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.

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