A 500 mile pilgrimage led me to the Cathedral of Santiago (May 11, 2014).
Today is the Feast of St. James, whose tomb in Galicia has drawn countless pilgrims to trek across Spain for 13 centuries. I walked the 500-mile Camino de Santiago in 2014, and this blog began with my dispatches along the way. It was, as every pilgrim will tell you, an indelible experience, and you can read about my own journey in the links below.
It took me 33 days, averaging 15 miles a day, but now you can do it in about 2 minutes.
For tomorrow’s segment of the virtual liturgy streaming on Sundays from our parish during lockdown, I combined images (in sequential order) from my Camino with a pre-COVID recording of the parish choir singing “Seek Ye First.” It seemed a fitting way to honor the saint on his feast day.
The pilgrimage begins with a rainy day in the French Pyrenees, and ends inside the Santiago cathedral with the spectacular censing at the daily “Pilgrims’ Mass.”
The Religious Imagineer is five years old this week. It began during my 500-mile pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in the spring of 2014, with dispatches on miles I walked, things I saw, people I met, thoughts I had.
No great views today, but the summit where France turns to Spain was a brooding cloud of unknowing where we walked by faith not sight. (April 8, the first day)
Crossing the Pyrenees on the first day.
The land through which we pilgrims passed today was painted with a few strong colors: dark green wheat, yellow mustard, blue sky, white clouds. Those four colors filled the eye in every direction, with no lesser hues to dilute the effect. To wander through such a scene was a glorious thing. Whatever else the Camino brings, I will have had this day. As a German woman said as she passed me by, “Cherish every step! Cherish every step!” (April 11)
Pilgrims moving westward from Castrojeriz.
[A 30-second video of my shadow moving along the Camino]: If you want to experience the length of my walk in real time, replay this video 27,000 times. (April 25)
Few trees, big sky, only occasional villages, and long stretches where the only human presence was the long procession of pilgrims migrating westward. The lack of distractions and variations tends to make the very act of walking to be the mind’s principal occupation. As Robert Macfarlane puts it in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, walking becomes “sensational” – it isn’t just conducive to thought, it becomes the form thought takes. I walk, therefore I am. Perhaps it is similar to the way that cinema thinks through the movement of the camera. It isn’t forming propositional thought, but is simply absorbing through its attentive motion the shape of the world, the textures of existence. (April 29)
Fellow pilgrim Edward “Monty” Montgomery enters San Juan de Ortega on Good Friday.
There are many along this road who began it as a form of athletic challenge or youthful adventure or unusual vacation. And many will finish it that way. But in talking with those who profess no religious intention, or who are dismissive of Christianity as something they outgrew, I still hear the spiritual language of pilgrimage breaking through the verities of secularism. One has lost a job and is trying to discern a meaningful alternative. Another is trying to listen to her life from a place of unknowing. Another has no answer to the question of why he is walking, but still presses on to Santiago. To borrow a phrase from the great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, every pilgrim is trying to arrive at a place we know not by following a way which we know not. (May 1)
Halfway to Santiago, a Camino friend was feeling some pain and discouragement on a particularly demanding stretch. But then he saw a handwritten sign: “Don’t give up before the miracle.” (May 7)
But can I, having now trod 478 miles in 31 days, really claim any kind of illumination or transformation as a result? I still get annoyed by the loud and incessant talkers who mar the tranquility, I still get angry when a speeding truck comes close to knocking me into a ditch. I have yet to perfect the pilgrim equanimity urged by my guidebook, which sees every irritation as the sand that produces the pearl. But at least I try to make these things part of my walking prayer. As the monks say of life in the monastery, “We fall down and get up, fall down and get up …” (May 9)
This morning I performed the final Camino ritual: climbing the stairs behind the altar to hug the gleaming metal effigy of Santiago. Despite the cool hardness of the sculpture, it was strangely comforting. I whispered in the saint’s ear: “Thank you for the beautiful voyage.” (May 12)
Statue of St. James behind the high altar, Cathedral of Santiago.
After I reached Camino’s ultimate end in Muxia, on the western shore of northern Spain, my blog just kept on going, continuing its own pilgrimage to God knows where, reporting as it goes. I have written about theology, spirituality, liturgy, poetry, the arts, cinema, music, politics, culture, nature, seasons, time, death and resurrection. My topics––and my influences––may be eclectic, but I trust my Christian faith and Anglican temperament to lend some coherence to these verbal wanderings.
In that spirit, I borrowed my blog’s subtitle from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “Where the fire and the rose are one.” This union of contraries––passion and tenderness, danger and beauty, wild instability and serene form––draws upon Dante’s imagery in the Commedia. Fire is purgation, divine light and the flame of love. The rose, perhaps inspired by the rose window of an Italian cathedral, images the heavenly city, containing a multitude of saints within its harmonizing circle. Dante unites flame and flower in his image of the Virgin, whose “womb relit the flame of love––/ its heat has made this blossom seed / and flower in eternal peace” (Par. xxxiii.7-9). In the unfolding future of God’s not-yet, the fire and the rose will indeed be one.
Gustave Dore, The Celestial Rose in Dante’s Paradise (1868)
In The Religious Imagineer’s first five years, there have been 237 posts, 61,913 visitors and 92,870 views. My ten most viewed posts so far have been:
1) The ten best Jesus movies(Jan. 6, 2015)–– I have taught Jesus movies for years, and find cinematic gospels, despite (or because of?) their flaws, to be fascinating case studies for questions of biblical representation and interpretation, as well as Christology.
2) Members of the same body? A post-election homily(Nov. 10, 2016) –– “Can we truly delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, labor and suffer together? In one of the darkest moments in American history, this is the work we have been given to do.”
3) Ten ways to keep a holy Advent(Dec. 6, 2014) –– Interrupting, Silencing, Waiting, Listening, Watching, Praying, Reflecting, Loving, Giving, Receiving.
4) A deep but dazzling darkness(Aug. 25, 2017) –– My account of the 2017 eclipse, seen through the lens of mystical theology, continues to find readers almost every day. It has been viewed on more total days than any other post.
