Sunday, September 12, 2010

Pilgrims, seekers, and other lost souls....

Pilgrimage is a practice tailor-made for seekers. Even Augustine knew this, for Augustine is the quintessential, pre-modern seeker. His autobiography, "The Confessions," is one of the first memoirs, and he chronicles how he looked for love in all the wrong places: philosophy, Gnosticism, music, women. Dissatisfaction mounted -- until Love found him.

But his lost-and-found story made its dent on his soul, and Augustine projected it outward, calling people pilgrims, "peregrini." In this, he only echoes the sentiments of the author of the epistle to the Hebrews, who tells the earliest Christians they are destined to be "strangers and pilgrims on the earth" (11:13).

The book "Eat Pray Love" gets catalogued as a "memoir," but it's really the travel diary of a seeker. Fresh out of a bad marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert sets out for a destination she cannot quite identify, knowing only the places she will pass through along the way: Italy, India, and Bali. She learns to eat in Italy, pray in India, and love in Bali, things she did not actually set out to accomplish, but finds in retrospect.

Indeed, she owes her plot line to Augustine: looking for love in all the wrong places -- only to be found by love in the end. It's not capital "L" Love, but it'll at least get her through another couple of memoirs, one of which is already out "Committed."

Gilbert's is a decidedly post-modern pilgrimage: no capital letters at all, no meta-narratives. Like most things post-modern, it struck me as pretty self-absorbed, even a bit precious. After all, who has the resources -- time and money! -- to travel for a year after a loss like hers. Most of us simply have to hunker down and pay the bills.

Still, as we kept reminding ourselves, Lisa and I could not have trekked across the top of Spain without the generous support of a research grant. Take all of our whining about blisters with a grain of salt. We earned them in achingly beautiful terrain; we eased the pain with liberal doses of Ibuprofen and Rioja.

This made me look more sympathetically at Gilbert's plight. And I was intrigued to find an earlier collection of her short stories entitled "Pilgrims." How would this post-modern seeker develop her theme?

The stories handle people who could hardly be called privileged, and their author treats them with respect, even awe. A scrappy Hungarian immigrant worries that his daughter is too clumsy to achieve any acclaim being the magician she longs to be. Yet, as the story closes, she has literally produced a rabbit out of thin air, redeeming her father's longing and her own aspirations. In "Alice from the East," a widowed rancher offers to help a pair of teenagers whose car has broken down on the prairie. The terrain breathes solitude, and one of the teenagers recognizes her own loneliness in the rancher's -- and treats him as kin. A simple kindness in "The Many Things That Denny Brown Did Not Know (Age Fifteen)" runs like water in a desert -- and the desert blossoms. Such epiphanies abound in Gilbert's stories, as an ordinary gesture sparks a shock of grace. Hard-scrabble as these characters are, they have not forgotten compassion. Neither has Gilbert.

In a very real sense, pilgrims, seekers, Gilbert's characters, possibly Gilbert herself are all lost souls. Certainly pilgrims get lost regularly, trying to find the right path. But they're really lost when they realize: "it's not about getting there, stupid!" It's about the path itself -- and, more importantly, the people on it. Then, pilgrims understand they are on a different journey. To find this new path, they have to pay a different kind of attention.

Compassion is the kind of attention pilgrims need to pay, if they are to find their way forward on a journey that is suddenly not about "getting there." Compassion for themselves, compassion for their fellow-travelers. I think Gilbert gets that. Her stories demonstrate her compassion for these pilgrims and lost souls, her fellow-travelers. Her memoir records her own efforts to find a way to treat herself with compassion.

For pilgrims, seekers, and other lost souls, compassion acts as a compass.

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