Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Burden, Unburden, Voluntary, Involuntary

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

The Dog Days of Pilgrimage....

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

The Pilgrimage of the Easter Season: Where's Jesus?!

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?

Be watching.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Rituals of Re-Entry: What Immersion Teaches Pilgrims

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 ( 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.