Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Grace of Surrender...Or Why "Eat Pray Love" is not a Chick Flick

So is it a chick flick? I suppose if you look at Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir-turned-movie from Hollywood's perspective, the answer is yes. The movie version combines gorgeous scenery with a happy ending: divorced woman finds great food in Italy, a soul in India, and love in Bali.

But from a pilgrim's angle of vision, there's a broader message: receiving the hard grace of surrender. A self-acknowledged control freak, Liz easily lets her guard down around food. She even teaches her girth-conscious Swedish friend Sofie to delight in the fabled Italian cooking.

Liz is less able to surrender to prayer, and she struggles with the Geet, the hours- long prayer that ends the night and begins the day in her Indian ashram. Yet, as she gives up control over her schedule, her sleep, and her thoughts, she finds that she can live inside that prayer -- and it's a surprisingly crowded place.

Liz is least able to surrender to love. Yet, eventually she untethers her heart to fall in love with Felipe in Bali.

While its plot moves the movie into the genre of romantic comedy, or "rom-com," the
lesson is one we can all take to heart, at every age and any gender. The journey from control to surrender is itself a pilgrimage, one from isolation into greater community.

I've been musing on the connections between pilgrimage and surrender for some time. In part, I was prompted by Lisa's observation last September somewhere in mid-Camino: "Pilgrims are really pretty useless, aren't we...." She was right: we weren't producing anything, and we were receiving a lot. For two highly productive people, that was a real switch.

And in part, I'm spinning out work on a chapter Sonny Manuel and I wrote for Tom Plante's book "Contemplative Practices in Action" (Greenwood, 2010). We highlighted dimensions of suffering: denial, isolation, and the need for control; we probed remedial practices: lamentation, intercession, and pilgrimage, respectively. As we worked, we discovered that each of these practices not only solaces the one suffering, it invariably creates solidarity with others. For example, pilgrimage addresses the need for control by placing people on a journey where they move forward only by surrendering everything they do not need. Pilgrims depend on the kindness of strangers and the camaraderie of their fellow travelers. As they move forward, reaching the destination recedes behind the joy of being with one's fellow-travelers. Each of these practices reaches out: they have an outer impulse.

It's an important parallel to the movie: eating, praying, loving all have an outer impulse. They are highly social activities, in themselves and especially as they are depicted in the movie.

And to reach out, one has to let go -- or surrender. What gets left behind? Excess baggaage, spiritual and physical; possessions that have begun to possess us; scripts that we labored over -- and expected to live out.

Joy is the grace of surrender, giving us a script beyond our wildest imaginings.

And joy is the pleasure of communion: it's always social. What's finally significant about the movie is that each of Eating, praying, loving: all of these are finally about joy.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Back home again

Rapid transitions in my life have kept me from this blog--indeed, away from very much of what could be called contemplation at all. Blogging, at least on a blog like this, involves small snapshots of contemplation.

In the hectic meantime, among my other endeavors was that I became again, for a time, a tourist. I wandered various towns in Italy, marveling again at how isolated tourists are, while pilgrims form connections based in common need. Tourists eschew need for a more powerful stance of unneedful freedom. Of course it is an illusion, one based on the tourist's emphasis of difference rather than commonality in the endeavor. Tourists don't go to new places to see what we've always seen, but rather to see what's new--we lead with our differences. Pilgrims lead with, or, if the pilgrimage attains its end, come to appreciate, commonality instead. Commonalty is a step away from community, but commonality can make the pilgrim a better member of his or her community upon return. Pilgrims return different, but more deeply cognizant of the mutual need that is the basis of true community. Tourism is toxic if that sense of difference and unneedful freedom take root deeply. At its extreme lies elitism and entitlement. The opposite vice is parochialism and a different elitism.

I found this lion somewhere in Rome, and was struck by its insouciance. The sculptor caught something of feline poise--cats relax better than anybody, and I'm convinced it's because they also are good at total coiled-spring muscular concentration and its release in the attack.

Pilgrims, perhaps, become good at being on the road--which should make us better at staying put. The skills of pilgrimage we've talked about here are also valuable askeses for life generally. Carry what sets you free. Know that your companions are essential, not accidental. Find grace in tiredness as well as in the strength you develop, since, as the Franciscans say, all is gift. Cherish small things like a good sandwich or cool water. Pilgrimage is, ultimately, about being able to rest well as much as it is about being able to be free on the road.

There's a catch. Pilgrims--at least this pilgrim--can never be completely content staying put. Nor completely content on the road all the time. Like the lion good at relaxing because good at hunting, a pilgrim is a creature who might knows that freedom is practiced both on the road and in the staying put, each feeds the other, and each is a necessity for freedom that's not merely the illusory unneedfulness of the tourist.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Walking the City of Angels

I was in Los Angeles this week, in between conferences. The Lutheran teaching theologians had just gathered up in Thousand Oaks, a place first noticed by airline pilots heading into the Los Angeles airports as a valley with no smog. That's distinctive in the LA area.

The pilots moved in on orchards and chicken coops to build retirement homes and McMansions. My tribe met at California Lutheran University, the new game in a town dedicated to golf, assisted living, and the few remaining chickens.

