have to walk home? What if it snows/sleets/rains? What if I get stuck?
And it's only mid-November!
I need to think more like the fat grey squirrels that have been scurrying around the bikepaths. They seem energized by the winter's work of gathering. I'm taking note.
Gathering is the work of the Camino de Invernio, and it can be a work of quiet joy. I'm reining my circles in. I'll return to the manuscript that can only be written against the backdrop of falling snow. I'll cook that recipe that seemed too complicated for summer's distractions. I'll stockpile candles to match the sparkling stars.
This is winter's way.
Monday, October 18, 2010
At the hostel in Roncesvalles, the first Spanish town after crossing the Pyrenees from France, pilgrims are asked to state their reasons for hiking the Camino. They are check the following boxes -- religious, spiritual, sport, historical, cultural --or fill in their own. An Italian journalist Giovanni we met along the way said he'd checked them all. He later told us he had bought only a one-way ticket to Spain. He didn't know when he'd be returning home -- nor whether he'd have a job when he got there.
We did our own informal survey. Chris and Gil, a retired couple from Santa Fe, said they were trying to figure out "Stage Three." A young man from Spain said he did part of the Camino every year for his "spiritual health." An Australian woman spoke laconically: "I needed to let go of some things." She didn't elaborate. We didn't ask -- but the response stuck with us.
What were we letting go of?
Physically, we let go of a lot of things. We simply brought too much stuff. Lisa had a hard-bound book, which she was reviewing for an academic journal. We finally cut off its binding. We left that behind. I had a pair of sox too many, a third t-shirt, a Spanish dictionary. We left them behind too. We tore pages out of books we were reading when we finished, and every day I'd choose a spot to leave the day's readings from a lectionary I'd brought along. All of this, we left behind.
We made tiny shrines of all our extra stuff, took a mental snapshot, and started walking. We never looked back.
Like pilgrimage, prayer invites a similar unburdening. To get to the place of prayer, one has to leave things behind possessions that have begun to possess us, but also cares and anxieties that clutter our spiritual space.
Luther wrote that on days when he was most busy, he had to spend at least three hours in prayer. Initially, this puzzled me: it seemed a lot of time precisely on days when he had so little to spare. The experience of the Camino made me see the truth. On his busiest days, it took Luther longer to clear the decks for prayer.
Prayer is letting go. The Christian tradition calls this "kenosis," literally, a pouring out.
Prayer tips the soul. Worries and anxieties drain out, so that we can be filled with the Spirit.
Sunday, October 17, 2010
A third symmetry between pilgrimage and prayer is Sabbath. My friend Jan Ruud hinted at this: "You walk your own Camino." I thought this was just another Camino koan. We'd heard a lot of this stuff from Camino-heads in our acquaintance. Then mid-way through our first week, we hit the wall. We'd been following John Brierley's wonderful book, "A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino de Santiago," which laid out the route in daily chunks: one day 21.1 km, the next 27.7 km, the next 24.8 km -- and by the fourth day, we were foot-weary, discouraged, and driven to reach Brierley's daily destination.
Then it struck me: we weren't walking our own Camino. We were walking John Brierley's. His pace was clearly too fast for us -- and he didn't leave any room to rest. We needed Sabbath.
That day we stopped 9km before Brierley recommended, found a B&B, showered, and enjoyed a long, leisurely lunch. We waved to pilgrims forging ahead. This was our sabbath; it didn't need to be theirs. From then on, we walked in sabbath-time.
When we got tired, we'd find a village, put our feet up at a cafe, and let the air blow through our blisters. Sabbath.
Or we'd plan a short day of walking by design and spend the rest of the afternoon doing laundry. Sabbath.
One day we took off entirely, shedding pilgrim habits to become tourists and poke around the intricate Knights Templar castle in Ponferrada. Sabbath.
We observed mini-sabbaths along the way, stopping for no less than 45 minutes to savor a cafe con leche each morning after a couple of hours of walking. By that time we needed an extended period of "horizontality," as Lisa put it.
Prayer creates its own sabbath. It's not a performance sport, as a lot of "how-to" self-help guides lead one to believe. Rather, prayer is a way of leaning into the Lord. Prayer invites the traveler on the inward journey to rest in God, or as Brother Lawrence, a 17th Century French lay brother put it, "practice the presence of God." This practice is more receptive than productive. Rest allows the soul to receive.
One way to shed the urge for production and performance is to simply let the words of Psalm 46:10, wash over you, until there is nothing left but silence.
"Be still and know that I am God."
"Be still and know that I am."
"Be still and know."
The silence holds everything.
Saturday, October 16, 2010
As beautiful as the Cathedral of Santiago is, pilgrimage is not about getting there.
But isn't that the point?! In the beginning, I thought it was. And I was hustling down the trail, face set toward Santiago. Early on, though, I discovered that pilgrimage is less about reaching the destination than about the way itself -- and the people on it.
This simple truth hit me during the first days of our trek. Lisa and I were both carrying too much stuff, and we unburdened that extra pair of sox, the third t-shirt, etc. But we were also burdened by something that was harder to jettison: the idea of reaching our destination. It possessed us like a demon -- and we realized we had to let go of even that.
One morning we couldn't find a pace that would allow us to walk together. I kept bounding ahead; Lisa kept lagging behind. We were yelling at each other like a married couple carrying on a conversation from room to room. Finally, she sat down in exasperation and evident pain, saying: "If you want to go on ahead, go. I'll meet you in Santiago. I simply can't keep up with you, and I'm getting angry trying."
In that moment, I realized that the point of pilgrimage wasn't about getting there, it was about being a good companion to my friend and colleague on the way. I jettisoned my heaviest and most burdensome possession: my desire to reach our destination. And together we found a pace that worked, a conversation that eased the pain, and a rhythm that carried us to Santiago -- the destination we'd abandoned.
Quite simply, we encouraged one another, just like Paul counseled his communities at Thessaloniki (1 Thess. 5:11). I'd never understand his advice until that moment.
And others encouraged us. A Danish psychologist and his friend, a Swedish jazz dancer, taught us how to "sew" our feet, keeping our blisters drained and dry. In turn, we encouraged a young Korean woman, who was walking a long, hot stretch of the trail without water or food. We shared our provisions with her and accompanied her to the town of Viansa. I saw her later in the town, rested, hydrated, radiant. She looked transformed.
I thought we'd have deep theological discussion along the trail. Back in Berkeley, we had talked about "walking the questions" of John's gospel -- and there are some great ones: "What is truth? "What do you seek?" "Who are you?" But in fact our "theology" was much more embodied, our conversations much more prosaic. We spent a lot of time simply making up a shaggy dog story around one of the hospitalero we encountered along the trail. The miles eased away. But wasn't that Geoffrey Chaucer's insight in his "Caunterbury Tales?" It's not a book about Caunterbury, the supposed destination; it's all about the tales pilgrims tell each other en route -- to encourage each other.
That was our prayer along the way. Quite literally, we were meeting Christ in these other pilgrims. And they were meeting Christ in us -- in spite of ourselves.
Prayer is a lot like pilgrimage in that regard. Christians think it's all about union with God, and they keep trying to find the right formula. The disciples were always pestering Jesus to tell them his secrets: "Teach us how to pray...." His response was the Lord's Prayer, which gives God praise -- then, asks for bread, protection, and forgiveness. These are all highly concrete and highly corporate practices, because we share bread, we look out for one another, and we need pardon because we're hard-wired to get on each other's nerves. Just like Lisa and me.
Prayer also gets crowded pretty quickly. The needs of the neighbor rush in, and suddenly a solitary practice becomes peopled. We think prayer is about union with God, but discover instead it's about communion with the neighbor, who bears Christ to us, even as we bear Christ to them.
It was great to reach Santiago. But it was even better to have the journey bring me closer to my traveling companions -- and allow us to finish the journey on speaking terms.
Friday, October 15, 2010
The professorship I now hold is named after Bernhard M. Christensen, president of Augsburg College from 1938 until 1962. He authored a book entitled "The Inward Pilgrimage" (1976), in which he likens Christian discipleship to pilgrimage. It's not an original insight: Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) spoke of Christians as pilgrims, in Latin "peregrini," a much more modest designation than the "athletes for Christ" the church of the martyrs had used.
In his book, Christensen does not give his readers directions for the journey of the discipleship, because every disciple begins from a different place. Nor does he give his readers a map for the landscape of discipleship, because every disciple traverses different terrain. Instead, he gives disciples traveling companions, people who've made their own journey -- and left their travel diaries behind. He trusts that, if you've in good company, you'll get where you need to go.