5) You can never go fast enough(Sept. 9, 2014) –– This mix of classic cars, road trips, nostalgia and eschatology got a huge amount of traffic when it became a WordPress editors’ pick.
7) Dreaming the church that wants to be(Oct. 7, 2015) –– Eleven Christian artists gathered for 10 days in Venice to imagine a rebirth of wonder among God’s friends. This prologue, and the several posts that followed it, emerged from that quest.
8) The ten best religious films(Oct. 8, 2014) –– “Most of these films refuse the usual manipulations and excitements of mass cinema, and demand a contemplative mind. Transcendental style can be as rigorous as prayer.”
9) The spirituality of running(Aug. 4, 2016) –– A subject dear to my runner’s heart. “What we do with our bodies manifests and expresses inner states, the sacred ground of our being. But bodily practices can also induceinner states. How we move, how we sit, how we breathe, can all make a difference in our spiritual life. Inner and outer are intertwined and interactive. We pray in, with, through our bodies.”
10) Hospital for the soul(April 24, 2014) –– One of my earliest posts concerns a house of hospitality where pilgrims find momentary respite from the Camino’s onward rush. “Everyone is welcome here,” I was told, “but it’s not for everyone. Many people hurry along the Camino who show little interest in the work of the soul.”
Of the top ten, three are on spiritual practice, three are about movies, three are about widely shared experiences (the Camino, the eclipse, and our current political “time of trial”). And three include a number in the title, always a hit with the search engines!
I am grateful to you, dear readers, for joining me in this journey of words and thoughts over the past five years. I deeply appreciate your attentive reading and supportive comments. And if you would like to help me expand the reach of this writing ministry by sharing your favorite posts now and then (share buttons are at the bottom of individual posts), that would be an awesome anniversary gift!
And now, as we say on the Camino, “Ultreia!” (“Let’s go further!”). In the days to come, I will always strive to be worthy of your time.
The beauty of the world is the mouth of a labyrinth. . . If [the pilgrim] does not lose courage, if he goes on walking, it is absolutely certain that he will arrive at the center of the labyrinth. And there God is waiting to eat him.
– Simone Weil
I’m sitting on a terrace overlooking a river in France. Late summer blooms sway in the gentle breeze. The trees resound with birdsong. Back home, my country is in turmoil. What a week to be away!
The stakes are high in the U.S., and I celebrate the rising of the women and the trembling of the patriarchy. But to be unplugged for a time need not be escape, but renewal. As the Dordogne rolls on placidly below me, I think of a line from William Stafford:
What the river says,
that is what I say.
Dordogne River, La Roque Gageac.
It’s a vacation. And yet, the book here on the table under the umbrella is Robert Coles’ Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage. A reflection on the life and thought of the uncompromising French thinker and radical believer, whose posthumous influence has been so profound, is bound to put the placidity of a pleasant afternoon into question. What is one to do with a voice that says so matter-of-factly, “Salvation is consenting to die”?
Crucifxion, Abbey of Saint Foy, Conques.
Weil’s life was rooted in renunciation, whether it was rejecting the career path of a brilliant thinker or refusing proper nourishment when she was dying in hospital. “For God to be born is renunciation,” she wrote. “The birth of Christ is already a sacrifice. Christmas ought to be as sad a day as Good Friday.”
That may not be a winning sentiment for church growth, but Weil insisted that the life of faith demands no less than everything. Her image of God waiting to eat us is certainly unsettling. Nevertheless, she believed, it’s all about surrender:
“We must give up everything which is not grace, and not even desire grace.”
Isaiah, priory church of Souillac (12th century)
I did bring some lighter reading as well on this journey, but Weil has been an insistent companion. She will not be ignored. Her rigorous ideas, not just conceived but inhabited, beg the question, “So what are you doing with your life? Are you holding anything back?”
As I’ve read Coles’ book, I’ve discovered that some of the places visited on this trip were associated with Weil: Auxerre and Le Puy, where she taught, the Ardeche region where she worked on a farm, and the garden at her college in Paris, where her fellow students, intimidated by her philosophical brilliance, called her “the Categorical Imperative in skirts.”
So I suppose I’m on a Weil pilgrimage by accident. We’ll see where it leads.
Chapel of St. Michel-d’Aiguille, Le Puy.
My itinerary also coincides with the Camino de Santiago, visiting three of the four starting points for the French portion of that great pilgrimage: Paris, Le Puy, and Arles (Vezelay is the fourth).
I walked a 70-mile segment of the French “Way of St. James” in 2010, and all 500 miles of the “Camino Frances” culminating in northwest Spain in 2014 (you can read about the latter here and here).
Blessing of pilgrims on Le Chemin de Saint-Jacques, Cathedral of Le Puy
When I watched a band of joyful pilgrims set out last week from Le Puy after being blessed at the cathedral mass, I felt a little wistful to be only a tourist sightseeing by car. I felt a pull to join them. But then I remembered that for the desiring heart, the pilgrimage never ends.
Pilgrimage is the image Coles used for the all-to-brief life of Simone Weil, which ended at 34 in 1943, a bleak and violent year when, in Weil’s words, “it took a special person to be hopeful.” In our own dark and foolish time, Coles’ summation has particular resonance:
Hers was a modern pilgrimage; she entertained all our assumptions, presumptions, and anticipations – her journey is ours. She experienced, in the few years she knew among us, our buoyancy, our optimism, and soon enough, our terrible discouragement and melancholy. She saw Pandora’s box open, revealing its cheap tricks, its deceptions. She saw clear skies cloud up overnight. She saw all the castles we have built in the skies; she entered them, took their measure, and left with tears or anger, bitterness. In the end only one sight was left for her eyes; in the end, that modern pilgrimage so swiftly concluded, she looked upward, affirmed unflinchingly her last hope, the hope of heaven – and died, one suspects glad it last, glad to be hurrying home, to be with God…
For once I stood
In the white windy presence of eternity.