At the end of the week, I'd be part of a panel at the American Psychological Association (APA) in San Diego presenting a chapter I co-authored with colleague Sonny Manuel in a book on contemplative practices.

In between conferences, though, I had a "dead day" in Los Angeles, literally, "The City of Angels." For convenience, I was ensconced in one of the many hotels ringing the international airport there, LAX: Airport Siberia. What to do?

I thought of museums, and The City of Angels has an impressive collection, from the Getty to LACMA, the wonderful Los Angeles County Museum. But public transportation is not great and the exhibits didn't compel.

Sleep recommended itself, and I remembered that only two months before I'd been in Paris at the end of another pilgrimage, this time the ancient route from Toulouse into Santiago de Compostela, which we followed to Pamplona. Then only a month ago, I'd been about to embark on the Great Road Trip that took me to Minnesota. The trip had been luminous and long, clearly a pilgrimage that would lead to a new city, a new job, and another chapter in calling.

As I considered these precedents, I realized I wasn't simply looking for something to do, but weighing how to mark this time. How could I take account of the journeys that had brought me here? What would be fitting?

Framing the question in terms of pilgrimage, it didn't take long to come up with an answer: I'd figure out how to get to the ocean. I need an ocean of reference anyway, and a month in land-locked Minnesota -- even though the terrain was once the bottom of a great inland sea -- left me starved for salt air. The runways at LAX head due west, and planes take off out over the ocean, using the prevailing westerlies for lift.

Finding the Pacific shouldn't be hard: just follow the runways.

And so I did, walking down long, unbroken, tree-lined boulevards. As I walked, I watched the planes land, pulling up slightly and precisely just as their rear wheels touch the ground. They landed on the ground just like great birds on a branch, making the transition from air-borne to earth-bound seamless. Watching I gave thanks for the transitions I'd made over the last two months, if not seamless, at least smooth. As I played back all that had happened, I crested a hill -- and the blue Pacific spread out at my feet.

I could taste the salt, watch the surf, and get my feet wet. That's what I needed: the line of a vast horizon, invariant behind the waves' crashing. In times of transition, you need a few things that don't change.

I took a mental snapshot -- and headed home.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Getting Oriented....

Since I got to Minneapolis almost a month ago, I have spent hours walking the city, trying to figure out how the city "works." Nothing more, nothing less.

I know a few neighborhoods -- Longfellow, Cedar-Riverside, Milltown, Northeast -- and know there are many, many more. I find a pool and learn the best times to swim and the quickest routes to get there and back, factoring in traffic and time of day. I discover where to shop, bank, dry-clean, and get coffee. I memorize the grid of "avenues" running north-south and "streets" running east-west -- at least mostly.

What has puzzled me, though, is Uptown, Midtown, and Downtown, because Uptown doesn't seem "up" at all, but "down," specifically, south of the downtown area. I was stumped.

Then, a conversation with DeAne Lagerquist, Americanist and lover of the Twin Cities, made everything clear: "It's all about the River," she said matter-of-factly. "Everything is oriented around the River."

The River -- the great Mississippi, which bends through the Twin Cities on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Suddenly everything falls into place.

The Twin Cities developed along the River, and Minneapolis was the mill town, with the mill races and wheels. Pillsbury and Gold Medal lined the River; their signs are still here, though the granaries have long been converted to museums and lofts. Downtown was the area around the River; Midtown, a bit further afield; and Uptown, an ex-urbia, far enough away to be residential, but still close enough in to get to work.

With the River to orient me, everything suddenly made sense. It really is all about the River.

So I begin paying attention to the River: the Great Blue Heron that fishes its shallows, the loon's cry in earliest morning, the locks and how they work, the short blast of a horn that signals it's safe for boats to motor out again, where the river has structure and shoals, and the fish that hide there.

Attending to the River, I notice other things. It captures light in the evenings, lighting up the city long after the sun has set. Power lines arc along its banks, and their towers are not horizontal, but curved. This seemed to me an odd design until I realized the curves allow ice and snow to slide off, where horizontal structures would eventually only break under the weight. The arches of these powerlines are painted whiter than the vertical columns that support them. Against a gunmetal blue sky, they are luminous, like giant seabirds winging their way to the Pacific.

Attending to the River, I'm settling in. I could dwell here.

Dwelling demands a different kind of attention than pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is about destination. Even though the way becomes as compelling as the arrival, pilgrimage requires a kind of focus. I wanted to get to our destination each day; I wanted to reach the top of that hill before stopping. I wanted to log at least two hours of walking before we found a cafe con leche.

Dwelling demands I take a broader view, a more unfocused kind of focus. I pay attention, but I try to take it all in -- even what I'm not expecting to see or hear, smell or taste. Now that I've found my bearings -- or my bearing, the River --I scan broadly, taking in as many things as I can in a glance.

It's like looking for dolphins. I love to watch for them when I'm back in Delaware. There, it's all about -- the grey Atlantic. Occasionally, a fin breaks the surface, and all I know is that the next sighting will be anywhere but where I saw the first.

I learn to look with a broad view, taking in as much surface water as possible, waiting for the next epiphany. Good practice for dwelling in a place.

I'm surprised at what I'm seeing. Mary Oliver was right:

"Everything in the world

At least, closer.

And, cordially."
("Where Does the Temple Begin? Where Does It End?")