And what company this is! There's Augustine of Hippo, who probably looked like many of the North African peoples who populate the area around Augsburg College today. There are the Desert Fathers and Mothers from the Egyptian desert of the fourth and fifth centuries. There's Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, John Bunyan, Thomas a Kempis, alongside Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It's a motley crew, probably a lot like the disciples who traveled with Jesus in the first century.
Finally, pilgrimage is pointed -- not toward some destination -- but to prayer, union with God and communion with the neighbor.
The symmetry between Christensen's interest in pilgrimage and my own -- grace, not mere coincidence! He prompts me to think of the parallels between pilgrimage and prayer that I would make.
The first is that both involve a kind of intentional dislocation. Pilgrimage and prayer both step out of the ordinary, leaving the familiar behind. On the Camino, Lisa and I met a couple who were entering a new phase of their life and marriage. They'd met, married, and had kids: Stage One. They'd raised their kids and had careers: Stage Two. Now newly retired and empty nesters, they were beginning what they called Stage Three. They wrenched themselves from jobs and children and familiar settings to go on pilgrimage. Walking the Camino would help them figure out what Stage Three was all about.
"And what has the Camino taught you so far?" I asked them as we approached Burgos. The woman, Chris, has a ready answer: "I don't know what it's going to be like, but I do know it will involve service." The intentional dislocation of pilgrimage had opened a new path.
So it is with prayer, which involves a similar kind of dislocation. Sometimes that dislocation is bodily or somatic. The gestures of prayer wrench the body from its familiar poses, calling for bowed head, folded hands, closed eyes, even breathing. I remember watching eight Jesuit priests enter the diaconate by prostrating themselves on the cold stone floor of a cathedral in downtown Oakland, as we sang above them.
Sometimes the dislocation of prayer is spatial, and we make places for prayer: chapels, shrines, and quiet spaces. Sometimes these spaces are designated by others; sometimes we make them up ourselves. A student said that driving to work each morning across the Arizona desert, she imagined Jesus next to her in the passenger seat. It was a great space for conversation. Another woman had a "prayer chair," a special chair she set aside for prayer. Whenever she sat in it, that's what she did.
At other times, the dislocation is temporal. Benediction monks practiced a rhythm of work and prayer, in Latin "ore et labore," during the day, gathering six times in the course of the day for prayer. Their lives became infused by the psalms that structured these offices -- not a bad way to live, when you consider the emotional range of the psalms!
A busy Silicon Valley executive realized that he was praying before difficult meetings by taking the long route around from office to board room. The path led him to a window overlooking the campus, where he could take in the beauty of the well-groomed campus grounds before heading into his meeting. It was the dislocation from the ordinary that he needed to gather himself. It was a tiny pilgrimage, but it was prayer.
So how do disengage from the familiar to pray? How do you dislocate -- to re-engage again with renewed spirit?
Thursday, September 30, 2010
When I set off on the Great Road Trip East, I started in Oakland, California and pointed the car in the direction of Minneapolis. I figured if I covered two states, one set of mountain ranges, and one time zone each day, I'd make the trip in three days.
That is, if I didn't get lost.
I downloaded directions, which gave me point-to-point instructions, right down to which way to turn out of my driveway. Basically, my directions were simple and idiot-proof: Take interstate 80 east and turn left at Des Moines. That was good for about 1800 miles.
I also brought along maps, because maps pointed out small towns, larger towns, and the spaces in between. Maps told me when I crossed the Rockies and where the Wasatch Range lay. Maps pointed out the North Platte River, which so many pioneers followed west -- and I now followed east. Most helpful, at least on the Great Road Trip, maps revealed rest stops, gas stations, and the Golden Arches of McDonald's, where I could caffeinate for the road ahead. This was good information to have.
I also brought along a compass, just in case. The compass lived on the dashboard, and it always pointed to "true north." For some reason, that gave me great comfort. One foggy morning in Nebraska, I couldn't tell whether the sun was rising or where. I pulled into a rest stop to consult the compass, just to make sure I was still going east. When directions fail, when maps lose their bearing, a compass can orient you in deep fog. That deep fog can be physical or spiritual; it can be personal or institutional. Compasses are kind of good to have around.
This is kind of a trinity of travel paraphernalia: each one does something the others do not.
Directions are linear, moving from point-to-point. They are enormously helpful, if you know precisely where you're coming from --and precisely where you're headed. Directions are sequential, like cookbooks, giving a step-by-step plan of action. First, peel; then, puree -- not the other way around! Finally, directions are bossy: they tell you what to do. And after all the decisions that went into packing up my old place and setting up my new one, my executive capacity had snapped like a worn-out rubber band. I needed someone else directing traffic.
Maps are planar and spatial, surveying a particular terrain. They display relationships; they tell you what's alongside. Here is this range of mountain; there is that river; twenty miles ahead you'll find a rest stop. Finally, maps are simply descriptive. They display the quadrants of the known world, laying them out for you to figure it all out. While directions say: "Do this!" a map, in contrast, says: "Here it is."
A compass offers basic orientation. Nothing more -- and certainly nothing less. A compass provides the most comprehensive -- but least specific! -- kind of guidance. They are useful when the destination is not known. Or not clear. Or has not yet been manifest.
Now I've arrived: I'm here. And I did not get lost.
I've thrown away my directions, because I'll never be making the journey from that place to this one ever again. I've put away my maps, because I'm not on the road.
The compass, however, I keep in my pocket, for it provides sturdy and unflinching direction for days whose destination is unknown or unclear or not yet manifest. If only the endpoint of each day would arrive in a little envelope outside my door like the morning paper.... But to navigate the days off road, a compass gives the best guidance.
Off-road travel is really different from being on a great road trip. I find myself listening for direction. Sometimes that comes from friends and trusted confidants, both in what they say and what they leave unsaid. At other times, that compass comes from some internal gyroscope that spins away, pointing me in both right and wrong directions.
Mostly, I just try to pay attention, hoping Isaiah got it right:
"And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction,
yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore,
but your eyes shall see your Teacher,
And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying:
'This is the way, walk in it,'
when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left."
This is the journey of ordinary time.
Sunday, September 12, 2010
Pilgrimage is a practice tailor-made for seekers. Even Augustine knew this, for Augustine is the quintessential, pre-modern seeker. His autobiography, "The Confessions," is one of the first memoirs, and he chronicles how he looked for love in all the wrong places: philosophy, Gnosticism, music, women. Dissatisfaction mounted -- until Love found him.
But his lost-and-found story made its dent on his soul, and Augustine projected it outward, calling people pilgrims, "peregrini." In this, he only echoes the sentiments of the author of the epistle to the Hebrews, who tells the earliest Christians they are destined to be "strangers and pilgrims on the earth" (11:13).
The book "Eat Pray Love" gets catalogued as a "memoir," but it's really the travel diary of a seeker. Fresh out of a bad marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert sets out for a destination she cannot quite identify, knowing only the places she will pass through along the way: Italy, India, and Bali. She learns to eat in Italy, pray in India, and love in Bali, things she did not actually set out to accomplish, but finds in retrospect.
Indeed, she owes her plot line to Augustine: looking for love in all the wrong places -- only to be found by love in the end. It's not capital "L" Love, but it'll at least get her through another couple of memoirs, one of which is already out "Committed."
Gilbert's is a decidedly post-modern pilgrimage: no capital letters at all, no meta-narratives. Like most things post-modern, it struck me as pretty self-absorbed, even a bit precious. After all, who has the resources -- time and money! -- to travel for a year after a loss like hers. Most of us simply have to hunker down and pay the bills.
Still, as we kept reminding ourselves, Lisa and I could not have trekked across the top of Spain without the generous support of a research grant. Take all of our whining about blisters with a grain of salt. We earned them in achingly beautiful terrain; we eased the pain with liberal doses of Ibuprofen and Rioja.
This made me look more sympathetically at Gilbert's plight. And I was intrigued to find an earlier collection of her short stories entitled "Pilgrims." How would this post-modern seeker develop her theme?
The stories handle people who could hardly be called privileged, and their author treats them with respect, even awe. A scrappy Hungarian immigrant worries that his daughter is too clumsy to achieve any acclaim being the magician she longs to be. Yet, as the story closes, she has literally produced a rabbit out of thin air, redeeming her father's longing and her own aspirations. In "Alice from the East," a widowed rancher offers to help a pair of teenagers whose car has broken down on the prairie. The terrain breathes solitude, and one of the teenagers recognizes her own loneliness in the rancher's -- and treats him as kin. A simple kindness in "The Many Things That Denny Brown Did Not Know (Age Fifteen)" runs like water in a desert -- and the desert blossoms. Such epiphanies abound in Gilbert's stories, as an ordinary gesture sparks a shock of grace. Hard-scrabble as these characters are, they have not forgotten compassion. Neither has Gilbert.
