Backpacking with the Saints (Part 1)

Sky Top Creek carries glacial meltwater from Montana’s highest peak.

I am going to allure her, and bring her into the wilderness,
where I will speak tenderly to her heart.

–– Hosea 2:14

We all need to get away––beyond the noise of history and culture, the deafening roar of the social imaginary, the insistent obsessions of the constructed self, the blinding glare of the familiar. We all need to go into the wild. But the exodus “away from here” is not merely escape. It is also quest. We lose in order to find.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers knew that the trouble with wilderness is that you risk meeting God there. That’s exactly why they went. Celtic monks put to sea in rudderless boats, surrendering personal control to the unpredictable wildness of wind and tides. Only a power beyond themselves could show them the way to an unmapped reality. John Muir had to disappear into California’s Sierra Nevada to find a “church” commensurate with his praises. True pilgrimage always takes us away from here. And even should we return, we will be somebody else.

Belden C. Lane, an American theologian and scholar, writes about the deep connections between geography and spirituality. Landscapes of the Sacred (1988) examines the “spirit of place” in various American religious movements and traditions. The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (1998) focuses on the physical and spiritual extremes of desert and mountain. Backpacking with the Saints (2015) draws on his personal outdoor adventures to explore “wilderness hiking as a spiritual practice.” His most recent book, The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul (2019), models the vital and necessary dialogue between the human soul and all the voices of creation.

Believing that transformative works are best read in transformative places, Lane always throws a spiritual classic in his backpack before setting out. In my own 49 years of backpacking, I too have taken other voices along, and Backpacking with the Saints, drawing on a variety of wisdom teachers from St. Columba and John of the Cross to Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh, has been my choice for a number of backcountry walks, including a recent week in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana. Even though it’s only available in hardback (1 pound!), its abundant riches are worth the extra weight.

In each chapter, Lane links a personal wilderness experience to the life and writings of a particular saint. Whether a venture into the wild produces fear or wonder, discouragement or exhilaration, joy or grief, the saints know what he is going through. But the holy teachers are not always consoling. Sometimes Lane feels the reproof in their words, which can “slap me upside the head as may be required.”

After an introduction to the virtues of walking, reading and being in places of silence, solitude and natural beauty, Backpacking explores the fourfold pattern of wilderness spirituality: Departure, Discipline, Descent, and Delight.

Badger Pass Trail, Banff National Park, Canada (2012).

1) Departure (Leaving the trailhead)

The call to venture out may come from dissatisfaction: something is wrong, or something is missing. Or its source may be a hunger for mystery, a thirst for renewal. “The mountains are calling and I must go,” said John Muir. But getting out of the house (or routine, or to-do list) can be the hardest part. I keep a walking stick by the front door to remind me that the path is always waiting just outside. But the gravitational pull of the safe and familiar is a strong force. Sometimes a great leap is required.

Lane draws on the Celtic wanderers to help him out the door and into the wild. “Well does the Fair Lord show us a course, a path,” they said. The Sufi poet Hafiz employed a more violent image: “Love wants to reach out and manhandle us, breaking all our teacup talk of God. . . It wants to drag you by the hair and rip from your grip all the toys in the world that bring you no joy.” Whether the leaving is gentle or wrenching, there’s a lot of letting go and leaving behind, if one is to travel light and venture far.

But once you are on your way, disillusionment will greet you sooner or later. You’re not the hero you imagined. You make mistakes. You get tired. Romantic illusions crash and burn. There are no shortcuts. As the mountaineers warn, ““It’s always farther than it looks. It’s always taller than it looks. And it’s always harder than it looks.”

Lower Aero Lake and Mt. Villard, Beartooth Mountains, Montana.

Feeling strangely vulnerable in the “vast loneliness” of a Wyoming peak after dark, hemmed in by the impenetrable shadows of a place where humans don’t belong, Lane had the sensation of being watched, of being exposed to a dread he couldn’t name. “[M]y image as professor, spiritual seeker, and self-styled ‘wilderness backpacker’ counted for nothing.” I’ve had similar experiences out in the lost and lonely places. Nature doesn’t always smile back.

