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.

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