Pondering Pilgrimage

I just finished listening to the novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2012) and wish I had a paper copy to linger over. Not only did I enjoy it and recommend it to you, but I had so many flashbacks to my own pilgrimage in 2007. Even this year, now 12 years later, I had some revelations of what that journey revealed to me, taught me and inscribed in my soul. Harold Fry’s pilgrimage lay 500 miles across England from south to north, started in hopes of curing cancer in his friend, Queenie. Mine was also 500 miles, but in Spain on the Frances route of the Camino de Santiago, begun in hopes of curing my confused soul, having just resigned as a parish pastor, unsure of church dogma and history. Yet a pilgrimage is a pilgrimage in so many of the ways he described.

There is the compulsion to keep walking. It’s so strange, but once embarked, it’s hard to rest. It’s as if the road pulls you onward, even when tired, discouraged, disillusioned and sore. The simplicity of the day was the practice: Eat, walk, sleep. Eat, walk, sleep. Eat, walk, sleep. As Harold did in the book, we checked our feet often, we began to notice the smallest of things around us, and it seemed that cars were going by us so very fast. We met up with all sorts of people, as did Harold–a woman pushing her newborn baby in a stroller across Spain to be baptized in Santiago, a Japanese couple who spoke no English but always waved at us shyly and cooked their meals over a little stove each night. Two Dutch couples who loved to laugh and smoke cigars, a rich young woman who was the niece of Robert De Niro who was walking to grieve the recent death of her mother, a Brazilian grandmother who was walking it alone to ponder her time of aging, an ancient yellowed priest who made us garlic soup and 4 English women who were out of shape but trudged along and drank whiskey at night to relieve the pain.

Like Harold, I was disoriented, confused and disheartened by the end of the pilgrimage. It hadn’t been what I expected. And in most of the goals of my spiritual pursuit, I failed. I was impatient, worried, anxious, judgmental, angry and doubting much of the time, hastened by the cold and rainy weather that dampened most days of walking. I went with such a virtuous agenda, so much like the familiar plan to be as perfect as I could, kind to others, allowing things to just unfold, going with trust in God, open to enlightenment, not hurrying. But the road wears that ego down, down, down to the point that God can actually take over. I didn’t see that for a long time. But I see it now. It was a turning point when I came face to face with the inadequacy of my egoic attempts to cope. In that deep humility, I also saw so many miracles, synchronicities, and moments of pure beauty.

Like Harold, I was reluctant once we drew close to the end of the 500 mile journey. I was so used to the routine, to the daily ritual of looking for the yellow scallop shells or yellow arrows to guide the way. My soul was soaked in the rhythm of just walking. And maybe I was afraid that I had done this thing I set our to do but I had missed the point. Maybe I wasn’t ready to enter the square of the Santiago Cathedral. Maybe I didn’t deserve this ending. Maybe I had done it all wrong, and if I lingered, I would finally see what it was I seeking.

The morning of the last day of walking was on the church feast day Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit. That was coincidence–was never planned. We only discovered it because other pilgrims began referring to Whitsunday, the English name for the day. Now I can feel the presence of the Spirit so clearly 12 years later on that day. We got only 2-3 hours of sleep the night before due to a church youth group who giggled all night in the hostel. So we gave up and got up at 5:00 a.m. when they did to begin our final day of 34 days of walking.

It was pitch black out and as it would happen, both our flashlights gave out. Scrambling in my bag, I found a tiny LED light someone had given me that fit on a key ring. It was just enough light that we could cast it around and find the yellow signs in the road to point the way. We could only see just as far ahead as the beam of the light. Exhausted and yet exhilarated to see we just had 28 km to go, we walked on in the dark, led by the light. And it was enough.

In the novel, Harold reaches the end of his pilgrimage with questions and exhaustion and certainly not knowing himself the way he once did. His old identity didn’t fit anymore and his old way of being the world seemed meaningless. And yet the pilgrimage ended. And there was grace. Walking into the pilgrim service at the Santiago cathedral that morning of Pentecost, I literally came face to face with the bishop in his tall mitre and flowing gilded robes. The prior High Mass was just ending and the long line of clerics were recessing. He was obviously annoyed by the surge of pilgrims who rushed into the church before they had finished the recession. I didn’t see him in the crowd until it suddenly parted and I bumped into him– and his scowl. In that moment, all the parts of a patriarchal, hierarchical, judgmental church were encapsulated. It was this confusion of love of church, disillusion with church that had propelled me onto the journey. And here at the end, the Spirit brought me into direct confrontation. We looked each other in the eye. And I didn’t apologize. Neither did he.

Moments later, I was swept up in the beauty of the service, the sound of a thousand pilgrims chanting together, the simple service, the feeling of belonging to this sweaty, dirty, smelly group of peregrinos, who stumbled to the end like me. The Church is the church, has been and will be. Imperfect and in need of change, just like me.

In the end of the novel, Harold and his wife are sitting by the sea, looking at the waves hit the shore, finishing their journey as well. My husband and I took a short bus ride to the coast from Santiago to Finisterre–the end of the world–because at one point in Spanish history, it was considered just that. There was only blue water stretching out as far as the eye could see, waves lashing the rocks and spraying us with foam. I was not at peace. But in that moment, I could abide the paradoxes of my faith and live with the questions I still held. That was, and is, enough. I keep walking.