In a very real sense, pilgrims, seekers, Gilbert's characters, possibly Gilbert herself are all lost souls. Certainly pilgrims get lost regularly, trying to find the right path. But they're really lost when they realize: "it's not about getting there, stupid!" It's about the path itself -- and, more importantly, the people on it. Then, pilgrims understand they are on a different journey. To find this new path, they have to pay a different kind of attention.
Compassion is the kind of attention pilgrims need to pay, if they are to find their way forward on a journey that is suddenly not about "getting there." Compassion for themselves, compassion for their fellow-travelers. I think Gilbert gets that. Her stories demonstrate her compassion for these pilgrims and lost souls, her fellow-travelers. Her memoir records her own efforts to find a way to treat herself with compassion.
For pilgrims, seekers, and other lost souls, compassion acts as a compass.
Friday, September 3, 2010
At the moment, I'm waiting for John the Painter to come finish painting. All the furniture has been huddled in the middle of each room, like some post-modern football game. I walk in and excuse myself for interrupting play.
I'm waiting for the semester to begin. There was orientation for new faculty this week, vastly disorienting because I'm decades older than the other new professors. But they didn't treat me like a mom -- and I didn't treat them like children. I can already tell I'm lucky to have such creative and energetic colleagues.
I'm waiting to finish writing an Advent commentary, which has been the work of the last few weeks. Advent is a season of waiting. As I reach for the right words, I realize how appropriate the posture is to the liturgical season. Which hasn't made the waiting any less frustrating, but given it slightly more gravitas.
In contrast, I see that the earlier weeks since my arrival in mid-July have been a rush of activity. People comment on how much I've gotten done -- and it's true. But high productivity is like a drug to me: it's not called "workaholism" for nothing! James Joyce put the addiction more elegantly in "Dubliners:" "Rapid motion through space elates one." I've been elated, giddy almost, with all this rapid motion, all this activity, all these people, all these meetings.
And now that so much has been accomplished, there's nothing left to do but wait for things to begin. All the trappings for it -- paint and permits, bank accounts and dry cleaners, furniture and pictures -- have been graciously settled. There's nothing left to do but live into it all. Real spaces in real time.
I remember that at the beginning of our trek to Santiago de Compostela, Lisa and I were appropriately elated. We set out strong and vigorous, striding up hills and sluicing down scree. We kept that up for a couple of days. Then The Blisters arrived. We tended them every morning; we stopped earlier in the afternoon to simply sit and let the air blow through our toes. We waited for our feet to heal -- at least enough for the next day's walk. Blisters were real -- and our pace slowed to reflect that.
I'm happy not to have The Blisters to deal with this time, but something analogous is happening. I'm slowing down to the speed of Real: real life, real time, real spaces. Elation is finally pretty evanescent: it comes and goes. Beneath it, though, is a steady pulse of joy.
The painter has come -- I'm off.
Sunday, August 22, 2010
So is it a chick flick? I suppose if you look at Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir-turned-movie from Hollywood's perspective, the answer is yes. The movie version combines gorgeous scenery with a happy ending: divorced woman finds great food in Italy, a soul in India, and love in Bali.
But from a pilgrim's angle of vision, there's a broader message: receiving the hard grace of surrender. A self-acknowledged control freak, Liz easily lets her guard down around food. She even teaches her girth-conscious Swedish friend Sofie to delight in the fabled Italian cooking.
Liz is less able to surrender to prayer, and she struggles with the Geet, the hours- long prayer that ends the night and begins the day in her Indian ashram. Yet, as she gives up control over her schedule, her sleep, and her thoughts, she finds that she can live inside that prayer -- and it's a surprisingly crowded place.
Liz is least able to surrender to love. Yet, eventually she untethers her heart to fall in love with Felipe in Bali.
While its plot moves the movie into the genre of romantic comedy, or "rom-com," the
lesson is one we can all take to heart, at every age and any gender. The journey from control to surrender is itself a pilgrimage, one from isolation into greater community.
I've been musing on the connections between pilgrimage and surrender for some time. In part, I was prompted by Lisa's observation last September somewhere in mid-Camino: "Pilgrims are really pretty useless, aren't we...." She was right: we weren't producing anything, and we were receiving a lot. For two highly productive people, that was a real switch.
And in part, I'm spinning out work on a chapter Sonny Manuel and I wrote for Tom Plante's book "Contemplative Practices in Action" (Greenwood, 2010). We highlighted dimensions of suffering: denial, isolation, and the need for control; we probed remedial practices: lamentation, intercession, and pilgrimage, respectively. As we worked, we discovered that each of these practices not only solaces the one suffering, it invariably creates solidarity with others. For example, pilgrimage addresses the need for control by placing people on a journey where they move forward only by surrendering everything they do not need. Pilgrims depend on the kindness of strangers and the camaraderie of their fellow travelers. As they move forward, reaching the destination recedes behind the joy of being with one's fellow-travelers. Each of these practices reaches out: they have an outer impulse.
It's an important parallel to the movie: eating, praying, loving all have an outer impulse. They are highly social activities, in themselves and especially as they are depicted in the movie.
And to reach out, one has to let go -- or surrender. What gets left behind? Excess baggaage, spiritual and physical; possessions that have begun to possess us; scripts that we labored over -- and expected to live out.
Joy is the grace of surrender, giving us a script beyond our wildest imaginings.
And joy is the pleasure of communion: it's always social. What's finally significant about the movie is that each of Eating, praying, loving: all of these are finally about joy.
Thursday, August 19, 2010
Rapid transitions in my life have kept me from this blog--indeed, away from very much of what could be called contemplation at all. Blogging, at least on a blog like this, involves small snapshots of contemplation.
In the hectic meantime, among my other endeavors was that I became again, for a time, a tourist. I wandered various towns in Italy, marveling again at how isolated tourists are, while pilgrims form connections based in common need. Tourists eschew need for a more powerful stance of unneedful freedom. Of course it is an illusion, one based on the tourist's emphasis of difference rather than commonality in the endeavor. Tourists don't go to new places to see what we've always seen, but rather to see what's new--we lead with our differences. Pilgrims lead with, or, if the pilgrimage attains its end, come to appreciate, commonality instead. Commonalty is a step away from community, but commonality can make the pilgrim a better member of his or her community upon return. Pilgrims return different, but more deeply cognizant of the mutual need that is the basis of true community. Tourism is toxic if that sense of difference and unneedful freedom take root deeply. At its extreme lies elitism and entitlement. The opposite vice is parochialism and a different elitism.
I found this lion somewhere in Rome, and was struck by its insouciance. The sculptor caught something of feline poise--cats relax better than anybody, and I'm convinced it's because they also are good at total coiled-spring muscular concentration and its release in the attack.
Pilgrims, perhaps, become good at being on the road--which should make us better at staying put. The skills of pilgrimage we've talked about here are also valuable askeses for life generally. Carry what sets you free. Know that your companions are essential, not accidental. Find grace in tiredness as well as in the strength you develop, since, as the Franciscans say, all is gift. Cherish small things like a good sandwich or cool water. Pilgrimage is, ultimately, about being able to rest well as much as it is about being able to be free on the road.
There's a catch. Pilgrims--at least this pilgrim--can never be completely content staying put. Nor completely content on the road all the time. Like the lion good at relaxing because good at hunting, a pilgrim is a creature who might knows that freedom is practiced both on the road and in the staying put, each feeds the other, and each is a necessity for freedom that's not merely the illusory unneedfulness of the tourist.
Saturday, August 14, 2010
I was in Los Angeles this week, in between conferences. The Lutheran teaching theologians had just gathered up in Thousand Oaks, a place first noticed by airline pilots heading into the Los Angeles airports as a valley with no smog. That's distinctive in the LA area.
The pilots moved in on orchards and chicken coops to build retirement homes and McMansions. My tribe met at California Lutheran University, the new game in a town dedicated to golf, assisted living, and the few remaining chickens.
At the end of the week, I'd be part of a panel at the American Psychological Association (APA) in San Diego presenting a chapter I co-authored with colleague Sonny Manuel in a book on contemplative practices.
In between conferences, though, I had a "dead day" in Los Angeles, literally, "The City of Angels." For convenience, I was ensconced in one of the many hotels ringing the international airport there, LAX: Airport Siberia. What to do?
I thought of museums, and The City of Angels has an impressive collection, from the Getty to LACMA, the wonderful Los Angeles County Museum. But public transportation is not great and the exhibits didn't compel.
Sleep recommended itself, and I remembered that only two months before I'd been in Paris at the end of another pilgrimage, this time the ancient route from Toulouse into Santiago de Compostela, which we followed to Pamplona. Then only a month ago, I'd been about to embark on the Great Road Trip that took me to Minnesota. The trip had been luminous and long, clearly a pilgrimage that would lead to a new city, a new job, and another chapter in calling.
