Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"What's so post-modern about immersion?"

We've been talking for a full three years about "immersion trips as being the post-modern expression of the ancient practice of pilgrimage." We wrote it into our grant proposal; we re-wrote it into our final report for the granting agencies, the Association of Theological Schools and the Lilly Endowment. We put it out there in countless presentations,talks, and lectures. It's buried in the pages of this blog.

But it wasn't until last week that Stephanie Quade, Dean of Students at Marquette University, asked the obvious question: "What's so post-modern about immersion?"

We were nearing the end of the orientation for latest cohort for the Ignatian Colleagues Program, an eighteen-month program for budding administrators and faculty leaders involved in Jesuit higher education. I'd spoken earlier that day on pilgrimage and immersion, and I'd spoken about the symmetries between the two: both entail intentional dislocation; both use the body to mentor the soul; both aim at transformation.

But no one had ever asked the obvious question. Until Stephanie.

Happily, she asked it at table and in lively company. Fueled with good wine and fresh garden produce from the working farm that served as our conference center, we came up with the following markers:

1. First, at least at the outset, pilgrimage aims at reaching a sacred center. Initially, it's all about getting there -- and "there" for medieval Christians was Rome, Jerusalem, or Santiago de Compostela. Immersion trips have no destination: it's about encountering people along the way. Of course, I found this true while hiking the Camino to Santiago de Compostela: it was truly anti-climatic reaching the Cathedral in Santiago. What really impressed me were the other pilgrims we'd met.

And maybe that's true of most pilgrimages: after all, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is not really much about Canterbury. It's rather about the pilgrims themselves and their stories.

But no one would have gotten motivated without the lure of destination. Not so with immersion: you go to encounter the people.

2. Then, pilgrimage is undertaken to settle something. Ancient pilgrims could get a plenary indulgence for reaching their destination. That may seem a bit quaint, but in fact most of the pilgrims we met along the road to Santiago were hoping to unburden themselves of something or someone, figure something out, get insight for a new stage in life.

Immersion, in contrast, is deeply unsettling. You come away with more questions than answers -- and that's the point. "Live the questions," German poet Rainer Marie Rilke counsels. Immersion raises some profound ones: how can we as a nation have supported the military regimes of El Salvador and Nicaragua, as they slaughtered their own people? how could we have trained their leaders at our own School of the Americas? The questions haunt us -- and they ought to.

3. Finally, I think both pilgrimage and immersion share a post-modern element: neither pilgrims nor immersants "serve" any purpose whatsoever. "Pilgrims are useless...," the dear Lisa Fullam, friend, fellow-traveler, and collaborator in the whole grant, observed. She went on: "We depend on someone else for just about everything: food, lodging, advice for our blisters, and the medicine to treat them." She was right.

In this, both pilgrims and immersants opt for the receptive, rather than the productive mode. We can't do anything to fix realities our country helped to create in central America.

But one of the women from El Salvador gave the appropriate response: "Tell our stories," she said, "so that people know what really happened."

And so we do, not trying to turn it into a huge overarching meta-narrative, which was the "modern" project. But telling it as we heard it, the story of the woman who as a little girl, left her village in the middle of the night to escape the army, leaving behind her beloved doll. The story of the little girl who returned as a woman to the site of the massacre, still looking for that doll.

So. Maybe this is an appropriate way to mark the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola, celebrated July 31. He tried to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but was turned out of the Holy City because of the threat of invasion. He spent the last two decades of his life in Rome, staying in one place and administering the affairs of the nascent Society of Jesus. Nonetheless, he continued to sign his correspondence, "the Pilgrim."

A pilgrim who stays in one place? But then, it's the perfect post-modern gesture.

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