–– Eunice Tietjens, “The Most-Sacred Mountain”
For most of European history, people found little pleasure in mountain landscapes. Mountains were a nuisance––obstacles to travel and economically unproductive. And they had little value as scenery. Their artless, irregular shapes disturbed classical ideals of order. Christians of the Middle Ages would allegorize the chaos of wild wastes and broken stones as the unsightly rubbish of a fallen world––the postlapsarian antithesis of Eden’s gentle and harmonious garden. As late as the eighteenth century, travelers crossing the Alps drew the curtains of their carriages to prevent any upsetting glimpses of geological chaos.
Yet the theological mind has long been lured by the sacredness of mountains––the places where earth dares to reach for heaven, and the solidity of matter converses with clouds. Their alien, forbidding environment evokes the mysterium tremendum, that dangerous energy “beyond our apprehension and comprehension, not only because our knowledge has certain irremovable limits, but because in it we come upon something inherently ‘wholly other,’ whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb.” [i]
Dante and Virgil as the foot of Mount Purgatory (after a 14th century illumination)
Dante’s Purgatorio provides the supreme western model of physical ascent as transformative spiritual pilgrimage. Its seven-story mountain offers neither picturesque scenery nor recreational adventure. It’s no place for the casual or careless visitor. It exists only as a rigorous ordeal of purgation and rebirth. Such mountains are best avoided unless you want to change your life.
In contrast, Dante’s Italian contemporary, Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) left us a rare record of medieval mountain walking as an appreciative outing unburdened by excessive meaning. When he ascended Provence’s Mount Ventoux in the spring of 1336, he became “the first to climb a mountain for its own sake, and to enjoy the view from the top.” [ii] That may be a slight exaggeration, but Petrarch’s enthusiastic write-up of his day-hike does feel closer to Wordsworth than to Dante. He took pleasure in the nearness of drifting clouds and the distant vistas of snowy Alps and the Mediterranean blue.
Petrarch remained medieval when he reflected on the allegorical dimensions of his walk. “What thou hast repeatedly experienced to-day in the ascent of this mountain,” he told himself, “happens to thee, as to many, in the journey toward the blessed life.” And when he opened the copy of Augustine’s Confessions he always carried with him, the passage that caught his eye made him worry whether he had been enjoying the creation more than its Creator. If only he had brought Mary Oliver instead!
But still, the Italian humanist couldn’t really renounce the pleasure of that walk. “My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer,” he wrote. Centuries would pass before it became common practice to climb mountains simply because they are there, and embrace the experience as an invigorating challenge. [iii]
North Cascades National Park (Photo by Jim Friedrich)
In Anglican theologian Thomas Burnet’s response to the Alps in 1671, we can foresee the emergence of a more modern sensibility. But it didn’t come easily. Still deeply imprinted with Europe’s cultural aversion to mountains as the “ruins of a broken earth” and “a dead heap of rubbish,” Burnet was appalled by the Alps’ “ghastliness,” disorder, deformity and lack of symmetrical balance. They threatened his understanding of God as the Great Architect whose glory shone in Creation’s meticulous design. “I was not easy,” he confessed, “till I could give my self some tolerable Account how that Confusion came in Nature.” [iv] But at the same time, he was unable to dismiss the Alps’ emotional impact.
Marjorie Hope Nicolson, in her classic study of the “aesthetics of the infinite,” describes the drama of Burnet’s fierce struggle between head and heart:
“Whenever we look among his passages on wild nature, we find conflict between intellectual condemnation of asymmetry and emotional response to the attraction of the vast. . . If Burnet could not forgive Nature for her confusion, he could not deny the effect of her vastness. . . The emotions he felt among the Alps were enthusiastic, primitive, and violent and as such repellent to a disciple of Reason.” [v]
Burnet tried to resolve his inner conflict by writing The Sacred Theory of the Earth (1684), blaming Creation’s visual disarray on the Flood––and the human sin that caused it. The post-diluvian mess of mountains and other wastelands was therefore no failure of intelligent design. The Divine Architect was off the hook. Neat, but I suspect that the unnerving wildness of the Alps continued to haunt Burnet’s dreams.
North Cascades National Park (Photo by Jim Friedrich)
By the eighteenth century, such lingering resistance to the sublime began to collapse. When poet Thomas Gray toured the Alps in 1739, he looked upon the same “magnificent rudeness” which had so disturbed Burnet, but he fell for it utterly. “You here meet with all the beauties so savage and horrid a place can present you with,” he wrote in his journal. Rocks, cascades, ancient forests “all concur to form one of the most poetical scenes imaginable.” [vi]
As if the ancient curse had been forever lifted, the mountains would become for nature lovers like John Muir an inexhaustible source of joy and blessing. “Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days,” he wrote about his beloved Sierra in 1911, “inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.” [vii]
But if the mountains can bring such joy, has their wild otherness been forever tamed? Those who climb say otherwise. My friend Robert Leonard Reid, an experienced mountaineer and one of my favorite writers, sees engagement with the high country as inherently spiritual:
“No sport that I know of has spawned a literature as introspective, as probing, or ultimately as religious as mountaineering. The sport causes climbers to experience unimaginable hardships and then, at the ends of their ropes, to plumb their souls for meaning. They emerge from their excursions to the edge of unknowing with insights into their spiritual natures that transcend the possibilities of mere sport. The literature is replete with tales of magic and mystery, of wild humor and terrible sadness and loss and then rebirth––all integral to the practice of climbing, all the result of protracted contact with the unseeable.” [viii]
Dante carried upward in a dream to Purgatory’s gate. (Gustave Dore)
I fell in love with mountains as a boy on family vacations at Fallen Leaf Lake in California’s Sierra Nevada range. There’s a 10,000’ peak above the lake, and the steep scramble to its summit was one of my favorite adventures. I’ve rambled the high country ever since, including Mt. Agazziz (13,899’), Mt. Rainier (14,411’), and Mt. Whitney (14,505’).