Lane found comfort in Thérèse of Lisieux, the “warrior saint” whose desire for spiritual greatness was tempered by an acceptance of her own littleness. In the last months of her short life, her characteristic lightness gave way to desolation. “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into. . . the night of utter nothingness! I feel no joy. I sing only of what I wish to believe.” But Thérèse’s dark night of abandonment was where she became best acquainted with divine mercy.

Once disillusionment has stripped us of grandiosity, we can begin to examine our desire. The first step is to release our attachment to all the “unmet desires of the past,” that insatiable “yearning that lingers in unhealed wounds.” Just as the forests act as a sink for carbon emissions, the “quiet presence” of trees is also “able to receive whatever we need to release in terms of misspent passion.”

Born into a family shadowed by disappointments, failures, betrayals, abandonment, alcoholism, sexual abuse and suicide, Lane’s testimony to wilderness healing is authentic and moving.

“We hike into wilderness with the accumulated desires of the past. We carry our own twisted longings and those of our parents, our lovers, and our children as well. We’re the ‘walking wounded,’ battle-scarred by desires we’ve carried throughout our lives. More than once I’ve lugged a wounded father on my back up Rockpile Mountain. Father and mother wounds are handed down to us, filled with frustrated desires we still try to satisfy.”

Over time, Lane says, he has been able “to release these wounds back into the wilds. I let them go, like injured animals. . . It’s not far wrong to think of our wounds as creatures who’ve wandered into our lives from out in the wilds. Doing so gives them the respect they deserve. It also allows us to identify ourselves as separate from them.” And once we do that, our deepest desire––for the one true thing worth having––begins to speak.

Pink monkey flowers along Sky Top Creek.

2) Discipline (The practice of the wild)

Just like the Christian life, it is possible to drift unchanged through a wilderness walk. You may enjoy it, or learn from it, and still return pretty much the same as when you left. If you want to invite a deeper transformation, the saints would encourage you to practice certain disciplines: solitude, simplicity, and mindfulness.

Kierkegaard is Lane’s saint of solitude. The 19th-century Danish theologian refused to be part of the herd. He sharply criticized both church and culture, and was ridiculed and scorned in return. He even broke his engagement to the love of his life, choosing “to stand like a lonely pine tree” for the rest of his life. But his personal solitude produced the existentialist understanding of Christian faith as no collective generality, but a specifically personal risk––demanding no less than everything.

Solitude, in its freedom from external forces and the need for approval, makes space for our truest self to emerge. “I want to be the person that I am when I’m alone in wilderness,” says Lane. At the same time, solitude can remove the hindrances to a deeper communion with the mystery of God and the interconnectedness of creation––“the common life that binds our separate solitudes into one.”

Traveling light is the second essential discipline in the wild. “The only indispensable item I pack is a capacity for amazement,” Lane writes. As a hiker who carries more than one book, journal, camera, binoculars, bear canister, tent, sleeping bag, rain suit, cooking gear and a few extra treats beyond the basic meals, I have yet to attain ultra-lightness. I have, however, trimmed 2 inches from the end of my toothbrush as well as the white space from the edges of my maps.

Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations Secretary-General whose profound inner life was unknown to the world until his spiritual testament, Markings, was discovered after his untimely death. As a powerful and famous world figure, he wrestled with both self-importance and despair. But his mountain hikes, and his writings, helped him to release those burdens.

“To be free,” he wrote, “is to be able to stand up and leave everything behind––without looking back––to say ‘Yes’ to whatever comes.”

Traveling light not only means to leave behind burdens, hindrances and negativities. It also means to renounce expectations and outcomes. I’ve met walkers on the Camino de Santiago and the Pacific Crest Trail who were in such a hurry to accomplish the journey that they missed exquisite moments of Now along the way. And perhaps we could even renounce language––stop naming and labeling what we see, receiving everything in its indescribable fullness. As Hammarskjöld put it, “In the point of rest at the center of our being, we encounter a world where all things are at rest. . . Then a tree becomes a mystery, a cloud a revelation.”

The third discipline in Lane’s wilderness praxisis mindfulness, “a rigorous practice of welcoming the moment, whatever it brings.” Be present to the presences around you. Don’t let your feet take a walk without you. Receive the bird’s song, cloud’s shadow, wildflower colors, sunlight on your skin, wind in the pines, the steepness of the trail––all the gifts of the moment––as they happen. Do not grasp, but “catch and release.”