As I considered these precedents, I realized I wasn't simply looking for something to do, but weighing how to mark this time. How could I take account of the journeys that had brought me here? What would be fitting?
Framing the question in terms of pilgrimage, it didn't take long to come up with an answer: I'd figure out how to get to the ocean. I need an ocean of reference anyway, and a month in land-locked Minnesota -- even though the terrain was once the bottom of a great inland sea -- left me starved for salt air. The runways at LAX head due west, and planes take off out over the ocean, using the prevailing westerlies for lift.
Finding the Pacific shouldn't be hard: just follow the runways.
And so I did, walking down long, unbroken, tree-lined boulevards. As I walked, I watched the planes land, pulling up slightly and precisely just as their rear wheels touch the ground. They landed on the ground just like great birds on a branch, making the transition from air-borne to earth-bound seamless. Watching I gave thanks for the transitions I'd made over the last two months, if not seamless, at least smooth. As I played back all that had happened, I crested a hill -- and the blue Pacific spread out at my feet.
I could taste the salt, watch the surf, and get my feet wet. That's what I needed: the line of a vast horizon, invariant behind the waves' crashing. In times of transition, you need a few things that don't change.
I took a mental snapshot -- and headed home.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
Since I got to Minneapolis almost a month ago, I have spent hours walking the city, trying to figure out how the city "works." Nothing more, nothing less.
I know a few neighborhoods -- Longfellow, Cedar-Riverside, Milltown, Northeast -- and know there are many, many more. I find a pool and learn the best times to swim and the quickest routes to get there and back, factoring in traffic and time of day. I discover where to shop, bank, dry-clean, and get coffee. I memorize the grid of "avenues" running north-south and "streets" running east-west -- at least mostly.
What has puzzled me, though, is Uptown, Midtown, and Downtown, because Uptown doesn't seem "up" at all, but "down," specifically, south of the downtown area. I was stumped.
Then, a conversation with DeAne Lagerquist, Americanist and lover of the Twin Cities, made everything clear: "It's all about the River," she said matter-of-factly. "Everything is oriented around the River."
The River -- the great Mississippi, which bends through the Twin Cities on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Suddenly everything falls into place.
The Twin Cities developed along the River, and Minneapolis was the mill town, with the mill races and wheels. Pillsbury and Gold Medal lined the River; their signs are still here, though the granaries have long been converted to museums and lofts. Downtown was the area around the River; Midtown, a bit further afield; and Uptown, an ex-urbia, far enough away to be residential, but still close enough in to get to work.
With the River to orient me, everything suddenly made sense. It really is all about the River.
So I begin paying attention to the River: the Great Blue Heron that fishes its shallows, the loon's cry in earliest morning, the locks and how they work, the short blast of a horn that signals it's safe for boats to motor out again, where the river has structure and shoals, and the fish that hide there.
Attending to the River, I notice other things. It captures light in the evenings, lighting up the city long after the sun has set. Power lines arc along its banks, and their towers are not horizontal, but curved. This seemed to me an odd design until I realized the curves allow ice and snow to slide off, where horizontal structures would eventually only break under the weight. The arches of these powerlines are painted whiter than the vertical columns that support them. Against a gunmetal blue sky, they are luminous, like giant seabirds winging their way to the Pacific.
Attending to the River, I'm settling in. I could dwell here.
Dwelling demands a different kind of attention than pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is about destination. Even though the way becomes as compelling as the arrival, pilgrimage requires a kind of focus. I wanted to get to our destination each day; I wanted to reach the top of that hill before stopping. I wanted to log at least two hours of walking before we found a cafe con leche.
Dwelling demands I take a broader view, a more unfocused kind of focus. I pay attention, but I try to take it all in -- even what I'm not expecting to see or hear, smell or taste. Now that I've found my bearings -- or my bearing, the River --I scan broadly, taking in as many things as I can in a glance.
It's like looking for dolphins. I love to watch for them when I'm back in Delaware. There, it's all about -- the grey Atlantic. Occasionally, a fin breaks the surface, and all I know is that the next sighting will be anywhere but where I saw the first.
I learn to look with a broad view, taking in as much surface water as possible, waiting for the next epiphany. Good practice for dwelling in a place.
I'm surprised at what I'm seeing. Mary Oliver was right:
"Everything in the world
At least, closer.
("Where Does the Temple Begin? Where Does It End?")
Thursday, July 15, 2010
A week ago Sunday I qualified as a Freeway Warrior, having driven some 1900 miles from Oakland, California to Minneapolis in about three days. Aside from the brief detour through the University of Utah campus in search of a Marriott there, all of it was on this country's great interstates.
I basically took 80 East to Des Moines -- and turned left onto 35 North. The only traffic I encountered was on the Iowa/Minnesota border, then again outside of Northfield, Minnesota, home of two colleges, five railroad tracks, and a grain elevator. I went to one of the colleges in Northfield, Carleton, and I suspect this traffic jam was staged to make me slow down and pay attention to the place that has been so formative. Finally, there was traffic getting into Minneapolis itself, but as we crested the last rise and gazed on the skyline of the city, I found myself suddenly in tears.
Many of the pilgrims coming into Santiago tear up when they cross under the portal of the old walled city, graduating to full weeping when they see the lantern of the great Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella. I was not one of them -- which was good: someone clear-eyed needs to lead the way forward. Hopefully, someone who is not crying like a baby.
But here's the question: how is pilgrimage like or not like a road trip?
First, you have more space in the trunk of a car than you do in a backpack. That's a huge relief. I find myself camped out in my loft waiting for furniture to arrive. But aside from space, the discipline of packing is the same: I needed to anticipate everything I would need and weed out everything I could make do without.
Even so, I left a tiny altar in Salt Lake City of "stuff" I'd packed that I could clearly see I would not need for the road or for the camp-out. I arranged it ritually, left it on the floor, took a mental snapshot -- and never looked back.
By the end of the first day, I was confident that I had everything I needed for the journey. Just as on pilgrimage, I knew after a few days what could be left behind and what needed to remain. And that feeling that I had everything that I would need gave me great hope.
Second, freeways are like footpaths, even if the pace is faster. I basically did about 80 mph on 80 East: 80 on the 80. I figured that if I did two states, one set of mountains, and a time zone each day, I'd probably get there in three days. The first day, I passed through California and Nevada, crossed the Sierras, and entered into Mountain Daylight Time. The second day I passed through Utah and Nebraska, crossed the Rockies, and entered into Central Daylight Time. It got me to Minneapolis on the third day -- but I confess I was looking hard for a set of mountains in Iowa and southern Minnesota.
The countryside is vast and stunning: a car is the way to see the West. The Nevada deserts, the Utah salt flats, the Wasatch Mountains (which you do not cross, as they run east-west -- the only range in the country that does so!), the horses in Wyoming, the Black Angus cows in Nebraska, the pigs in Iowa: I saw it all, under clouds as spectacular as the terrain. Yes, there was "weather," particularly as I left Nevada. But the high desert stretches out so far that I could see blue sky beyond the hail. And like pilgrimage, I ached for that view over the next rise.
As on pilgrimage, I attended to landscape and skyscape and weather in ways that I do not usually.
Third, as on pilgrimage, I attended to my body in ways that I do not usually. I was somewhat anxious about driving by myself. I knew I was tired, and I suspected that cumulative exhaustion coupled with the ache of saying goodbye would hit as soon as I started driving. Yes, I wept my way out of California, but crying keeps you awake. I quickly learned how much coffee I could drink to stay awake without stopping at every next rest stop! And when I felt tired, it was time to eat. Food sends that extra jolt of sugar and adrenaline into the system when you need it. I gave myself peanut butter crackers like communion wafers: they kept me alert.
Finally, I depended on traveling companions to keep me attentive. Just as on pilgrimage, I depended on the people I was with, so on the road, I came to know the people I was traveling with. I'd lead for a while, then drop back and let the car behind me forge ahead. We all quickly knew the "jerks" on the road: speeders and lane-changers, non-signalers, slow drivers, and just plain road cretins. I just passed them. Truck drivers became my friends: they always signaled, they always slowed down on a hill or a hailstorm; unfailingly, they watched. I watched them, and I watched with them. And when I drove off at a rest stop, I silently blessed my pod of fellow travelers, offering a prayer that we'd make it safely to wherever we were going.
Then, there were my companions in the car: Lou Harrison's lyrical compositions for chorus, violin, and gamelan, "La Koro Sutro," which became the way I started each day's drive; author, poet, and Catholic writer John O'Donohue reading his lyrical book "beauty," which became my morning meditation; brilliant post-modern author David Foster Wallace's book "The Broom of the System," which may represent what O'Donohue charges as the "ugliness" of contemporary writing. But which I found enthralling -- and, at 17 cds, inexhaustible. These traveling companions got me through the hours and the innumerable miles.
