Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Location and Dislocation: Thoughts on Immersion and Pilgrimage

When selling a house, the realtors are right: it's all about location, location, location. On immersion trips, however, the pilgrims are right: it's all about dislocation.

Pilgrims pack up for a destination as yet unseen through a terrain thoroughly unknown. Pilgrims take maps, but, as historian of religion J.Z. Smith observed, map is not territory. Our guidebook for the Camino made no mention of what became our highlights: lunch at that golf course clubhouse that welcomed pilgrims, even though our packs were full of gear -- and theirs full of clubs; the perfect cafe con leche on a rainy day in Galicia; the mysterious geometry of the Knights Templar church in Rioja.

Nor are maps peopled. No map could have introduced us to Linda and Nancy, whom we ran into so often I finally said: "Seeing you makes me feel I'm on the right track." They located me.

I need location -- and so I relish the challenge of both pilgrimage and immersion. Both aim at an intentional dislocation, cutting all connection with the familiar.

I watch the students taking their parents around neighborhoods that two months ago were equally foreign to them. I watch their vigilance with their parents, as they point out landmarks and caution against curbs -- truly perilous with their ever-changing height. To the students the neighborhood has become familiar, even "theirs." They greet the locals; they walks the streets as if they belong here, at least for the time being.

It brings back memories of the Camino, except that the pilgrim never stays long enough to make a single place "home." Anything and everything familiar to me, I carried in my backpack. I grew familiar with dislocation, if that's possible. I knew how to make a place home, if only for a night or a coffee break. More important, I knew how to leave it the next morning -- and without looking back.

What's the impact of such dislocation? Surely it invites introspection. When everything is foreign, the individual psyche becomes "the still point of the turning world," (T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"). This prompts a dimension of introspection not possible in the midst of quotidian distractions.

Dislocation also forges connection, particularly with people who are similarly situated. Or un-situated. Students who might never have noticed one another on the Gonzaga or Boston College campus now depend on each other to navigate the newness.

Finally, this particular immersion in El Salvador opens a window into the experience of people who have experienced similar dislocation. From one of the community coordinators of the Romero scholars, Gris, we heard the story of a family during the civil war who fled its home in the middle of the night, because the military were coming. In an instant, they had to figure out what they could not bear to leave behind -- and could actually manage to carry and run with. For days they traveled moving only at night and sleeping every day in a different location. Years later, a little girl who fled with her doll returned to her village as an adult -- and tried to find that doll.

Dislocation became a way of life. Forcibly evicted from their homes, these people had to find a center of gravity within. And they did. They returned with an internal compass that provides location in the midst of dislocation, celebration in the midst of death, and a still point in the turning world.

Through the experience of dislocation, immersion and pilgrimage alike sow the seeds of gravitas.


  1. Your pilgrimage to El Salvador must mean a deep encounter with this people that has suffered so much, and with the spirit of Oscar Romero, who is so needed always.

  2. Marty,

    In location and dislocation what is needed is orientation, yes? Getting a bead, as they say, on true north and knowing what one is heading for. There is much to say about that.


  3. How about insemination? Lots of talk down here about the difference between formation and insemination: molding people into a certain kind of shape or frame and planting a seed -- and letting all flowers bloom! As a seminary professor, formation is more familiar: it's what we do. And what we're supposed to do. But for a college setting, planting a seed may be more appropriate.
    You would know -- what do you think?
    And again, thanks for thinking with me on this one. Of course, I'm also trying to change gears myself from seminary to college contexts. I need to get this right.....

  4. Thoughts on Formation & Insemination: Is there a getting “this right?” If so, does this mean there is a “getting this wrong?” I hope not. For all I see through your words simply does not feel like a “wrong” at all. I believe both insemination and formation can and must exist. Without the sowing (insemination and molding) what would be at hand to form (bloom of seed; pruning to bring forth new life and seed another)? No right, no wrong; simply a consciousness of consciously—active not passive---living; intentionality; watching, feeling, learning the inter-dependence of the two.

    ...just a thought

  5. Renee -- thanks! I do think you're right. Both complement one another. And we need both.
    Interdependence is exactly right. Germination may come first, but I don't want to take the seed analogy too literally.
    In terms of "getting it right," I do want to pay attention to the differences -- even if subtle -- in the context from which I came (theological ed) and the one to which I'm going (higher ed). So this is a distinction I will keep refining. Thanks for giving me some tools to keep working with!

  6. Marty,

    We'll talk more in person. But, I was thinking less about the educational setting and more about theological goals. JZS's "the map is not the territory" always strikes me as correct and yet not so helpful if it implies that a map is therefore not valuable. On the other hand, I do not think that vocation provides anything as specific as a map with the journey marked out; rather our baptismal calling is more like a compass reading that turns our face toward Jesus and toward our neighbors in whom we encounter Jesus. Frankly, in my college teaching my goals are more mundane and must address students whose religious home is other than mine.

  7. Thanks, DeAne -- this helps me get a reading on your orientation comment. Check my latest, where I try to spin out insemination/gestation as a possible metaphor. And the task of college teaching as more oriented toward planting seeds, which will then flourish in many different kinds of vocational soil. It seems somehow important for me to get clearer on the difference between theological ed and higher ed, as I'll be soon living it!