I am drawn to the way mountains mean. I sometimes carry a copy of Purgatorio in my backpack. It’s a perfect guide for the pilgrim who seeks “the mountain where Justice tries our souls” (Purg.iii.3). And a holy mountain was the subject of my first film as writer/director. It was a Pilgrim’s Progress ascending through a series of obstacles, ordeals, distractions and temptations. As the climber nears the summit, a suave Satanic figure urges him to be reasonable and admit the folly of his spiritual ascent. In our disenchanted world, what does the search matter when there’s nothing really to find? [ix]
“The mountain of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb,” said Gregory of Nyssa.[x] He used the word epiktasis (“straining forward to what lies ahead”) to describe the goal of human life, in this world and the next, as the endless pursuit of God’s inexhaustible mystery. Never knowing what’s beyond us is the life of faith. It’s why we keep climbing.
When Moses summited Mount Sinai, he disappeared into the Cloud of Unknowing, the dazzling darkness of divine mystery. Whatever happened to the Hebrew prophet up there, the mountain itself became a foundational archetype for every spiritual ascent. The Arabic name for Mount Sinai is Jebel Musa, “Moses’ mountain.” Although not the tallest of the region’s peaks, its volcanic mass, “rearing its giant brow above the plain, as if in scornful contemplation of the world beneath,” proved a persuasive indicator of its biblical authenticity. [xi] Two millennia of Christian pilgrimage have further burnished its sanctity.
An English pilgrim’s description of its “savage grandeur” in 1885 speaks the language of the serious mountaineer: “The whole aspect of the surroundings impresses one with the conviction that he is here gazing on the face of Nature under one of her most savage forms, in view of which the idea of solitude, of waste, and of desolation connect with those of awe and admiration.” [xii]
There are more difficult ascents, but none more serious. St. Stephen, a 6thcentury monk at Sinai’s monastery of St. Catherine, would stand at the “Shrive Gate” where the 3000-step Stairway of Repentance began, posing to every aspiring climber the challenge of Psalm 24:
Who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in God’s holy place?
You needed to make the correct response if you wanted to set foot on the holy mountain:
Those who have clean hands, and a pure heart, who have not lifted up their soul to vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. They shall receive blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of their salvation. [xiii]
I climbed Mt. Sinai in 1989, reciting the Jesus Prayer as my tired legs slogged up the final 750 steps: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” At the summit, I celebrated Holy Eucharist with a community of Anglican and Catholic pilgrims. I also managed to drop my binoculars off a precipitous ledge. I had to laugh at this unwilled offering to the mountain. Their untimely end seemed a fitting metaphor for the mystic’s loss of natural sight in the presence of the holy
When I climbed Mt. Whitney nine years later, there would be a sudden burst of sunshine to brighten the cloud-shadowed summit, followed quickly by lightning and snow. But Mount Sinai provided no comparable display of power and might. Whatever the mountain of God wanted to tell me, it whispered in an unknown tongue. When I returned to the world below, this is what I set down in my journal:
Egeria, that talkative 4th century pilgrim to the Holy Land, is strangely mute about her experience on Mount Sinai. “Now that we had done all we wanted,” she wrote, “and climbed the summit of the mountain of God, we began the descent.” We have to wonder: what happened to her at the top? We long for a more eloquent reporter, perhaps a John of the Cross, who could write of his own spiritual progress,
“The steeper upward that I flew on so vertiginous a quest, the humbler and more lowly grew my spirit, fainting in my breast.”
And what did I experience at the summit? Hmm––Egeria was right. You can’t talk about it. Whatever I felt is irrelevant. The mountain is not about me; it pays no attention to my comings and goings. And whether such sublime indifference is a matter of annihilation or splendor is the question over which faith hangs suspended. [xiv]
Perhaps silence is the best homage we can offer our holy mountains. What is most valuable can never be possessed. What is most real can never be fully seen. Louis Golding makes the point perfectly in his 1937 account, “I Stood Upon Sinai”:
“I found I had got to the top of Gebel Musa, a grand mountain commanding grand views, but not to the top of Mount Sinai. For the Holy Mountain is a spiritual, not a physical experience. Few men have ever reached the summit, and few will get there again. Perhaps it is only when the Mountain is veiled round with impenetrable cloud, that the Mountain begins to be visible at all.” [xv]
[viii]Robert Leonard Reid, “The Mountain of Love and Death” in Mountains of the Great Blue Dream(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991), 15-16. Reid’s writing about the high country is full of wit and wonder. His latest collection of writings, Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West,just came out in paperback.
[ix]Ignatz(1972) is not currently available, but I’m working on it. I took the protagonist’s name from the mouse in Krazy Kat comics, with a simultaneous nod to Ignatian spirituality and the German term for a holy fool. The blockhead game played by the man in black references Death’s chess game in Bergman’s Seventh Seal.
[x]Life of Mosesii.46, in Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 106.
[xi]Edward Palmer in 1871, q. in Mount Sinai, Joseph J. Hobbs (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 100.
St. Anthony the Abbot in the Wilderness (Osservanza Master, Siena, c. 1435)
The desert can be tomb and cradle, wasteland and garden, death and resurrection, hell and heaven. Thus in the desert you will find that God is simultaneously present and absent, proximate and remote, visible and invisible, manifest and hidden. He can receive you with great tenderness and then abandon you on the cross of loneliness. He consoles you and torments you at the same time. He heals you only to wound you again. He may speak to you today and ignore you tomorrow.
In American Nomads, my recent reviiew of Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland, I applied the term “ascetics” to the motorized wanderers who have left behind the oppressive futility of a dysfunctional society to seek a freedom and authenticity seemingly unattainable within the rigged game of economic inequality. Although most of those contemporary nomads might take issue with the religious connotations of the word, I believe that any intentional exodus “away from here” is inevitably a quest for the redemptive space of a Promised Land. Its refusals and renunciations are the necessary first steps toward new being.