It's different than hiking with a buddy, and I dearly missed Lisa, my companion on Kili and the Camino, as well as John, Jan, Sonja, and Dave from the Chemin d'Arles earlier this summer.
Finally, distance: it's important to notice. "There" is not "here," and it was important for me to notice the difference. Friends urged me to have the car towed along with my furniture, but I needed to mark the miles.
So, I'm "here," via freeways, not footpaths.
The right path for this pilgrimage.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland: "There is no there there." She wasn't stuttering; she had simply failed to find a heart in the city, a center that held it together. Although I like to agree with Stein in most things, I think on this matter she was dead wrong.
In protest, Oaklanders fashioned a flag: a white outline of the Oakland Tribune tower on a green background with the word "There." at the bottom.
There is a heart in Oakland. It may be different for different folks, but it's there: Lake Merritt, Jack London Square, the Farmers' Market every Friday morning, the Coliseum, Raider Nation, Eastmount Mall. For me the "there" of Oakland was walking around Lake Merritt in earliest morning, as the sun was rising and the citizens were out taking their exercise. Asian couples walking vigorously together; black teens in training; white women walking and talking like pigeons; the ever-present Canadian geese who came through on the flyway -- and stayed. Every time I walked the Lake I could feel the city alive and waking.
There's a "there there," but you won't find it from a distance. You have to be there. More accurately, you have to be here -- not there -- to find it. The heart of a city never opens to those who consider it from a distance. The heart of a city opens only to those who walk its streets, gather with its people to celebrate a holiday, mourn a verdict, protest a policy. When you are here, there's a "there there."
And now I am here: Minneapolis. "Here." I wrote the word on my calendar the day I arrived. I hadn't known when that would be. One morning I drove out of Oakland on Interstate 80 and started driving east. I knew I'd turn left at Des Moines, but I didn't know how long it would take to get there. Or here. But the road beckoned; the weather cooperated; and the landscape was enchanting. At the end of three days of hard, luminous driving, Oakland had became "there" and Minneapolis became "here."
People say of Minnesota or Minneapolis what Stein said of Oakland: "there's no there there." Particularly Californians can never fathom why anyone would leave California. These people have been telling me: "Do you know how cold it gets in the winter?" "Do you know how hot it gets in the summer?" "Do you know that the mosquito is the state bird?" Yes, I know all of these things. But I also know what one knows only when she is here: there's a "there" here.
Maybe it's the view of the city skyline from the bridge I run over every morning. Or all the people out up and down Nicollet Mall on a warm summer night. Or the Mississippi as it cascades over St. Anthony Falls. Or that feeling, when heat matches the humidity, that you are in something that's alive.
Here. I love it.
Friday, June 25, 2010
At various points along the Camino this past September, Lisa and I would look at each other and say: "It's time to unburden." We'd slither out of our backpacks, stretch our spines, and sit down. We'd unlace boots, shed socks, and let the breezes blow through our blisters.
Pilgrimage is a process of unburdening. It begins before you even leave home: with packing. I remember the initial unburdening. On the bedroom floor, I laid out everything I thought I'd need. I regarded each item: How much do I need you? Enough to carry you across the top of Spain? It was an unburdening.
Then I loaded everything up into the backpack and shouldered it: Could I haul this for a day's hike? And for the next day? And the next? Another unburdening.
Even along the trail, I left tiny altars of suddenly superfluous stuff. What had seemed so essential back home on the bedroom floor, had now become dead weight. I shed them like a snake molts dead skin.
By the end of the pilgrimage, I knew what to carry -- and what not. I didn't need to carry food: there were cafes and tiendas along the way. I didn't need to carry water: there were fountains in abundance. By the end of the journey -- and only by the end, we knew exactly what we needed.
I wish it were as easy to unburden a house as a backpack. I'm selling mine and moving from California to Minnesota. I've been unburdening my house.
The process of moving requires a discernment similar to packing a backpack. For weeks I've been lining up things and asking similar questions: How much do I need you? Enough to carry you across the country? Then follows an unburdening.
A graphic Lisa used in an earlier post haunts me: someone carries a house on her back -- instead of a backpack. I know I can't take it all with me. And I don't want to. If I take all the baggage from the old lives, there won't be any room for a new one. So I've been unburdening: furniture and photos, memorabilia and that most precious possession to a writer, books! It's hard; it's exhausting; it's evokes a spectrum of emotion. And it's the necessary askesis of change.
I know that by the end of the trip -- and only then -- will I know what I need. I only have to set out with what it takes to get me going.
The photo above is probably a good visual mantra for the journey. One needs water to survive, but often you don't have to carry it. There are fountains in abundance.
And look how lightly I carry that pack.
One day I counted up all the years I spent in school. I started with nursery school and kindergarten, ended with college and grad school, and added them all up. Total? Let's just say it's a lot: I couldn't count it on all my fingers and toes. I had to borrow someone else's.
Over that obscene number of years, I took a lot of notes. I outlined arguments of all the major texts on my comprehensive exams. I underlined and highlighted so much, that the original text became hard to decipher. Eventually, I bought second copies of some books, because I found the marginalia in my first copy either distracting -- or just plain wrong. Re-reading my notes decades later, I realize that they say more about me and my state of mind at the time -- than the text itself.
This does not make me proud. I have devoted so much time and energy taking notes, that I failed to simply take note.
Taking note is simply letting something speak to you, in its own voice and on its own terms. Taking note is simply paying attention. In my feverish effort to take notes, I failed to attend to what was right in front of me.
Of course, the visual analogue to taking notes is taking photos. As with all forms of travel, on pilgrimage you see lots of people taking photos -- and lots of them. Yes, it's an excuse to rest up and catch one's breath. But, I fear that photo-obsessed tourists and pilgrims see the entire journey through the lens of a camera -- if they are as obsessed about taking photos as I was about taking notes.
In which case, the camera rules, disciplining the landscape to its eye. Terrain ceases to transform; it becomes the object of the voracious photographic lens. A landscape poses -- and just for you, often with one of your best friends littering the view with a goofy smile. With a camera's lens, the photographer can crop and edit, enlarge or diminish, zoom in or out. A photographer composes a scene, rather than letting what's actually there take her breath away.
I'm not a fan of heavily documented trips.
And yet, I lugged a camera along both pilgrimages, trying to make myself use it for taking note, not taking notes. When I was not successful, viewing the image today merely baffles. When I was successful, though, the image triggers memories of a feeling, a smell, a story, a stretch of the road.
That's using image to take note, rather than using image to take notes.
Thanks to John Rosenberg, who found that bright line. When he read the post entitled "I'd rather be fishing....!" he sent me the image above of a French fisherman we met along the trail that followed the Aspe River. Our band of pilgrims included three avid fishermen -- John among them. When this man realized there was a first language of fishing among our ragged band, he produced his catch.
A brown trout, a luminous moment, and a great memory.
Really, wouldn't we all rather be taking note -- than taking notes.
Patricia Hampl captures the grace of attention, and even if she uses the plural form, "notes," she's talking about "taking note." I excerpt from her essay "Memory and Imagination" in THE DOLPHIN READER (1985):
"Our most ancient metaphor says life is a journey. Memoir is travel writing, then, notes taken along the way, telling how things looked and what thoughts occurred. But I cannot think of the memoirist as a tourist. This is the traveler who goes on foot, living the journey, taking on mountains, enduring deserts, marveling at the lush green places. Moving through it all faithfully, not so much a survivor with a harrowing tale to tell as a pilgrim, seeking, wondering."
Friday, June 4, 2010
This seems the question of a mathematician, not a pilgrim. But I find myself again in Pamplona, this time not at the beginning of a pilgrimage, but at its end. When Lisa and I did the Camino in September, Pamplona was our starting point, the easternmost part of our journey. From here we hiked west. This time Pamplona is our ending point, the westernmost part of this journey. From here we fly home.
I spent the afternoon circling the city, one of the best fortifications in the whole of medieval Europe. But this time, I know what the city holds, and I can navigate by the spires of the three churches that mark the medieval neighborhoods of the Franks, the Basques, and the Navarrans.
When I visited the churches in September, I asked the local saints, Frank, Basque, and Navarran to bless our journey. We were just setting out, and I had no idea what was ahead of us, how we´d find our way, or how we´d hold up.
This time I can only offer thanksgiving. It has been a wonderful trip.
In September, I walked outside of town to find the pilgrim´s trail through the city. We wanted to be sure the pilgrim route did not coincide with the route for the running of the bulls! But I also wanted to acclimate myself to noticing the signs marking the pilgrim route: yellow arrows and scallop shells. It would take a few days to get used to looking.
