Monday, January 18, 2010

Pilgrimage vs. Immersion 2

I said in an earlier post that the differences between pilgrimage and immersion can be thought of as analogous to the difference between substance and accident in Aristotelian metaphysics. (I’d thought for a while that pilgrimage might be the apophatic form of what immersion does in a cataphatic mode, but I decided that wasn’t strong enough.) What is substantial to one is accidental to the other. The substantive change in pilgrimage is, I think, about a kind of self-understanding, usually of finitude and limits. Therefore, we come to value the others on the trail, those who feed us, those who shelter us, those who encourage us. Immersion is substantially about those connections—we are seeking true human empathetic solidarity with specific people. We don’t learn about a given culture merely to become better at being away from home, though that happens, or at dealing with discomfort or unease, though that can happen, too. We are dropped into a culture different from our own but that’s merely the circumstance of the offered grace. I am reminded of a prison chaplain who once described some volunteers as those who “get it” and those who don’t. Those who get it are those who engage the residents on a true human-human basis, as fellow travelers on the same road.

But that doesn’t mean that showing up is unimportant. In fact, it’s irreplaceable both to pilgrimage and immersion. More is going on than a mere change of venue. Partly, I think, this is because few of us are self-aware enough to know what our emotional and ethical reflexes will be in a given situation. To stay with the prison example, we don’t know how we will react to the razor wire, what we’ll feel when the door slams behind us locking us in. We don’t know how we’ll be able to be present to someone who’s been deemed dangerous enough to need to be locked away until we show up and try. On immersion, it’s important to show up to feel the air pollution causing your own cough, to smell the grossly polluted river where children play, to see the omnipresence of American big business. McDonald’s is the most effective new American missionary, spreading the good news of the Big Mac to all corners of the globe. It’s funny until you realize how the less visible presence of American trade policies cripple local farmers’ ability to compete. It’s crucial also to see the smiles on the kids’ faces, the joy of those you meet, to hear their anger at situations where it’s impossible to get ahead, even if you work 24 hours a day. To see everywhere people sweeping the streets in the morning, despite the air pollution and the graffiti.

Showing up doesn’t mean you’ll get it. The human heart can be tough enough (or fearful enough, or scarred enough) to no longer be moved by tenderness, by compassion, or even by pity, which can be the start of empathy (but often isn’t.) But showing up means that the opportunity that we will receive the grace offered to us is all around us, in the air we breathe, in the faces we see, in our own struggles with language where we are strangers, in the welcome we receive despite our verbal and social clumsiness, in the beauty of the land, in the richness of their own cultural heritage savaged by the Spaniards. It’s all around us, just as is the grace we seek.

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