Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Walking the Months: Dorothy Day's "On Pilgrimage"

Pilgrimage is not just about place; pilgrimage can also be about time. Instead of making their way to a sacred site, pilgrims chronicle their journey through the days, the months, the seasons. As with place, walking through time demands a focused attention to detail. For, as with place, pilgrimage through time yields its insights in the particulars.

In a luminous journal "On Pilgrimage," the founder of the Catholic Worker movement Dorothy Day chronicles a journey over the course of a year. She organizes by months -- technically, she keeps a "mensual" record, as opposed to one that is daily (diurnal) or yearly (annual). Her reflections mark the round of the seasons, as she observes them from the Catholic Worker House on Mott Street in Manhattan,in upstate New York, where the Catholic Worker had a retreat house and farm, or on her daughter's farm in West Virginia.

Like a true pilgrim, she notices details: the smell of poor neighborhoods (like dead rats), the thick mud of early spring, the fragrance of fresh-baked pies, the snap of wash on a clothesline in a windy day. Her description wraps the reader in places long gone and times long past.

Maybe for policy-makers, "the devil is in the details." But for pilgrims, insight lies in the details. As Lisa and I noted on the Camino, we set out with Great Thoughts to think and hard texts to ponder. As we made our way toward Santiago, however, we learned, not from our heads, but from our feet. Pilgrimage tutored us in everyday, embodied knowledge: we fed on it as our daily bread.

And for Dorothy Day, the harvest of finely wrought details from the streets of New York to the stables of West Virginia yields a single, central insight: love. She returns to love throughout the book, and it becomes the refrain that binds together the round of monthly reflections.

Love seems to be the special province of women, particularly women of Day's generation. As she waits with her daughter and son-in-law for the birth of their child, her days fill with washing and baking and housework. The rare empty hour is "found time" for reading, and the result is a pilgrim's journal that moves easily between reflection and description, between abstract and concrete, between theological musing -- and an account of what the family had for dinner, where it came from, and how much it cost. Doesn't love happen exactly at that interface? Love longs to be made. In order to be love, it needs to be put into words or gestures or images. Poets call it expression; painters call it art; theologicans call it incarnation.

One particular insight into love won't leave me. From a priest she doesn't even admire, Day extracts a truth: "It's too late for anything but love." Suddenly I understood that Day intends two things when she talks about love -- and the second is the more interesting.

1. First, Dorothy Day speaks prescriptively about love: it's a moral imperative. She fears the people around her have forgotten how to love, particularly as they sharpened the instruments of war. Dorothy Day exhorts her companions along the way to love.

2. But Day has a second insight into love. She speaks of love descriptively: it's a simple fact of the human condition. It survives direst poverty; it lights the darkest night; it pilots the lost. When therapies fail, when causes fail, when death does its cruel work, love remains.

For Day that simple fact is beyond dispute or explanation: love.

Maybe that's the point of every journey, whether through time or space, whether to a sacred site or through a calendar year. Love is the answer; love, the question; love, the destination.


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Alabaster Pilgrims: The Journey from Life -- to Life Abundant

Outside the royal city of Madrid lies Philip II's great palace of death, El Escorial. The king retired there to die a long and painful death in 1598. He surrounded himself with the sarcophagi of the kings and queens who had predeceased him -- as well as relics he had rescued from certain destruction in Protestant regions across the Pyrenees.

Like the royal court itself, death had its attendants. Philip II annexed a monastery to his palace, so that perpetual masses could be said for his soul. The Spanish poet Garcia Lorca summed up Spanish attitudes toward death: "In all other countries death is the end. It arrives and the curtain falls. No so in Spain. In Spain, on the contrary, the curtain only rises at that moment...." Philip II intended to keep that veil between the worlds raised.

But Lorca must have never visited the 13th and 14th century tombs of the dukes of Burgundy in Dijon. The tombs reside in a "charterhouse" or monastery for the Carthusians, an austere monastic order. As they prayed the hours, the monks walked the cloister, a sheltered courtyard adjacent to the church. The dukes commissioned miniature cloisters at the base of their tombs, filled with statues of mourning monks. These mourning monks would attend them in perpetuity, circling their bodies in perpetual prayer.

Renovation in the monastery in Burgundy, now a museum, allowed these sixteen-inch alabaster figures to walk on. As part of an exhibit called "The Mourners," they traveled from the Metropolitan Museum in New York to the Minneapolis Institute for the Arts this winter. The exhibit closed on Palm Sunday. Walking with these alabaster pilgrims was the way to begin Holy Week.