This time I walked the same route, helping a couple of pilgrims find their way into the town. Jason from Brooklyn was going to walk as far as he could in three weeks; Ulrich from Sweden was in for the long haul. They were decades apart in age, but bonded for the journey -- and by the journey.
Finally, in Pamplona I looked to the west for what lay ahead of us. Our window on the third floor looked west. During the night, when jet lag woke me, I stood at the window, trying to read the western sky. I had no idea what was behind Pamplona, what the road was like that brought people here.
This time I know what´s behind Pamplona. We walked into the Pyrenees, up and down rivers that drain the mountain snows. I can situate this city into the landscape -- and the pilgrim route.
Most in the party have done parts of the Camino before, ending each of their treks in Santiago. It´s odd not having a destination like Santiago before us. We´re walking a pilgrimage route, but we won´t reach the relics. And for goal-oriented folks like those in this group, that´s a bit like training for the 1500 m. freestyle, entering the race, swimming the first 1000 m. as hard and as fast as you can -- and then getting out of the pool.
But then finishing the race isn´t why we did this, not now. And not even in September. Each time, we walked for what walking would teach us.
Walking around Pamplona, I´ve been considering what walking taught me. Taking one step at a time adds up over time -- but you´ve got to take the first step. I´ve learned to look, in the sense of attending to things, people, my surroundings. And I´ve learned to embrace that spirit of what-the-hellness, that has allowed me to roll with whatever the day brings. Not insignificant lessons.
So that´s what Í´m thanking all the local saints, Frank, Basque, and Navarran, as I revisit these old Romanesque churches in Pamplona. It feels like completing a circle I hadn´t even known existed.
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
I´ve fallen in with a group of fisherman masquerading as pilgrims. We walked into the mountains along the Aspe River. We walked out of them along the Aragon River. Whenever the route drops down along the river, we run into the local fishermen. And the pilgrims I´ve been traveling with suddenly turn into fishermen. Whatever language barriers exist evaporate. The art of fishing is a common tongue.
One local fisherman we encountered along the Aspe must have been sent there by the French Bureau of Tourism. With his straw fishing basket, beret, and waders, he looked ready for a postcard. We obliged -- and when we asked his permission, he pulled a small brown trout out of his bag. It wriggled into the picture as well.
Traveling fishing rivers with fishing men has been an unexpected pleasure of this trip. I´m learning to read rivers.
They are as eloquent as a good novel.
Fishermen look for transitions, places where there´s change. Sometimes rapids bleed into quieter pools; sometimes a lazy stretch of water suddenly cascades. These pilgrims turned fishermen delight in imagining where they might cast and what they might pull out. Transitions bode good fishing.
Fishermen also look for waterfalls, and there have been plenty of them. Rapids and waterfalls aerate the river, filling it with oxygen. They are also pretty good at oxygenating pilgrims, and every time we pass a waterfall, we hang out for a while just breathing in all those positive ions. Oxygen and ions are signs of a healthy river.
Finally, fishermen look for "structure," underwater architecture where fish can simply hang out. A stretch of river with a lot of structure means fish have good hiding places, where they can sequester themselves and wait for a bite to eat. Structure signals a fine place for casting.
Transition, aeration, structure: if you´re a fisherman, it´s a trifecta. These aren´t bad metaphors for pilgrimage either. Quite literally, pilgrims walk from one place to another. Though not exactly fishing for something, they have a destination in mind, whether Santiago or Mecca or Jerusalem. Some pilgrims are actually "fishing" for insight, in hopes that physical discipline will spark spiritual insight. Transition is key to pilgrimage.
So is aeration. Walking in the mountain air and taking in all the positive ions of waterfalls and rivers has literally cleared my head. Gone the fraught atmosphere of semester´s end, the haze of moving, the press of decisions. I´m full of good air and great energy.
Then there´s the structure, particularly the underground structure. Our feet register the road, whether mud or the springy forest of fallen leaves, or mountain scree. Over the weeks I simply trust my feet to find the way, and when I try to help them, I falter. Fellow pilgrim and ace fisherman Jon Rosenberg caught me hesitating over some slippery rocks in a shallow stream: "Don´t overthink this one, Mart. Just follow your feet." He was right.
There´s a deeper underground structure to pilgrimage as well. The first days are full of new impressions, gear adjustments, packing and repacking to find the right arrangement of stuff. After that, you can go on forever, and the rhythm of walking molds you.
Transition, aeration, and deep structure: not bad metaphors for life either.
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
We followed the River Aragon all day to the medieval city of Jaca. In France, the Pyrenees were in front of us, beckoning. Now in Spain, they are behind us, bidding farewell.
I hate to say goodbye.
And I have to admit, crossing them was the part of the trip that most excited and terrified me. Mountains are a fierce landscape, gracious and unforgiving depending on the weather. We were lucky to cross these mountains in a fine drizzle rather than driving rain or dazzling sun.
As we push west to Pamplona, though, the mountains recede. I can barely see the snow-capped peaks over the walls of Jaca.
We have only another day of walking, from Jaca to Santa Cruz de la Seros, where we´ll spend two nights, making a day trip to the monastery of San Juan de la Pena. We´ll do that without the packs that have become like another appendage.
As much as I groaned picking up my pack every morning, I will hate to say goodbye to that too. Everything I needed was in that pack. I´ll feel naked without it.
Not surprisingly, I´m already fantasizing about the sundress I´ll buy to cover the nakedness.
I can shift from pilgrim to tourist so fast it scares me. The clothing fantasy that kept me going for the last days into Santiago this past September were a pair of Spanish jeans. I wanted something besides my trekking pants to wear.
This time I lust after a sundress -- and a pair of high-top sneakers. I must want to shed both the pants and the boots. I can´t vouch for the combination, but the fantasy is there.
So what´s the difference between pilgrim and tourist? I think it´s interesting that I long to "buy" something. Consumption marks tourism. You see it in the way people take pictures with cameras and iPhones, "bagging" another experience for their scrapbooks. Pilgrims, in contrast, are too busy walking.
You see it in the difference between tourist hotels and pilgrim hostels. Hotels are full of "stuff" to do and places to eat, each flyer vying with another to catch the eye. Pilgrim hostels are empty, tables bare and rooms waiting. The blank space work like empty canvasses, inviting impressions to emerge. Like animals along the trail, if long enough to become part of the landscape.
I see it in the difference between my tourist and pilgrim habits of mind. Believe me: I am a full-bore, world-class tourist, and I can "graze" a city like no one else, figuring out in record time what needs to be seen, when, and which route gets there most scenically. But as a pilgrim, I simply reach a city -- and sit. I can sit for hours watching.
It´s as if my pilgrim feet have taught my inner tourist to slow down. After all, the speed of consumption is far faster than the speed of simply looking.
Mary Oliver put it well:
"I look. Morning to night I am never done with looking.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around,
As though with your arms open.
Maybe something will come, some
shining coil of wind
Or a few leaves from any old tree
They are all in this too.
And now I will tell you the truth:
Everything in the world comes.
At least closer.
And cordially." ("Where does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?")
I hate to leave this kind of looking behind.
Monday, May 31, 2010
...and the Chemin d´Arles is. Maybe it´s the time of year, maybe it´s distance from Santiago -- still some 800 kms away!, maybe it´s that Santiago himself simply is not the hero for the French that he is for the Spanish. But this chunk of the trail is definitely a road less traveled.
First, I noticed what´s not there. For a traveler whose first experience of the Camino was popular Camino Frances, I missed the ever-present, always open bistros along the way. In September Lisa and I came to take for granted that perfect cafe con leche about two hours into the day´s walk in a picturesque village right by the trail. Often people we´d met along the way were already there, lifting a steamy cup in greeting.
Here, that´s not been the case. Picturesque villages abound, but nothing is open.
I missed the other pilgrims, whose encouragement I needed more than I knew. A smile and a ¨Buen Camino" were worth about 400 mgs of Ibuprofen.
Here, we see few other pilgrims. Ten days into the walk, I could count the number of fellow travelers on both hands.
I missed the sense that we´re getting somewhere, and that "somewhere" is what this route is all about: Santiago de Compostela. And even if I wasn´t wedded to seeing the saint´s relics, Santiago represented a destination. We knew when we got there, we had accomplished something.
Here, that sense of having "arrived" is more elusive. We´ll get to Pamplona, where Lisa and I set out from in September. But Santiago will still be over 500 kms away.
So, yes: first, I first notice what´s not there, what´s absent. And then I notice what is there, what´s present.
