Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Pilgrimage of a Star: Sirius' Wanderings....

The bright star is Sirius, the "Dog Star." It defines the eastern sky in these "dog days" of July and August. Both the Egyptians and the Romans noticed it.

For the Egyptians it meant the Nile was about to rise. For them the "Dog Star" was a watchdog: it told them to move to higher ground.

For the Romans it meant the arrival of the hottest, most humid part of summer. For them the "Dog Star" was a listless, panting pooch: it told them to get out of town. They called the season of Sirius, the "dog days," "dies caniculares." They believed it to be an evil time, and they sacrificed a dog to ward off demons. Then those who could afford it beat a hasty retreat to the mountains or the beach. Centuries later, another Roman put the season into words: "the sea boiled, the wine turned sour, the dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid."

I haven't sunk so deep into the August doldrums not to be up before dawn. Sirius still burns a bright hole in the sky before sunrise. So what is the "Dog Star" telling us?

I'll speak for myself.

Here in Minnesota, at 45 degrees N in latitude, dawn takes its time. If I'm up early, the star commands the eastern sky. I sit in a pool of lamplight and steaming coffee, putting together the morning ritual of reading, writing, and prayer. When I look up, a new light crowds out the Dog Star. Sirius loses luster, less dominant in the eastern sky. Minutes later it vanishes, eclipsed by the rising sun.

By all lights and by any reckoning, the sun is a lesser star. Standing on Sirius, you couldn't even see the sun.

But it's our star, and it rules our days. By the time it rises, Sirius vanishes from view. I regard the star as it dims, flickers, then blinks out entirely. Its departure from the eastern sky marks the beginning of my August workday. With sunrise I head to the river path, the pool, the computer. The List begins; the Day's distractions take over.

Just as the earth turns away from the Dog Star, I turn away from the morning rituals to lean into the day's tasks.

But does Sirius really go away? The Dog Star is always there. True to its nature, the Dog Star remains faithful. It may be temporarily overwhelmed by the brighter light of lesser stars, but Sirius is always there.

And when the earth turns to it again, as it does in these days before dawn, Sirius does not fail us.

A metaphor for the Mystery: when we turn to it, it's there, ever faithful, ever luminous.

So here's the question: what is Sirius telling you?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Evil, ordinary and not: The dark side of pilgrimage

Lest I leave people with the impression that pilgrimage yields pleasure, fitness, and spiritual insight, let me speak to its dark side. There's danger along the way, sometimes even demons -- and I'm not talking about blisters or sunburn or running out of water.

Let me enlist the help of Paulo Coelho and his luminous account of walking the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, "The Pilgrimage" (1987). In 1986, as part of his initiation into a mystical fraternity, Coelho made the pilgrimage to Santiago. Yes, he harvested the gifts above, but he encountered demons, some of them creatures of his own projection, some not. Integrating his account with my own, I want to create a taxonomy of the dark side's inhabitants.

First, there's ordinary: you notice what rents space in your head. You have to: it obscures the beauty of the landscape you're actually walking through; it crowds out companions; it distracts. Eventually, walking makes ordinary evil just one more piece of unnecessary baggage.

Pilgrims leave all extra weight behind, including this. To symbolize the unburdening, they pick up a stone at the beginning of the day, unloading it along the way. As we hiked the Camino, Lisa and I often crested a hill -- only to find ourselves in a valley of such stones, large, small, and stacked like some ancient hieroglyph. This is the best revenge for ordinary rubble: turning it into art.

Another dimension of evil manifests as simply the projection of the pilgrim's deepest fears. Whatever it is, however subtle or not, pilgrims encounter along the way what they most fear. Coelho confesses his fear of water. Accordingly, part of his path took him up the face of a waterfall, calling out physical and spiritual strengths he didn't know he had.