In popular usage, asceticism conjures images of bodily self-mortification, like sleeping on a bed of nails, for the sake of a purely spiritual goal. Such a limiting caricature reflects an unfortunate dualism of body and soul. But the term comes from the Greek word for athletic training, and is best understood as a wholistic practice in which everything which comprises the human person—body and soul, heart and mind, inner psyche and outer world—is fully engaged in a committed discipline of patterned living.
Asceticism is not solely a matter of giving old things up; it also involves taking on things that are new. Lenten discipline, for example, involves the addition of deeper spiritual practices and loving actions, and not merely the common subtractions of culinary pleasures and worldly amusements. More prayer and more justice, not just less chocolate.
But even the embrace of positive actions or behaviors involves the renunciation of obstacles, distractions and hindrances which impede or resist the ascetic’s goal. And since we are social beings, both formed and deformed by the worlds we inhabit, it is not always enough to work on ourselves within the confines of the given world. To borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens, we sometimes need to “exit the whole Shebang.”
And from the biblical Exodus to the “vandwelling” nomads fleeing the enslaving fleshpots of America, the exit always leads to the desert: the no-where beyond the reach of the social imaginary, the silence beyond the captivity of language, the trackless waste where all our constructions turn to dust. As I wrote in Via Negativa:
The desert is the emptiness where there’s no place to hide. In the desert, you come face to face with yourself, your demons, and your God. Nothing is defined there, nothing known in advance. Your scripts are no good in the desert. Your evasions are futile. Whatever makes you want to turn around and run back to the safety of your old illusions is the very thing that is trying to kill you.
We could all use some time in the desert, whether it’s Jesus’ 40 days or the Israelites’ 40 years. But whenever we step outside the noise of our social and personal fictions, the silence is going to wound us with questions. Who am I really, when my familiar props, costumes and stories are stripped away, leaving me naked and alone on an empty stage? Do I have what Salinger’s Franny Glass called “the courage to be an absolute nobody?”
Even the great desert saints of Late Antiquity trembled on the brink of so much nothingness. As Belden C. Lane writes in his indispensable guide to wilderness spirituality, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:
“What they fled with greatest fear was not the external world, but the world they carried inside themselves: an ego-centeredness needing constant approval, driven by compulsive behavior, frantic in its effort to attend to a self-image that always required mending.” [ii]
The desert way is threatening and fierce, but it is also a place of transformative clarity, as mystics and artists continue to remind us. Indifferent to the old scripts of alienation and inauthenticity, it can be the birthplace of a new way of being human. Video artist Bill Viola describes the lure of the desert issuing from the spiritual desire for true and undistorted existence:
“I want to go to a place that seems like it’s at the end of the world. A vantage point from which one can stand and peer out into the void – the world beyond… There is nothing to lean on. No references… You finally realize that the void is yourself. It is like some huge mirror for your mind. Clear and uncluttered, it is the opposite of our urban distractive spaces. Out here, the unbound mind can run free. Imagination reigns. Space becomes a projection screen. Inside becomes outside. You can see what you are.” [iii]
Of course, the desert can be anywhere. Alassandro Pronzato, one of my favorite desert teachers, describes it as an essentially inward condition:
“You can find your desert in a corner of your house, on a motorway, in a square, in a crowded street. But you must first renounce the slavery of illusions, refuse the blackmail of pressure, resist the glitter of appearances, repudiate the domination of activity, reject the dictatorship of hypocrisy. Then the desert becomes a place where you do not go out to see the sand blowing in the wind but the Spirit waiting to make his dwelling within you.” [iv]
The desert is no place for the casual tourist. It is a pilgrimage of arduous passage, demanding time, patience, endurance and persistence. “You do not settle there, you pass through. One then ventures on to these tracks because one is driven by the Spirit towards the Promised Land. But it is only promised to those who are able to chew sand for forty years without doubting their invitation to the feast in the end.” [v]
Chewing sand for forty years—not the best sales pitch for the pilgrimage to God. But all the easy roads just lead back to Egypt. Endure the trials, bless the oases. Persist. Never turn back.
I took the photograph in California’s Alabama Hills, where I have run among wildflowers and slept beneath the stars. The mountain peak on the right is Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states. I climbed it in 1998.
If I forget my past, Facebook will remind me, popping up a past post for any given date. Today’s memory is a photo and blog link from May 10, 2014, the day before I completed my 500-mile pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. I began writing this blog on that journey, and while I try not to repeat myself, I will mark this anniversary by re-posting my blog from that day. If you are curious to read about my next day’s arrival in Santiago, you can find that here. And all my Camino posts may be found in the April and May archives for 2014. If any of you are inspired to walk the Camino yourselves, I say yes, do not hesitate. You will be blessed.
Songs to Sing and Tales to Tell (May 10, 2014)
And when my journey’s finally over,
when rest and peace upon me lie,
high o’er the roads
where we once traveled,
silently there my mind will fly.
– “Parting Friends”
This is one of the many shape note songs I sang along the Camino. I also sang hymns for Holy Week and Easter, made every tunnel and underpass echo with Kyries and Alleluias, and on a few evenings when a guitar got passed around in a hostel, taught choruses from Steve Earle’s “Pilgrim” (“we’ll meet again on some bright highway, songs to sing and tales to tell”) and Tom Russell’s “Guadalupe” (“I am the least of all your pilgrims here, but I am most in need of hope”). And several times a day I would break out with “Dum pater familias,” the medieval Latin song for St. James that rallied the spirits of the pilgrims who sang it as they walked. Prior to headphones, singing was an important part of the pilgrimage experience – shared voices imprinting the path with songlines.
On my penultimate day, the words of “Parting Friends” are especially apt. My mind indeed flies back over the roads I’ve traveled and the people I’ve met. Previous posts have mentioned some of these, but let me record three more who have embodied for me the spirit of the Camino.