As they walk, the monks move through the postures of grief: faces contorted with weeping, bent, burdened shoulders, downcast heads, a cowled hand wiping a tear from a cowled face. Despite the unyielding stone, their robes reveal forward motion. The monks still walk their cloister, offering frozen alabaster prayers for the departed souls of the dukes. The curtain is always lifted.

As we move through Holy Week, we journey toward resurrection. We want to sprint toward Easter, but these stone figures remind us to take it slow, tend to our tears -- and watch as the curtain slowly rises.

The transit from life -- to life abundant.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Lent's Pilgrimage, Lent's Joy

Lent signals a certain sobriety. It’s a season of renunciation, where your piety is pitched to how much you depend on whatever it is you’ve decided to do without: alcohol, meat, that shot of vanilla in your favorite caffeinated beverage – that favorite caffeinated beverage itself.

When I traveled with a more Catholic crowd, we had a St. Patrick’s Day party, and we decked the house in green, made buckets of Irish stew, and stocked the bar with Guinness – which, to the Irish, is liquid bread. Well, that year St. Patrick’s Day fell in the dead center of Lent, and all of my husband’s high school buddies had given up alcohol for season. They looked longingly at the Guinness – and sipped on water. We told all the old stories anyway, this time at half the volume and without forgetting any of the punch lines.

Scripture commends fasting, almsgiving, and prayer as signature Lenten practices. All of them are practices of renunciation: fasting gives up food – at least, in excessive amounts; almsgiving gives up material goods, urging us to spread the wealth – and in so doing reminding us how much we have and how little we need; prayer gives up control, nudging us to listen to someone else.

The point of renunciation is to create space: carve out openings in busy lives, so that we too can set our faces toward Jerusalem, as Jesus did, so that we too can journey in solidarity with him along the way.

Lent is a season of renunciation, and sobriety is one of its soundtracks.
Yet there’s another soundtrack in Lent, fainter perhaps but more compelling. Lent is also a season of completion, and joy is its soundtrack. Some people live out of this Lenten counsel. A man decided to work in a soup kitchen during Lent, and suddenly all the panhandlers he’s seen in the streets had names: Shafik, Richard, and the ubiquitous Dot Lady. A woman adopted the practice of writing a poem each day. As she sipped her morning coffee, she’d traced a circle onto a piece of blank paper with one of her saucepans. She stared at the blank space until the words came. And if they didn’t come at the moment, she simply finished her coffee and moved into the work of that day. But periodically she returned to that blank circle, adding words until the circle filled, a poem complete. She wrote in pencil; she allowed herself to erase; the whole exercise gave her great pleasure – another word not used often enough in Lent.

I’ll cite Luther on that precise point – he seems to have some credibility around here. Luther gives us that wonderful snapshot of Adam in the Garden of Eden, drunk on God – or as he puts it, “ intoxicated with rejoicing toward God and ...delighted also with all the other creatures.” (LW 1, “Lectures on Genesis,” 94) Not exactly a picture of sobriety, but the image captures something important. We are hard-wired for joy.

Scripture seconds this impulse of completion and joy as well, perhaps most powerfully in the final counsel Jesus gives to his disciples before his death. It’s Lent in this season of his life, and he knows what lies ahead: the certainty of death and the promise of resurrection. So what does he spend this last supper talking about? Not so much renunciation and sobriety, but completion and joy and love: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

Jesus’ death will leave a huge hole in the disciples’ lives: he knows it. And, beneath those gluey, obfuscating layers of denial, they know it too. And yet, he tells them: “You will not be left comfortless. When I go, I will send my Spirit – in fact, unless I go, my Spirit cannot come to you.” (paraphrasing John 16:7) There’s this economy of the Spirit in John’s gospel: the Spirit can’t come unless and until Jesus goes away. But when Jesus goes, the Spirit will come. There’s a similar economy of the Spirit in Lent: the Spirit can’t come until and unless there’s room. Renunciation clears out a space the Spirit fills.

What does the Spirit bring? It’s very simple: joy. Paul expounds on the fruit of the Spirit in his letter to the Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). And the apostle only elaborates what the psalmist delivers with lapidary punch: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). Jesus’ final speech to his disciples – which takes chapters and chapters in John’s gospel – could be boiled down to two words: “Expect joy.”