I fear abandonment. When one trek didn't offer the bonding I'd anticipated, I walked for several days in a funk. I scoured bus and train schedules in every major village we passed through, looking for escape. Then, I reset my compass, engaging where I could and making tiny forays into the villages and countryside on my own. I discovered a different kind of bonding that had been there all along. Expecting something else, I'd simply overlooked it. And I now have an intimate acquaintance of a very particular part of the Pyrenees.

Finally, there's a dimension of evil that I'll simply call the abyss. I don't want to linger too long here, lest I fall in. It came to Coelho as a large black dog, threatening his very life. He'd had premonitions of the encounter, which only added to the terror.

But is this last kind of evil a presence? I was talking yesterday with a philosopher friend, Vida Pavesich, who's studied and taught about evil. She argued that evil is a presence, an active force. I side with Christian neo-Platonist philosopher and theologian Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), who believed evil was the absence of the good. A recovering Manichaean, Augustine vehemently rejected a world in which forces of good and evil raged against one another. He denied that evil had any shred of being. Perhaps he protested too much....

But we agreed that Augustine captured a fundamental characteristic of evil: it's parasitic. It feeds off something else: life, love, joy, even competence. Think of the sound of water sluicing down a toilet; think of how draining it is to be around an "emotional vampire." For this reason evil enthralls, ensorcells, engulfs; it drains life out of everything within reach.

Another Christian writer, the apostle Paul, claimed that love is stronger than death. I hope he's right. But is love stronger than evil? I want to say yes. Here love is a political act, and it embraces everything from kindness in the midst of uncharity to the bold decision to on the part of French villagers to hide Jewish families during the Holocaust ("Lest Innocent Blood be Shed," by Philip Hallie).

In her book "The Human Condition," Hannah Arendt identifies the work of love in the public square: the practices of forgiveness and promise-making. Promises hedge against unpredictability, ensuring that we will be tomorrow who we say we are today. Forgiveness shields against irreversibility, calling halt to the juggernaut of vengeance. Yes: love is stronger than death, stronger even than evil.

Err on the side of love.

(The etching is William Blake's illustration of the book of Job: The Satan with Job and his wife.)

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Being a Pilgrim By Staying at Home: The Habit of Attention

Somewhere along the road between Lucca and Rome, my vision changed. It got sharper, clearer – and that’s saying something for someone who had eye surgery at the age of five and spent the rest of childhood in a series of skin-colored eye patches and bifocals. Vision has been both a struggle – and subject of endless fascination.

How could pilgrimage improve such shaky eyesight? Quite simply: I had to pay attention.

Pilgrims walk with eyes wide open. We look for waymarkers to stay the course. In Spain we trained our eyes to notice yellow arrows, which pointed the way forward. In Italy, where the route was less-traveled and more poorly marked, we scoured the landscape for burly brown pilgrims with staff in hand and red banner overhead. Pilgrims pay attention to the path.

We register anything blocking it: the stray rock that could trip us, cars that buzz by at dizzying speeds, a dog untended – and unchained. Pilgrims pay attention to problems.

We notice landscape: the olive groves and vineyards we passed through, the sudden sighting of Lake Bolsena, whose breezes we felt long before we caught sight of its waters, the dome of St. Peter’s as we approached Rome, and always always always: elevation of the road ahead. “The only problem with these damned hill towns,” I remarked at the end of a day as we climbed into one, “is that they’re all on hills....” We’d hiked quite literally “under the Tuscan sun” all day. It beat down on us from above; it radiated up into our faces from white gravel paths and black macadam. The sun stole my energies – and sense of humor. At least temporarily. But pilgrims pay attention to landscape.

We survey the terrain of the spirit. Each town had one. My hiking buddy Tara and I sought it out, hiking around town at the end of even an arduous day. We were trying to figure out, as I put it, “how this place works.” How do they mark their houses? Who lives in them? Where do the men hang out? Where do the women congregate?

We saw lots.

*In Acquapendente we watched a funeral procession filed past, the mourners on foot, the coffin in a slow-moving black hearse. We found three women in a doorway, one crocheting, one waving the flyswatter, one carrying the conversation.