An Inner Advent

At this time of descending darkness toward Winter Solstice, it’s a perfect time for dark dreams. The author, Jan Richardson, calls them Night Visions in her book by the same name. My dream a few days ago was full of Night Visions, shadows and fears, anxiety and frustration. Good fodder for an inner Advent. As Richardson says, “The season of Advent means there is something on the horizon the likes of which we have never seen before.”(xiii)

I am at the airport and my flight is leaving. I suddenly see that I’ve brought the wrong bag and instead of my clothes, it’s full of heavy tools. I’ve lost my purse, and thus my money and my I.D. My eyeglasses are gone and the only ones I can find are ones with an old prescription. The ticket agents are busy laughing among themselves and won’t help me. The flight is called. And the person who has been waiting in the shadows watching all this is my sister who died 30 years ago. She passes me to get on the plane unconcerned. “Don’t worry. You will figure it out.” I wake, so glad it was a dream… but then I enter the dream again. This time I let myself feel the fear and allow myself to stand in the shadows. Expecting the worst, trembling to sew what else may happen, the fear, once met, melts away to my great surprise. I feel it run down my body like thick honey, relaxing my shoulders, easing my heart. Then the strangest thing of all. I turn to look at the entrance to the long hall that will take me to the plane. Security guards in black uniforms are standing on both sides of the check point. But I walk confidently past them and they are unconcerned as well. They do not stop me. The hallway is bright and I am walking freely, my arms swinging, no bags to carry, my heart awake and alive.

Oh Advent, may all this come to me! May my many fears of needing security, keeping my old identity, not wanting to see things anew for the change that will come–may they find rest this season. May all the heavy bags of old guilt and being responsible and on time and the old trying trying trying to be perfect, lay down beside still waters. Restore my soul this Advent, dear season of darkness. Lead me in trust to walk in shadow, not knowing the path ahead. Help me take flight to “the likes of which we have not seen before.” Give me Night Vision, O God. It feels to be my way now.

“We often find ourselves at times in the dark–good or evil or in between of our won or another’s making. Our work is to name the darkness for what it is and to find what it asks of us; whether it is darkness that asks for justice to bring the dawn of hope to a night of terror, or for a candle to give warmth to the shadows, or for companions to hold us in our uncertainty an unknowing, or for a blanket to enfold us as we wait for the darkness to teach us what we need to know.” (Night Visions, p. 3)

Dawn is at 10:03 today. Sunset at 3:39. Eleven days to Solstice. It grows darker–more mysterious, with intriguing invitations to take flight.

Thinking about Thanksgiving

I was asked by a friend who hosts Hometown Alaska to be a guest on her radio talk show regarding the topic of being grateful. As she prepared the show for the week of Thanksgiving, it seemed to her that we live in such partisan, strident, even insulting times — it can seem very hard to have a grateful mindset.  

It is easier to be grateful when things go our way–the medical tests come back negative, a new job offer comes through, a trip goes as planned, an ill loved one gets better, your candidate wins, the weather is great, you get a thoughtful gift from a friend, someone takes you to dinner. It’s an almost natural response to be thankful–and this also builds a relationship between you and another person or what you may understand to be the Source or the Sacred.

What intrigues me now is those individuals that can be truly grateful when things go wrong, get difficult, fall apart. What intrigues me first, is that they can do it at all. Who can be grateful when a child is commits suicide, a divorce happens, a job is lost, an illness lingers, war breaks out? I remember the first time one of my teachers in my spiritual direction training suggested that no matter what, give thanks. My first response was to be insulted! How could he suggest such a thing.

But I respected this teacher and I as I slowly opened my mind to this possibility, I realized two things: one, he wasn’t saying I needed to discount the pain, grief, trauma of a difficult event. But to accept and allow that this was the reality and not reject it. It’s true. This is what is happening. Then, and perhaps in time, begin to see what there is still there to be grateful for, for there always is. A seminary professor said, “God can work for good with anything that happens.” It isn’t a Pollyanna response, because the reality isn’t rejected; yet the reality of gratitude is the antidote, the perspective, the edge on which the choice lies. Because if you are grateful, this coined phrase “attitude of gratitude” will always bring happiness. It is impossible to not in that moment at least to find some peace and resolution, and a kind of happiness. A setting right. And it will also compel us to do what we can the best way we can. The alternative response is at least cynicism, skepticism if not resentment, hopelessness, anger and the most crippling–fear.

  As a young girl, my 2 year old brother had a rare form of cancer in his upper arm. It had to be amputated at the shoulder– and then we were given the bleak prognosis of a 0% chance of his living to his teens. As a 9 year old, any vision I had of a fair world evaporated and my understanding of God was very conflicted. But my mother, in her grief, said gently, “We just have to allow that these things happen and then do our best to have faith.”  When my brother came home from the hospital with his shoulder bandaged where there was once an arm, we all didn’t know what to say at first, but it was time for dinner and as we always did, my mother said, “Bow your heads and fold your hands to pray.”  Then my 2 year old brother said, “I can’t fold my hands.”  There was a brief pregnant pause, then  we all started laughing–that’s just the way it was now. That night we could pray that we were grateful for food and grateful that the family was all back together again at the table. Not grateful for the cancer, but grateful for how the experience brought us closer as family– because my mother allowed what is and stayed grateful. It set my life as seeing we always have a choice–to be bitter and resentful or see what some call the silver lining on any cloud. By the way, my brother is now 60.

I knew of a man once who whenever anyone asked how he was doing, his only reply would be “Thankful.” Living a life of gratitude implies not being in control, but it does always give us a means to live life well. I smile at our greeting of this holiday: Happy Thanksgiving–it’s true in my experience–if we’re giving thanks, we can be happy.