Precisely because the trail is not so well-supported, we´ve had to think ahead and we discover a kind of self-reliance I hadn´t quite noticed in the first trek. We carry food -- and we share it. On a rough stretch as we climbed the Col de Somport, a high pass in the Pyrenees that would take us into Spain, we split a milk chocolate bar. It had been purchased long ago in some hotter, drier part of the trail, and it had melted and cooled into weird and wonderful shape. But it tasted glorious -- and gave us the push we needed to summit.
And then there was Barran, which we reached in the middle of a hot Saturday afternoon, in need of water. The only place open was Coiffure Bea, a hair stylist, and Bea herself served us instant coffee -- with sugar! -- and filled our water bottles. We sat on the street and toasted her -- Santiago in drag and with hennaed hair.
Precisely because there are so few other pilgrims around, we have gotten to know our hospitallers and innkeepers better. We talk a lot about hospitality, where we find it -- and where we don´t. We know what counts as good hospitality, how important it is, and how it manifests in the first minutes of an encounter. We resolve to practice it better when we come home. We remember fondly Nicolas, the initially reticent innkeeper in L´Urbe St. Christau, who kept telling us ¨"I am not a restaurant I am not a restaurant," but proceeded to ply us with beers and fine wines throughout the afternoon. That night Nicolas turned out a first-class meal, before we discovered he was a highly regarded pastry chef and spent winters rolling around the countryside teaching people his craft.
Finally, in absence of a destination like Santiago, we follow markers along the way. We walked up the Aspe River into the French Pyrenees; we descend into Spain along the Aragon River. Rapids and waterfalls release a lot of positive ions into the air -- and we´ve been drinking them all in. I watch the mountains, as they advance and recede. Their brooding presence blesses this journey.
I noticed first the absences -- of support services, of other pilgrims, of destination, but it was into that very vacuum that something else spilled, luminous, perhaps even more mysterious.
Sunday, May 2, 2010
There are two seasons for a pilgrim: walking -- and dreaming about it. I'm in the dreaming phase, which may be as delicious as actually walking. A colleague confessed to envy. If he were the one leaving, I'd be envious too.
I roll on my tongue the names of the towns we'll pass through: Toulouse, Gimont, Auch, Oleron Ste. Marie, Cette Eygun, Jaca, Santa Cruz de la Seros, and finally Pamplona. Could any of these be as luscious as they taste?
I study Jan's Gear List, graciously supplied by one of the planners of the trip -- and compare it with a growing pile of stuff in the corner of the room. Would I be happy to shoulder these things across the Pyrenees?
With Jan, Jan's Gear, Jan's daughter and two of his friends, I leave on May 17th to walk the Camino -- again. I tell people this, and they seem surprised: "Didn't you already do that?" I explain that there are as many roads to Santiago as to Rome -- and for the same reason. Like Rome, Santiago was a pilgrim's destination. Routes to Santiago spread all over Europe like a spider's web with the city at its center.
This time we'll begin on one of the outer whorls of the web, starting in Toulouse and picking up a route known as the Chemin d'Arles. We don't have time to walk all the way to Santiago, but my friends have mapped out a route that ends where Lisa and I began our trek in September: Pamplona. In fact, we'll spend the final nights in Spain where Lisa and I started out, a pilgrim hotel on the plaza of the mysterious Virgen de la O.
I feel like I'm completing a circle I didn't even know existed -- and in a Holy Year at that.
The year 2010 ranks as a special year in the Roman calendar, and from all parts of the web, thousands of pilgrims will be making their way to Santiago. Even though we're leaving before peak season and taking a less well-traveled route, the closer we get to Santiago, the more crowded the path will be. Indeed, the press of pilgrims, dirty, sweaty, grumbly pilgrims, will mean we're on the right track.
In September, Lisa and I got lost only once -- and it was not very lost and right outside Santiago. We must have been deep into conversation, because it took a while before I realized that no one else was around us. We were walking alone -- and that was the signal we were on the wrong track. In fact, we'd gotten lost in some park being prepared for a papal visit in 2010, so we weren't far off the beaten path. But there were only construction workers around us. Not pilgrims.
The workers helped us get back on track. Within a few hours we were in Santiago, waiting in line with a crowd of tired, happy pilgrims to get our credentials. We were surrounded -- no, swarmed! -- by pilgrims. From our various starting points, we'd made it to our common destination.
I was reminded of the metaphor one of the Desert Fathers, Dorotheos of Gaza, used:
"Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God himself is the center: the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of human beings....Let us assume for the sake of the analogy that to move toward God, then, human beings move from the circumference along the various radii of the circle to the center. But at the same time, the closer they are to God, the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they become to God."
The dear Dorotheos must have been a frustrated mathematician turned eremite.
Writer Tobias Wolff condenses his insight: "If you're a Catholic, the world's a very crowded place." He telegraphs the vivid presence of a communion of saints whose lives seem more real than our own. From the great beyond, they offer direction and a love that cannot die. He testifies to the camaraderie of fellow travelers whom we meet along the way. Along the gritty streets of this world, they accompany us -- with a smile, a shrug, and a "Buen Camino!"
I can't wait to walk: bring on the crowds.
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
On the Camino, one of the disciplines, an askesis, really, is to strip down to the minimum that you're willing to carry. How many shirts do I NEED? How many books? Marty wrote of the little "shrines" we left of things we decided that we would carry no longer. We wouldn't just toss the stuff--we'd leave it carefully stacked, imagining another pilgrim might want it.
On immersion, a different kind of stripping down goes on. We try to reach a kind of understanding of those we meet that reaches across cultures, so we try to relativize our own cultural stuff--do I NEED American TV? DO I NEED a nice steak with a decent California Zinfandel, or can I experience pupusas with an openness to their own delights? Tourists take in the superficial delights of other cultures in limited doses, while immersers dive in. Culture, of course, cuts deeper than entertainment and food, but the idea is the same--we strip down closer to the common humanity that we share, discovering different ways to approach life's challenges and opportunities. We discover that the basics are available wherever we go, and that some of what we thought was essential to happiness is merely auxiliary, and we gain, perhaps, a sadness and outrage when the essentials we have in plenitude are denied others for no reason other than greed.
Returning can be jarring, because we suddenly become aware of the burden of our excesses--if I only NEED three shirts, why do I have 20? Why am I burdened with storing them, choosing a shirt every day, with wanting new ones? Simple living comes to be seen as a freedom, not a deprivation, though, 'tis true, if I wore only one of three shirts, it's possible my students and colleagues would take note, and not in an approving way. One advantage of religious habits is that you can't tell whether the wearer has 19 more, or only 1 or 2. And there's little point in having 20, since they're essentially identical.
Returning jars when we see the excessive plenitude--why an entire grocery store aisle of pet food when people are hungry? Do cats really NEED a choice of flavors of food? Do we really NEED to cosset housecats so? (Dogs, well, that's another story...)
When I returned, I moved into a house, the first I've ever owned (co-owned, in this case.) My sense of being feral is curtailed by having an address that is "mine" in a way that an apartment or studio never really is. I have painted, cleaned, replaced toilet workings, swept, raked, mopped, chipped old paint. The house is a form of security--I realized that unless I had some major investment, I would never have the option to retire. And if I become seriously ill, I would be purely at the mercy of the state. A house for me represents, (if the market rebounds,) a kind of paradoxical freedom to be able to take care of myself should I need to. It roots me to one place, but enables independence.
Then we were robbed. My housemate's computer was taken--a serious machine because it's a primary workstation. Among other things taken were my late mother's wedding band, and a ring she'd had made from her first engagement ring. Neither especially valuable--we're not an "estate jewelry" kind of family. We've been broke for generations! But they were hers and they're gone. We have a lead to the burglar, but the Oakland police are disinclined to investigate--they have more important crimes to track, and we don't live in the kind of neighborhood where the police are especially attentive. If we were wealthy, the police would protect our belongings, but since we're not, burglary is tolerated where we live.
What do we carry, and what do we leave behind? I seem to be carrying a house now, a serious burden, but perhaps a form of freedom, not unlike the freedom of carrying my netbook across Spain. It's not a burden I ever anticipated would be possible for me--without my co-owner, it still wouldn't be.
The burglary reminds me that I can be stripped involuntarily of my stuff, without recourse. In the end, of course, we leave everything behind except love. But still--my mother's rings. I was willing to carry those, despite their minimal value. Now I don't have to. And I'm sorry about that.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
On Tuesday night, at the invitation of the Graduate Theological Union's Women's Studies in Religion program, Lisa and I were invited to talk about our grant. I had no idea what to look for.
We didn't know what our audience would be like: students from various degree programs, members of the larger community, colleagues? We didn't know the venue: would our wonderful slides project? We didn't know how many folks to expect -- "Oh, maybe between five and fifty."