The first is Janine, the hospitalera who welcomed me and six other pilgrims to a humble albergue in Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, a village lost in the vast Meseta like a small boat adrift at sea. In a place forgotten by time and history, this grandmotherly woman provided the most exquisite hospitality, as if we were her own family. The next morning, she saw me off with a blessing. Pointing to her “corazon” and mine, she indicated that we were connected. Then she made a walking motion with her fingers and said, “Buen Camino.” She repeated this touching ritual with each of us. Like saints of old doing good in lonely outposts for no earthly reward, she simply existed to love the stranger.
Then there is Tomas, who has occupied a tiny abandoned village in the mountains near the Camino’s highest point and created, in an eclectic assemblage of flags, signs, sculptures and makeshift structures akin to outsider art, a haven for pilgrims seeking a tranquil respite by day, one of his 35 mattresses by night, or shelter from the storm anytime it’s needed. Whenever he sees a pilgrim approaching, he rings a temple bell to greet and bless them. If a cloud covers the mountain with fog and darkness, he rings the bell to guide lost pilgrims to his safe haven. This is his life: to live as a hermit in order to serve the pilgrim.
Finally, on a shady trail through a eucalyptus grove yesterday, I saw a young man kneeling in the dust to pray before a wayside cross. I don’t know his name or his story, but the evident depth of his devotion reminded me how serious a matter the Camino can be.
And now I am at the outer edge of Santiago, in a quiet albergue with very few occupants. Most pilgrims who get this far simply continue on to the great cathedral less than an hour’s walk from here. But I didn’t want to drag myself to the finish late in the day, wearied and worn by ten miles of walking. I want to arrive fresh and renewed, to finish my Camino in the light of the rising sun on the day of Resurrection. So like Jacob of old, who camped just short of his destination in order to collect himself for the morrow’s big encounter, I shall rest and reflect and – who knows? – maybe wrestle with angels till daybreak.
It is not commended to stand ‘gazing up into heaven’ too long; not on Christ himself ascending, much less on his star. For [the Magi] sat not still gazing on the star. Their vidimus begat venimus; their seeing made them come, come a great journey.
— Lancelot Andrewes, sermon for Christmas Day, 1622[i]
When T. S. Eliot wrote his great Epiphany poem, “Journey of the Magi,”[ii] he borrowed freely from a Nativity sermon preached in 1622 by the English bishop, Lancelot Andrewes:
A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter.’
Andrewes, who oversaw the translation of the King James Bible, had a gift for elegantly expressive language, and Eliot altered the original only slightly to make the first lines of his poem:
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
The liturgical and theological focus of today’s Feast of the Epiphany is the universal reach of the Light of the World. The three Magi, coming from faraway places to do homage to the Christ Child, signify that whatever was revealed in Bethlehem was not confined to a single culture, language, or tradition. The babe in the manger would ultimately spark recognition in every longing heart.
But Eliot’s particular focus is on the psychology and spirituality of the Magi themselves, or at least the one whose voice speaks the poem. He recites the complaints common to pilgrims: bad roads, bad weather, bad food, unpleasant companions, inhospitable strangers, and the homesick yearning for one’s own bed. He wonders whether the journey might be ‘all folly.’
The bleak desert crossing resounds with haunting echoes of The Waste Land, heightening the relief we feel when the traveler finally comes to “a temperate valley … smelling of vegetation.” But instead of the sweet, unblemished beatitude of a Nativity scene, the Magus is baffled by a series of disparate sights whose meanings are still in the future: vine branches, empty wine-skins, pieces of silver, three trees on a hill, the pale horse of the Apocalypse.
As for the actual moment of arrival, of seeing the long-sought Epiphany, it is described with the utmost reticence, as though words must fail before such a mystery:
… it was (you may say) satisfactory.
Then what? The Magi go back home, to the world they knew,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
Whatever Bethlehem had shown them, nothing in their lives would ever, could ever, be the same. This holy Birth had also brought a kind of death: the ‘old dispensation,’ whatever the Magi had settled for up to now, could no longer stand. The world of the past – erring, broken, lost, in love with the wrong thing – was being swept away. Behold, I make all things new.
In Andrewes’ 1622 sermon, he played nicely upon the Latin verbs for having seen (vidimus) and having come (venimus). What the Magi saw made them come. ‘Their vidimus begat venimus.’ But in our own day, says the preacher, we are apt to hold ourselves back, and resist the journey of transformation:
And we, what should we have done? Sure these men of the East will rise in judgment against the men of the West, that is with us, and their faith against ours in this point. . . . Our fashion is to see and see again before we stir a foot, specially if it be to the worship of Christ. Come such a journey at such a time? No; but fairly have put it off to the spring of the year, till the days longer, and the ways fairer, and the weather warmer, till better travelling to Christ. Our Epiphany would sure have fallen in Easter week at the soonest.
I am well acquainted with such spiritual procrastination. It is a practice not so easy to shed. We do prefer our comfort zones. Or as Andrewes put it, ‘We love to make no great haste.’
And yet, despite our best evasions, there may come a time when we find ourselves on a strange and arduous journey into that Place where everything is changed. Whether we choose the journey, or the journey chooses us, doesn’t really matter. In either case, once we have encountered the Epiphany, we will be ‘no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.’
Katholikon of the Holy Monastery of St. John the Theologian
I, John … was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice saying, ‘Write in a book what you see …’ (Rev. 1:9-11)
Patmos is one of the smaller Dodecanese Islands, a grueling 8-hour middle-of-the-night ferry ride east of Athens. It has gorgeous bays and quiet beaches, superb mountain views, charming villages and, at least not in summer’s high season, a tranquil predominance of locals over tourists. The outsiders I have met are themselves “regulars,” returning again and again because they love it. Yesterday a man from the Netherlands told me this was his 23rd straight year of month-long visits.
Patmos is also a place of pilgrimage, where St. John the Theologian (or “the Divine,” as we say in the western church), fell into a swoon and saw things which have intrigued, puzzled, disturbed and inspired readers ever since. The Book of Revelation has, regretfully, provided horrific weapons of mass destruction for hellfire preachers, but it is also the source for many sublime hymns and prayers in my own Anglican tradition.