It’s so easy to get dragged down by the renunciation and giving up, by sobriety and the gritty reality of loss, we forget that other pulse in Lent: joy. Here are three things to remember:

1. First, remember to breathe. Whether you give up eating meat or take on writing poetry, renunciation and completion are like respiration, breathing in and breathing out. We need to do both to live. If you only expel, you will surely collapse. Equally, if you endlessly inhale, you will explode. Renunciation breathes out, expelling toxins even as it creates space for the next breath. Completion breathes in, taking into that empty cavity oxygen, the breath of life.

2. That’s the second point: breathe in joy. Lent’s joy comes into that empty cavity, whether the space has been carved out by renunciation or deep need or grave loss. Joy comes in – if we but let it. In their book The Cultural Creatives (Three Rivers Press/Random House, Inc., 2000), Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson interviewed a young mother:

“She had four children in five years. The most significant thing that happened to her life, she told us, was losing one of those children to cancer when he was five years old. “I don’t talk about this very easily,” she said, looking down and speaking very quietly, “but it was pivotal for me. It changed my life – jelled it in a profound way. I have an image that comes to mind about that time. It’s of a white fire roaring through my life and burning out what was superficial, frivolous or unimportant and leaving a core of ... I don’t think there’s any other word for it than love. A core of love.”

Whether we choose it or it chooses us, renunciation and loss hollow out empty spaces within the soul. And, make no mistake, that’s a vacuum that all kinds of things can fill: anger, bitterness, resentment, distraction, or perhaps most sinister of all, just general busy-ness. But Jesus promises to send his Spirit. All we have to do is breathe it in.

When we do, joy comes – or as this young mother put it, a core of love. I can’t explain it any better than she couldn’t, but I know it’s true.

3. And that’s the final truth of Lent’s joy: it’s social. The joy I can generate on my own is always incomplete. It must be completed by another. As Luther sees him, Adam in the garden, drunk on God, needs something to complete his joy. So, he delights in God -- and also all the other creatures. Creator and creation complete his joy. Jesus completes the disciples’ joy; they complete his. The apostle Paul – speaking simply for once – tells the community at Philippi: “make my joy complete” (2:2). It’s kind of like the dare Clint Eastwood utters as Dirty Harry (Sudden Impact, 1983), “Go ahead, make my joy.”

Lent invites us to dare the Spirit: make our joy.

Lent leaves us with these lessons:
Remember to breath;
breath in joy;
lean on someone else to complete that joy.

Mere happiness cannot stand up to the harsh truths of loss and war and tsunami. Lent’s joy is truer than all those things: it’s the promise that we are not in free fall.
And that death is not the final word.

Start with that at least.
(From a talk at Foss Chapel, Augsburg College, April 9, 2011)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Lessons from Kilimanjaro: Breaking and Remaking

Mt. Kilimanjaro inspired this grant on pilgrimage. If you scroll back to the first entry, you’ll see the climbing party at the summit. Kilimanjaro hadn’t been on my bucket list. It was a time in my life when the mere thought of bucket lists turned my stomach. I had lost my husband to brain cancer the year before, and the whole concept of a bucket list seemed a luxury that had cruelly passed me by. I was broken, in pieces, and quite literally, list-less.

So when a friend invited me to join his climbing party, I shrugged -- listlessly – and said: “Why not?” One morning a few months later, I found myself at the base of the mountain. We climbed through the rainforest, steamy and close with the calls of strange birds.
There was evening and there was morning, a second day.

We climbed through the alpine meadow, filled with scrub trees green against red volcanic rock. There was evening and there was morning, a third day.

We climbed above the tree line, into a zone where plants hugged the ground, bursting with color from every crevass and cranny, and we learned the hearty species that survive altitude and intense swings in temperature.
There was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.

We climbed out of realm of vegetation entirely, entering the fierce landscape of the summit itself. Here there was nothing but scree, searing sun, and shards of sharp fragments of lava. It looked for all in the world like we’d stumbled into a giants’ kitchen. Maybe there had been an earthquake or a violent domestic argument, but something traumatic had happened. The ground looked littered with shards of red-clay pottery – and little else. Here, a once perfect bowl, angrily smashed into pieces; there, a pitcher, broken beyond repair; up ahead, a plate, dashed into fragments.
There was evening –

— and at midnight we made the final ascent. And by that time, like the landscape we ourselves were in pieces, shattered by exhaustion, thin air, and the cold. The only thing that kept me going was the pull of the hundreds of hikers in front of us, the push of the hundreds from behind. Broken as we were, together we snaked up the mountain like something alive, our headlamps steady shards of light in an inky darkness.
There was the rest of that evening and there was morning, a fifth day

And as that day dawned, we stood at the summit and surveyed the wreckage we’d spent the night climbing through. As I looked at the earth’s curvature gently falling around us, I remember thinking: this whole mountain is one huge mound of broken pieces, shards from something else. And yet, there it was, Africa’s “Shining Mountain,” the highest peak on the continent. Out of these pieces, a new creation.