We did know one thing: these are the "dog days." The ancient Romans used the term, "dies caniculares,"to describe those hot sultry days of mid-summer, when fall's cooler mornings seem far away and spring is an all-too distant splash of green. During the "dog days," the dogs languish. Forget frolicking; mere panting takes too much work. Even the angels sleep.
Tuesday is the "dog day" of the week: the blush of a new week has worn off -- and you can't find your way to weekend. More enervating, it's the twelfth week of the semester here, and the end of the semester seems three weeks too late. All gears grind. Even our scheduled time was a "dog day," too soon after our last class to relax and grab dinner, too late in the day for hard-ass scholarly discourse.
But as soon as the projection screen registered our first photo, I felt energized. Then, when Lisa passed the ball off to me in mid-sentence of her opening remarks, I knew we'd have fun.
"You're doing exactly what you did to me with the novel!" I responded in mock protest. She laughed wickedly.
And this is how we walked the "dog days" of the Camino, when everything ached but we were nowhere near finished with the day's walking. In mid-pilgrimage, we started a novel. One person would begin, then pass it off to the other -- in mid-sentence.
One day, during the "dog days" of a hot afternoon, we turned to Richard, a young American we'd met working at pilgrim hostel. We embellished his story, fabricated a sweetheart for him from the small hillside village where we'd met him, spun a story around her and her out-of-wedlock child from a high-school sweetheart, who'd gone off to med school in Salamanca, cut off all contact with her and the village -- and fallen in love with a fiery Nicaraguan pre-med student committed to social justice. I'd tell the story for a while -- then pass it off to Lisa just as something exciting was about to happen.
We'd pick up the threads the next afternoon, just as the "dog days" of the afternoon set in, just as the pain asserted itself, just as the day's heat focused its energies upon us. We spent literally miles wrapped up in our story. Telling a story whose ending we did not know kept us from hurting; it kept us from fighting; it kept us going. The resultant novel still has no ending -- and defies all taxonomies of genre. It probably falls somewhere between Jesuit science fiction and bodice ripper.
I could see the same tactic was going to get us through the "dog days" of this evening, the "dog days" of the semester, the "dog days" of any present and future pilgrimage.
What's in it, this magical antidote to "dog days?" There's humor, of course: the ability to laugh at anything, everything, but particularly yourselves. Then, there's imagination, but imagination rooted in reality. After all, there was a real Richard. We'd met him. His character in the novel was remarkably true to his character in the tiny village where we'd met him. Finally, there's gritty truth: we knew we had to keep walking. And we could do it grumpily -- or gracefully.
Telling stories helped us find grace.
And how does grace come?
Usually where you least expect it: we thought the pilgrimage would be more "spiritual," and we'd packed readings from the daily lectionary to contemplate while walking. But the graces we encountered came through our feet -- and our imaginations. Immersing ourselves in the fictional worlds of Bianca and Richard, worlds we had fabricated on the basis of the real, helped us face our own world more graciously.
Grace also comes with skin. Sometimes I wanted to shake her awake or hurry her along, but for me Lisa was grace with skin.
We're in a season, the Easter season, graciously given to the disciples so that their eyes get used to recognizing the Risen Christ, grace with skin in their own lives. The same skin that had been crucified was now resurrected and among them. They had a hard time recognizing it: so Jesus stuck around, appearing every once in a while as an occasional eye exercise.
It makes me aware that if I want to find grace in the world around me now, I'd better look to the people around me.
Grace with skin.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
When my nieces were young, they cornered me on the couch with a book and said: "Where's Waldo?" I looked at a double-page spread of images piled on top of one another in dizzying vertical array. There were busses, cars, trucks, skyscrapers, houses, with people, cats, dogs, and birds all over the page. Where was Waldo? I was no help, because I didn't know what Waldo looked like to begin with.
I had no idea what I was looking for.
That puts me in a very similar situation to the disciples in the season after Easter. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! But no one knows what he looks like. No one knows what they are looking for.
Mary Magdalene mistakes him for a gardener. The disciples on the road to Emmaus mistake him for a wandering rabbi. And the usual suspects who've returned to their usual pursuits -- fishing on the Sea of Tiberias -- think he's some backseat fisherman, giving orders from the safety of the shore. Nobody recognizes the risen Christ.
It's pretty clear no one has any idea what they are looking for. So these forty days between Easter and Ascension give their eyes time to adjust to life in the Resurrection Zone. Forty days -- the same as Lent. And even more important.
Jesus comes back to teach, to leave peace, to touch and be touched -- and to cook the disciples breakfast. Like the Last Supper in Holy Week, the First Breakfast is the meal of the Easter season.
More congregations ought to celebrate that!
One of my friends complained about having the post-Easter doldrums: after the drama of the Triduum, we're now in "ordinary time -- and it just seems, well, so ordinary."
Hey -- it's not ordinary time yet! In the liturgical year, this is the season of Easter, and these forty days constitute a pilgrimage every bit as important as Lent's. Along the way, we learn to recognize the resurrected Christ.
So, where is he in the midst of that dizzying vertical array of appointments, deadlines, and e-mails in our lives?
Do we even know what we're looking for? Or will he surprise us along the road, like he surprised the disciples en route to Emmaus?
Thursday, April 1, 2010
Entrada: this way forward. If only it were so easy! Both pilgrims and people on immersion trips wrestle with problems of re-entry. Every semester winds down, and the student returns to campus. Every road comes to an end, and the pilgrim packs up for home. What's the way forward?
Yesterday afternoon I pondered the question of re-entry with fellow pilgrims and "Camino-heads," Kathy Gower and Lin Galea. Guidebooks and websites tell the pilgrim how to prepare for journey: what gear to pack, how to train, where to stay along the way. But no one tells pilgrims how to return. The disorientation can be profound.
The conversation explained my own behavior. I suddenly understood why, immediately upon returning, I joined the American Pilgrims network (www.americanpilgrims.com). I understood how I'd been drawn to the first Bay Area meeting a thumbtack to a magnet, like everyone else in the room. I understood why were we were sitting together, watching rainshowers and sunshowers roll across the Bay.
It was as if we'd all awakened one morning speaking a language no one else could understand. It was a relief to find some other native speakers.
Seasoned leaders of immersion trips expect problems of re-entry -- and they try to prep students for them. Directors of the Casa have a final retreat focused on the way forward. Similar to the orientation retreat that opens the program, the closing retreat preps people for "disorientation." As I listened to how the final retreat worked, I realize that immersion can teach pilgrims a lot, particularly three important rituals of re-entry.
First, acknowledge the disorientation. A long-time leader of delegations talked about preparing a group of college students for re-entry after they'd gone down to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. The students had shoveled mud, waded through muck, scoured and scrubbed --and were heading home for the holidays. Summoning them, their leader spoke as strongly as she knew how: "You are going to hate your families for not having been there. Those feelings are real and powerful. I absolutely understand your feelings -- and it would be absolutely inappropriate and sinful to attack others as a result of them."
Her warning probably prevented a lot of bloodshed. And certainly pulled some punches that might otherwise have connected.
A piece of advice that Kathy Gower passed on months ago made new sense: "Pack for pilgrimage as if you are never coming back." For medieval pilgrims, this could be literally true: they could be killed, robbed, or felled by disease. Today those dangers have largely disappeared, but the truth remains: you don't come back. Even though you return to the same surroundings and relationships, you're not the same person. Everything needs to be recalibrated.
If pilgrims knew to expect this -- as immersants do, re-entry could be less frustrating, less confusing.
Second, think about how to give back. Not everyone has the time and money, means and sheer physical ability to do either pilgrimage or immersion. How can you share what you've learned or experienced? For Lin, this has been quite concrete: through the American Pilgrims network, she's trained to be a hospitalero, worker at a hostel. She's return this summer to work outside Sevilla at a site on the Via del Plata. Her work will directly benefit the influx of pilgrims expected to converge on Santiago in the summer of 2010, a "Holy Year" in the Roman Catholic calendar.
At the end of our delegation in Mexico City, we had a final "disorientation" session, where we committed ourselves to "action plans." In the presence of the other delegates and our leaders, we covenanted ways to be in solidarity with them back in El Norte.
A key piece of this ritualization needs to be the recognition that you can rarely ever repay the kindness and hospitality you've received. Sometimes all you can do is to "pay it forward," acting locally in appropriate ways to witness to what you've experienced.
Finally, stay in solidarity with those who've accompanied you. Casa students find ways of keeping in touch upon their return, and Director Kevin Yonkers-Talz is intentional about convening groups of Casa alums on his frequent trips to the United States. Pilgrim networks abound, drawing like magnets people who suddenly discover they speak a language they'd never bargained on learning.
Keeping company: that's what we were doing yesterday, as we watched spring rains rake the Bay. After all, three people can do things one person can't manage alone.