Most scholars think that the book’s author is not the same person who wrote the Fourth Gospel. Language, style and themes are too different in the two works. But “tradition” has always preferred to link the Galilean fisherman “whom Jesus loved” with both the mystical composer of the Fourth Gospel and the visionary exiled to Patmos. It exemplifies the arc of discipleship as potentially a long, strange trip. As we sang in a hymn at my own ordination years ago, “the peace of God, it is no peace … Young John, who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless in Patmos died; Peter, who hauled the teeming net, headdown was crucified.”
So the Christian can’t come to Patmos and simply lie on the beach or relax in the taverna. The Holy Monastery of St. John the Theologian beckons from the high ridge above the port. Its dark-hued fortress of lion-colored stone makes somber contrast with the whitewashed village around it, as if to say that the ascent of this hill is serious business.
The monastery rises above the village of Chora.
If you rise early, you can experience the awesome richness of the monastery’s Katholikon (main church) in solitude. The brilliant wall paintings, recently cleaned, immerse you in holy images. Along with the intricately carved iconostasis, hanging oil lamps, and numerous icons, they effect a ceaseless engagement of the eye. Some might find this distracting for prayer, but for me the sense that there is always more than I can take in – the visual inexhaustibility of Orthodox interiors – can lead to a kind of surrender, overwhelming and transcending the subjectivity of my own thoughts and perceptions. Here is Mystery. Give over to it. Lose yourself in it.
The monastery museum holds an eclectic assortment of treasures, including a 6th century gospel book, a 1499 Venetian collection of Aristophanes’ comedies, a 6th century BC bust of Dionysus (god of wine and ecstasy), the largest Orthodox collection of 5th-6th century Coptic textiles, preserved by the dryness of Egyptian tombs, and a police blotter in Arabic from the late 15th century, when Byzantine territories had fallen under Muslim control (“The Cadi [Judge] of the Palace is ordered to find three Patmians who were kidnapped by pirates.”).
Below the monastery, halfway up the hill from the sea, is the Cave of the Apocalypse. Here, according to tradition, John lay on the stone floor for several days while the vision unfolded. The cave is not large, but the insertion of a wooden iconostasis into its contours, along with icons and hanging lamps, has made it a compelling place for worship, prayer and veneration. John’s private ecstasy has been reimagined through specific features of the cave. Here is the cleft from which the Voice spoke. Here is the corner when he laid his head to rest between revelations. Here are the fissures where the Trinitarian God divided the rock into three parts with an earthquake.
Literal belief in the details of the cave’s legends is not required to make the site holy. It is holy because centuries of believers have given a particular kind of attention here to a Reality which yearns to make itself known in the innermost heart, for which a sheltering, enclosing cave is a tangible, sensory analogy.
Another mystical theologian, St. Bonaventure, said, “When you pray, gather up your whole self, enter with your Beloved into the chamber of your heart, and there remain alone with your Beloved, forgetting all exterior concerns.” The Cave, for the attentive, can mirror the chamber of the heart.
I entered it three times during my week here. The first time was the Sunday liturgy, full of incense and chanting voices. It was beautiful, but I had no revelations, or even deep feelings. God was present, but I was a bit absent. I was tired from a long, sleepless ferry ride. And I knew that whatever the Cave offered was not a tourist experience you can just walk in and collect.
So I went back a few days later. The voices I heard then were those of tour guides. Most just reeled off the legends uncritically as if they were prosaic facts. Here this and that happened, blah blah blah, now let’s go back to the bus. But one guide, a Greek woman speaking both in English and German, really got into it.
“People think that the Book of Revelation is about judgment and punishment. That is there, of course, but by the time you get to Chapter 21, you find what it is really about: a new world, a new heaven, a new earth, where we will be with God, and God with us.
“John’s message is trying to wake us up, to make us see that we are all one because God is with us and in us. Our original condition of oneness will be restored in the end. We lost that unity in the beginning because we had free will, and we chose to have our own experience, and forgot our connection with one another.
“If a bomb falls on someone in Syria, we think, ‘Thank God that didn’t happen to me.’ But what happens to others happens to all of us. John is trying to wake us up to this. And when he talks about the destruction of the earth, we have to think about how much closer we ourselves are to bringing that about today, unless we remember what we were made for and what we are a part of.”
When I thanked her afterward for her ‘preaching,’ she said, “I want to tell people what they don’t know, what they don’t hear in the schools, what the priests won’t tell you.” She was pretty sour on the institutional church. “I was baptized Greek Orthodox. I believe in Christ and the power of the sacraments, but I don’t belong to any church. I’m kind of a revolutionary.” I asked her name. “Vera,” she said. “Like veritas– the truth.”
This morning, my last on Patmos, I returned to the Cave for a third time. Two cantors and a priest were chanting the Divine Liturgy. I was the only other person present. This time, the spirit of prayer came easily, like a morning breeze. I received no visions, heard no voices except the beautiful earthly ones I stood among. But it was more than enough. When the priest handed out the holy bread at the end, I was aware of my outsider status as non-Orthodox. But the priest, who had the face of a Baroque Apostle, turned to me with a slight nod. And so I ate the bread of heaven, and departed well satisfied.
This spring I find my mind often returning to the Camino de Santiago. A year ago today I began my tenth day of walking: 140 miles down, 360 to go. But by then I had stopped counting. It was better – and less tiring – to be in the moment, to “cherish every step” as one pilgrim advised me early on.
When I run long distance, or backpack up a steep mountain pass, I try to apply the mindfulness of Zen walking. Don’t think about some other time, in the past or the future, when you are in a more comfortable state of rest. And stop wondering how far you have left to go. Simply be here now. Concentrate your attention on the physical act of lifting your foot, swinging it forward, setting it down. Take note of your breath. It’s not about forgetting the pain so much as accepting your present state of being-in-motion, not wishing you were doing something less strenuous or challenging.