And that wasn’t the only high point of the trip, though it certainly scored in terms of elevation. The following week we visited the school a member of our climbing party had started in his native village outside of Iringa in central Tanzania. We lost a tire to a pot-hole on the way there, but when we finally arrived, students stood at attention in their classrooms in faded green uniforms to greet us.

Their green jackets and pleated skirts looked worn, but clean, relics from another century. Their desks and chairs looked vaguely familiar, kind of like the ones I’d used when I’d been in grade school. Broken and badly in need of repair, they done hard service for at least that long. The names on the back of the chairs told a story: Anderson, Jenson, Carlson. Those weren’t Tanzanian names. Later the principal proudly explained that the furniture, the uniforms, even the schoolbooks had all been donated by a MN non-profit – hence the names. Like the mountain, the school had been built on shards, cast-off pieces from somewhere else.

And yet, there it was, in so many ways more magnificent than Kilimanjaro, a school at the end of a red dirt road, the only opportunity for education beyond third grade for miles around. Out of these pieces, a new creation.

These images stuck with me, broken as I was, like scraps of an insistent rhyme that at first I could neither shake nor completely make out. But then I started to hear it everywhere: breaking and remaking, breaking and remaking. Out of the pieces, a new creation.

You catch the rhyme in the story of the first creation. Let’s be frank: there’s a lot of breakage involved. For anything to happen, the smooth stone of matter, which was “without form and void,” had to be shattered, rather like the aftermath of the domestic argument we imagined on Mt. Kilimanjaro. Light is broken apart from darkness, day from night, the heavens from the land and the seas, sun from moon and all stars – the stars themselves, like headlamps, shards of light in an inky darkness. And at the end of each day, God looks at all these broken and repurposed pieces of creation – and blesses them: “God saw that it was good....God saw that it was very good.”

There is evening and there is morning, another day. And then we come upon the creation of Eve, itself a story of breaking and remaking, because the only way to get Eve is to break Adam apart, break Adam open, break into Adam. From his bone and from his flesh, literally, from pieces of his body, Eve comes forth, the second human. Out of the pieces, a new creation.

Backgrounded by the soundtrack of breaking and remaking, another story of creation makes a different kind of sense. This is the story of the creation of the disciples, which now seems a lot like the story of the first creation, at least when Matthew rolls the camera, because if you listen to Jesus’ first public sermon, he’s surrounded by wreckage. He makes his recruitment speech to a broken bunch of people:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit...
“Blessed are those who mourn...
“Blessed are the meek....
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness....”

These are people who’ve been broken into pieces by the world’s ways – and yet these are precisely the people whom Jesus blesses and refashions into his disciples. Jesus calls – not by command – but by blessing. Out of the pieces, a new creation.

Jesus seems to have done a pretty good job of this new creation, because by the close of Matthew’s Gospel (25:31-46), these disciples, broken, blessed, and repurposed, have become a new creation: giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, comfort to the sick and imprisoned. What I love about this is that these once-shattered disciples are shocked by their own makeovers! They barely recognize themselves – or Jesus: “When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?” But these blessed pieces have become a blessing to others, without even knowing it. Out of these pieces, a new creation.

And should this surprise us? Because the central practices of this broken band of disciples today, bound together by duct tape, piano wire, and a fair helping of grace, they are all practices of breaking and making. Look at the Lord’s Supper: you take a nice loaf of bread perfectly round – and tear it into pieces. These pieces nourish a new creation. Look at the rite of baptism, where you take an infant, break it away from the arms of its family of origin, adopt it into a new family, the family of the faithful, and give it a new name “Child of God.” It’s shocking, and I keep waiting for some parent to suddenly see what’s going on, take the child, and run screaming from the sanctuary. Out of these pieces, a new creation.

And should this surprise us? Because this pattern of breaking and remaking calls to mind the story of Jesus himself, broken, blessed, and repurposed as the risen Christ, a creation so new even his disciples wouldn’t have recognized him – were it not for the marks on his body, witness to his own brokenness. Out of these pieces, a new creation.

The pattern of breaking and remaking is only another way of thinking about cross and resurrection, this time using the body of Christ as the mountain, the school, the broken pieces of our own losses.