*We sat in the square at Ponte a Cappiano, watching our lingerie flap in breeze of a window in our hostel a block away – literally, on the ponte or bridge across a canal. Tara sketched; I wrote; the town’s youth cheered wildly for the Italians playing in the World Cup; the old men sat at another cafĂ© on the other side of the street, regarding us and our laundry and all the commotion.

*Toward the end of our hike, I stalked the narrow streets of the medieval city, trying to imagine how it might have worked in the 16th century. A medieval fair was in progress, and people brushed past me in all manner of medieval regalia, aiding my imagination.

Pilgrims pay attention to the landscape of the spirit.

Finally, I noticed the inner landscape, where its surfaces were smooth or rough. I noticed where the path had been straight-forward, where it was more circuitous. I regarded the kind and quality of markers, whether yellow arrows or burly pilgrims – or still other pointers. I observed obstacles that had stalled or impeded steady forward motion. Finally, I lifted up the signs that had pointed the way forward: an opportunity that had come my way unbidden, a series of “coincidences” that, under closer inspection, weren’t really random, a desire denied whose fulfilment would have darkened the spirit. Some of these waypoints turned out to be people: I saw their faces more clearly along the way – and gave thanks for their guidance.

Pilgrims pay attention to the landscape of the spirit, and that habit of attention persists, even and especially back home.

Not perfect vision – but vastly improved.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Meeting Madonnas: Virgins along the Way

Lisa and I launched our trek to Santiago de Compostela from a plaza in Pamplona with a mysterious name: the plaza of the Virgen de la O. As we scoured the city, making certain the pilgrim route was not the same as the route for the running of the bulls (!), we searched for the mysterious Virgin. We wanted to ask her: "What does the 'O' stand for?" We left Pamplona without an answer.

We walked for miles considering the possibilities. Was the "O" shorthand for "oest," Spanish for "west," as the plaza did face the setting sun? Could the "O" have been an unrecorded preface to the "Magnificat," which Luke records as the Virgin's response to her impending impregnation?? Might it even register some tiny spark of pleasure that accompanied her pregnancy??? Debating the questions was better than 200 mgs of ibuprofen.

When I got to a computer, I discovered the "Virgen de la O" was a popular icon in the Basque regions of Spain -- where Pamplona resides. She's a pregnant virgin -- we had that much right -- often depicted with a bulging belly, even occasionally a cut-away revealing the baby Jesus in her womb. In my favorite image above, both mother and child raise their hands in similar gestures of blessing.

Indeed, the way to Santiago was blessed -- and populated with other virgins, their gestures frozen in blessing.

This summer's trek also had a virgin: the powerful Madonna di sotto gli Organi, from the Cathedral at Pisa. Once again, we stumbled onto this icon at the beginning of our pilgrimage. Its placement in the cathedral signaled the image commanded great reverence. Medieval piety dictated that the icon be shrouded in no less than seven veils. Was that to protect the image from stray dust, candle smoke, possibly even desecration? Or was that to protect the viewer from the icon's power at closer range? Equally mysterious was the image's origin. Was it stolen from Lucca in a raid in the 13th century, having been discovered in the hands of a servant girl fleeing the city during a Saracen raid in 1016? Or was it picked off in a raid on a Lombrici castle in 1225? No one really knew, and debating those questions had entertained medieval historians across the centuries -- just as the "O" had entertained Lisa and me across the miles.

Regardless of origins, the Madonna portrayed an ancient Byzantine gesture of blessing: she was "Hodegetria," "she who shows the way." This time the baby Jesus has made it outside the womb. With one hand, she holds him; with the other, she gestures toward him. Her hand says: "Here it is. This is the way forward."

It was a wonderful way to begin pilgrimage: accompanied by a Madonna who would show us the way forward.