When you walk ten to twenty miles day after day for over a month, this kind of attention becomes more automatic. Walking becomes what you do and who you are. As I wrote in one of my Camino posts, “Walking”:
The past week was spent traversing the immense agricultural plateau of the Meseta and Tierra de Campos. Few trees, big sky, only occasional villages, and long stretches where the only human presence was the long procession of pilgrims migrating westward. The lack of distractions and variations tends to make the very act of walking to be the mind’s principal occupation. As Robert Macfarlane puts it in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, walking becomes “sensational” – it isn’t just conducive to thought; it becomes the form thought takes. I walk, therefore I am. Perhaps it is similar to the way that cinema thinks through the movement of the camera. It isn’t forming propositional thought, but is simply absorbing through its attentive motion the shape of the world, the textures of existence.
I have noticed that I have fewer thoughts out here than I do at home when I run for an hour, or go on a week-long backpack. On the Camino, instead of a lot of thoughts, I simply have thought: not so much words or ideas as awareness. As Thich Nhat Hanh once put it to a walking companion who asked what he was thinking about: “I’m not thinking about anything. I’m aware of the sunlight.”
Macfarlane provides a memorable image of walking as a form of writing on the earth, with every traveler leaving his or her own imprint of dreams, stories and memories as they go. Centuries of pilgrims have been leaving such traces along the Camino, traces which now lie beneath our own feet every step of the Way.
The brief video clip records my shadow and footsteps leaving their faint traces: on the Meseta west of Burgos, on the 13th century bridge of Puente de Orbigo, and among the blooming shrubs of the Alto Predela, a high ridge west of Villafranca. I hope these few steps bring back happy memories for my fellow pilgrims. And for those who want to experience our cumulative act of walking in real time, just replay the 80-second video 11,000 times!
To walk [somewhere] is to earn it, through laboriousness and through the transformation that comes during a journey … We are eternally perplexed by how to move toward forgiveness or healing or truth, but we know how to walk from here to there, however arduous the journey…. In pilgrimage, the journey is radiant with hope … geography has become spiritualized. – Rebecca Solnit[i]
Henry David Thoreau, reflecting on the verb “to saunter,” suggested two possible word origins. Sans terre, meaning “without land or a home,” describes those who are perpetually on the road, literally or metaphorically. Sainte Terre, meaning “Holy Land,” was applied in the Middle Ages to pilgrims with a specific destination, on their way to the place where the Sacred has uniquely showed itself. Anyone who has been on pilgrimage, or who understands life itself to be one great pilgrimage, would acknowledge both meanings at work in their own sauntering.
As the Bible says, we are all “strangers and aliens on this earth,” ever “in search of a homeland.”[ii] The first humans exiled from Eden; Abraham called to abandon country, home and kindred; the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness; the displaced Israelites weeping by the rivers of Babylon; Jesus having no place to lay his head; Paul continuously on the move or on the run: so many biblical stories display an abiding sense of being on the way to God knows where.
The actual place of arrival often remains beyond the horizon and over the rainbow – distant, unknown, unattained, not here, not yet. The Dark Age Celtic monks adopted this biblical outlook in their own far flung travels. Setting out on wild seas in little rudderless boats, they entrusted their journey to the (providential) vagaries of wind and currents. They had no idea where they would finally land. They simply set out “away from here” and left the rest to God.
I once told a fellow priest what I had read about those monks, and he liked their example so much he tried preaching about them to an upscale congregation of economically empowered people enjoying a high degree of control their own lives. They hated his sermon. Those crazy Celts, consenting to be swept away by larger, unpredictable forces, made them very uncomfortable.
But the monks, like their ancestors in the faith, were never headed for nowhere in particular. They were always looking for the Promised Land, wherever and whenever that might be for them. The last book of the Bible calls this place the new Jerusalem, a new heaven and a new earth, paradise restored. The Celtic wanderers called it “the place of resurrection.”
It is the place we were made for. We’ll know it when we get there. As Frederick Buechner famously describes it, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[iii] This sense of ultimate destination and purpose, however indeterminate in time or space, made those seafaring monks more than sans terre. They were Sainte-Terrers as well, Holy-Landers bound for glory.
And so are we all. Even though Thoreau claimed to have met “but one or two persons” in his life who had a “genius” for sauntering, his exhortation to the “faint-hearted” majority expresses the hope that we may all hear – and obey – the call to pilgrimage.
We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return – prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, – if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.[iv]
I keep a walking stick by our front door as a perpetual reminder that the pilgrimage road always begins just outside the house. For years it was a pine branch I first used to traverse the Sierra Nevada mountains of California in 1976. Now it is the sturdy staff I acquired last April in St. Jean Pied-de-Port for my 500-mile pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago (dispatches from that journey may be found in this blog’s April and May archives).
In Lord of the Rings, Bilbo Baggins began his fateful journey out of the Shire with a song: “The Road goes ever on and on, / Down from the door where it began … Until it joins some larger way / Where many paths and errands meet. / And whither then? I cannot say.”[v] But Bilbo already knew the risks of setting out into the unknown and unfamiliar: “It’s dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door.” But he went anyway. It’s what pilgrims do. To refuse the journey is to refuse our story.
We may not always know where the road leads or what will happen along the way. But with the best and longest journeys, that kind of knowledge can fade to insignificance. For every saunterer, the road itself, with its perpetual motion “away from here” toward the land of promise, provides a greater sense of belonging than whatever we left behind. I walk, therefore I am. As Catherine of Siena put it, “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, ‘I am the Way.’”
For many years I worked with a wonderful storyteller, Angela Lloyd, on creative variations of the Exodus narrative performed at the Easter Vigil liturgy. And one year she played an Israelite who was starting to wonder how long they would have to wander before they finally arrived at the place God had prepared for them. She pulled out a battered postcard and held it up. “I’ve been carrying this postcard a long time,” she said, “I was planning to mail it when we got to the Promised Land. But now I think I should just mail it from here. And you know, maybe it doesn’t matter where I mail it from. Maybe everywhere we stand is already holy ground.”
[i] Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (NY: Viking Penguin, 2000) 50