Ah! The most terrifying words in scripture may be the words God springs on us at the end: “Behold, I make all things new!” Because the new creation always comes out of the shards of the old creation. Call it divine recycling, if you will, but this is God’s way of working in the world.

Here are some ground rules for moving through this divine construction zone:
First, make no mistake, navigating the new creation takes time – sometimes more than seven days. And you may be in Day One or Day Six, but there is evening and there is morning. Another day.

Second, remember that, just as God blessed each day of creation, God blesses broken pieces, so that they can come together into something new. Expect that blessing – look for it, if you like, but it will find you. Let your loss bless you.

Third, the new creation is just that: new. It’s not the old creation warmed over. I used to tell my friends that if anyone saw my Old Life wandering around, they should remind it where I lived. But I knew the Old Life wasn’t coming back again. Resurrection is never resuscitation; it’s something new entirely.

Finally, just for the journey ahead, take a mental snapshot of this image of the creation of Adam that Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. This time notice two things: that God’s finger is not quite touching Adam’s – but it’s close. And notice, of course, the crack. There’s always breakage.

Go forth with good courage.

(Taken from a talk in Foss Chapel, Augsburg College, Minneapolis MN on February 10, 2011)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nicaragua: On pilgrimage without walking

Last week I was in Nicaragua to visit Augsburg College's house of studies in Managua. As part of a semester-long immersion in Central America, students travel to Guatemala to spend four weeks learning Spanish, moving on to El Salvador for more formal course-work in Latin American culture, politics, and liberation theology, and finishing up with home-stays and more course-work in Nicaragua.

As part of its commitment to global education, Augsburg's president Paul Pribbenow took a team of board and cabinet members to Nicaragua to share in our students' experience. If global education is a College-wide commitment, then it's important not just for our students, but for people throughout every facet of our common work. It's the only way to crack institutional culture open to global realities.

The trip also resonated with a key commitment of our pilgrimage grant, which seeks to understand the symmetry between international immersion trips and the ancient practice of pilgrimage. Fellow-traveler and co-researcher Lisa Fullam and I found lots of similarities. Both experiences feature a kind of intentional dislocation. Pilgrims and immersants consciously step outside the familiar. Both experiences involve surrender to situations that can be neither foreseen nor controlled: a sudden rainstorm, a flat tire, an appointment that begins thirty minutes late, still "on time" according to Latin American standards, but messing with the tightly packed schedule we were given for the day. Finally, both experiences demand receptivity, not the relentless productivity most of us strive for in our various vocations. There's nothing you can do, except let the experience wash over you -- and keep telling the stories. Pilgrimage and immersion share a lot in common.

But I ran into one glaring dissimilarity my first afternoon in Managua, when I tried to leave the hotel for a walk around the neighborhood. The look of terror on the concierge's face gave me pause: she vigorously recommended against it. How was I going to be a pilgrim in a place where I couldn't even go outside for a walk?

Another member of our group elected to go with me. He'd grown up in Colombia and knew how to read the streets. We stripped off our jewelry, left our keys at the desk, and ventured out. The neighborhood seemed safe enough -- though we observed that most houses had "guardianos," armed guards at the entrances of homes and businesses, and that they sat inside, and not outside, locked gates. We found a busy street, seeking safety in traffic.

But when my friend sighted a gang of young boys a block away watching our approach, he balked: "We're heading back." When we arrived at the hotel, the concierge greeted us with evident relief. How to be a pilgrim without walking?

I remembered the trek along the Camino, where we made shrines for everything we had to leave behind. Apparently, I was going to have to leave even the walking behind. It seemed ironic, but necessary. I shifted all that physical energy into observation instead.

And in that week without walking, here's what I saw.

The gang of young boys on the street had probably come to the city from rural areas where their families had farmed. Trade agreements displaced these campesinos, along with weather patterns that brought to their fields now drought, now deluge. People streamed into the cities, where they contributed to a population that was, as we kept hearing, not so much "unemployed" as "underemployed." The government provided education for everyone through the sixth grade, but private schools offered the only option for further schooling. Private education cost more than the average urban peasant could afford. Money was as scarce as clean water, as looking out over the polluted waters of Lake Managua reminded us daily. Kids in cities were too young to work in factories, but old enough to get into drugs, find gangs, make babies. The street scene mirrored the harsh economic and educational realities of the country -- and so many other countries around the world.

Being on pilgrimage without walking taught me a truth more painful than the Camino's blisters. The only thing to do is tell the stories.

This is one of them.