And, as in the first pilgrimage, we saw other Madonnas along the way: the fabled "black Madonnas," who walked with us in Viterbo and Sutri, the ubiquitous Madonna, Ignatius of Loyola's Madonna della Strada (literally, "Our Lady of the Streets") in Rome, and countless Madonna's della Corona (Queen of Heaven). We walked with the solidarity we needed.

But the question that remained unanswered: What do you do when the way forward is marked by a Person -- not a Map? It's the question of discipleship, and it reaches across centuries. The earliest disciples of Jesus would have far preferred a Map: they could have simply consulted it -- and found the way on their own. Instead, they got a Person. Not just any Person, but one who told them stories without any obvious point, took off without telling them where he was going, and address God with a little too much familiarity.

It's harder to follow a Person than a Map.

We even had trouble following the Maps. I love Maps -- almost as much as I love people -- and I quickly got charged with deciphering.

Along with that, I was christened with the title: "She who shows the way." I wish that made me a good disciples as well, but it got us through the final stretch of pilgrimage in Rome, from the crowds in St. Peter's Square, along the Tiber in rush hour traffic, and to our hotel in the cool reaches of the Aventine.

I'm still working on following the Person....

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Being a Pilgrim by Staying at Home: The Lightness of Being

Being a pilgrim by staying at home? Hiking left me with that impulse. In many and various ways, my feet told me: enough. My heart told me: continue the pilgrimage in everyday life. I returned with a new lightness of both being and backpack.

For three weeks I carried everything I needed on my back. My hiking buddy and I did a major edit before we even got on the plane. One hot morning in Minneapolis, we hiked seven miles along the Mississippi. The air was thick with moisture; we generated a lot more ourselves. We knew every ounce of extra weight would register on the soles of our feet. I went home and interrogated each shirt: "Do I care for you enough to haul you around for three weeks?" At the end of that conversation, I put lots of clothes back in drawers. Everything else, I packed in zip-lock bags, sat on until the air squeezed out, zipped them shut, and loaded them into my pack. I wasn't even carrying extra air.

Along the way, I downsized still further. I prevailed upon my sister-in-law to take home a dress I'd worn to dinners in Cinque Terre, before the hiking began. I picked it up a few weeks later on a swing through the Bay Area. After we started walking, I ditched more stuff that suddenly seemed extraneous. I discarded socks, extra moleskin, the day's readings, pages of the novel I'd finished, sections of the Italian grammar I'd memorized. I fashioned them into a shrine, took a mental snapshot -- and moved on. Without looking back.

And on a different level, I did the same with other burdens: grudges, worries, even a few relationships. I trimmed my gear down to what I wanted to carry.

By the end of the trip, I was traveling with the clothes I hiked in, a change of underwear -- and the one beautiful dress The Girls all agreed we had to wear every night for dinner.

We contracted to carry that one beautiful dress, no matter what.

We promised to praise each other's one beautiful dress at dinner, no matter how many times we'd seen it before.

We vowed to wear that one beautiful dress with the attitude the Italians call "bella figura." Which translates roughly: "I'm here -- and you're lucky."

After all, we were in Italy. Certain canons of fashion apply.

Now, at home, I unpacked everything I brought back with me. Clothes that I'd hand-washed for three weeks went into the washing machine -- for several cycles. The dog-eared itinerary sits on my desk, reminding me of the towns we walked through. Sometimes I say their names aloud, just to taste them. That one beautiful dress went to the dry cleaner's. And I lost the pilgrim credentials that I had stamped in the sacristy at St. Peter's -- or perhaps, they kept on hiking without us.

But I notice the lightness of spirit still, even and maybe especially sitting at my desk at home writing. I've lost weight, physically but also spiritually. That's the aftermath of pilgrimage.

In "Ash Wednesday," T.S. Eliot refers to another pilgrimage one makes by staying in one place, the journey through Lent. It involves similar unburdening.

"Teach us to care and not to care.
Teach us to sit still."