“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle,” says Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. “But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth.” Whenever I climb a steep trail, I try not to think of how hard it is, or how far I have to go. I simply attend to the act of lifting my foot, swinging my leg, lowering my foot, step by step. If I am fully present to these actions, I am free from longing for a future state of rest.

Walk “as if you are kissing the earth with your feet,” Hanh says. Mindfulness is the best form of reverence. And it is also the key to perfect presence. In the words of an old Celtic prayer,

May I arrive at every place I enter.

In my next two posts, I’ll cover Lane’s final two pillars of wilderness spirituality: Descent (When the trail gets rough) and Delight (Returning home with gifts). But for now, I leave you with my favorite story from Backpacking with the Saints.

In the chapter on desire, the saint is Thomas Traherne, a 17th-century Anglican metaphysical poet whose Centuries of Meditations celebrates unbounded desire and delight. “You must Want like God,” he urged, “that you may be satisfied like God.” For Traherne, enjoyment of God and God’s world was not a matter of feelings, occasional and intermittent like gusts of wind. They were chosen practices, a form of faithful participation in divine delight.

“Your enjoyment of the world, is never right, until every morning you awake in Heaven. . . You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars. . . Yet further, you never enjoy the world aright, till you so love the beauty of enjoying it, that you are covetous and earnest to persuade others to enjoy it.” (Centuries I: 28-31)

When Lane tossed Centuries into his pack for a Good Friday overnight in the St. Francois Mountains of southeast Missouri, he was not in the best of moods. Out of sorts physically (a tiring trail, empty stomach, headache and sleeplessness), stressed by thoughts of work and family, and feeling the Holy Week darkness of crucifixion and tomb, he “grudgingly read Traherne by candlelight,” as if daring the poet to cheer him up.

The next morning, his body felt better, but his soul was bored, restless, fraught with “all the unsatisfied longings of the past.” Still, he resumed his reading of Centuries, on a sloping rock at the edge of a “shimmering pool.” Traherne reminded him that those who “put off felicity with long delays are to be much suspected.” It was like a resurrection summons to Lane’s buried heart.

Sky Top Creek on my last night in the Beartooths.

“He was urging that I give myself to Joy,” Lane says. “To embrace what he called felicity despite a world of endlessly unmet needs.” His mind stubbornly resisted the call, but his body could not. He found himself pulling off shoes and clothes. But in his haste, he failed to notice the precarious balance of the book on the sloping rock.

“To my horror, the university library’s copy of the Clarendon Press edition of Traherne’s Centuries began sliding down the rock and into the water ahead of me! As if the author and his book were crying out, “HERE’S how it’s done!! THIS is what felicity looks like!! Wheeeeeeee, follow me!!” And so I did, screaming as I hit the ice-cold water, grabbing the book before it sank out of sight.”

Lane spent the next hour naked on that rock, sponging the book cover to cover with his T-shirt: “I imagined Traherne laughing with me on every page.”

 

 

Most quotations, either by Belden C. Lane or the saints cited, are from Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice (Oxford University Press, 2015)

All photographs are by Jim Friedrich. Except for the the Canadian Rockies trail, they were all taken last month on my backpack in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains. 

Related posts: 

Solitude (Part 1)

Solitude (Part 2)

Ultreia!

Camino de Santiago, west of Pamplona.

 

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.

6) 7 spiritual practices: a to-do list for the time of trial (Nov. 18, 2016) –– This brief guide to engaging the powers of darkness without losing our own souls remains all too relevant.

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!

If you want to explore further in these writings, enter a subject in the Search box, such as “Cinema,” “Nature,” “Liturgy and worship,” or “Imagination,” and you will find a range of selections. Or as we enter Holy Week, you might try “What Shall We Preach on Easter Sunday?” (currently featured in the April 10 issue of The Christian Century) or “Just a dream?­­––Reflections on the Easter Vigil.”

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 author at Camino’s end in Muxia.

All photographs by Jim Friedrich

Reading in France

Dormitory, Abbey of Senanque.

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…

Dordogne River, La Roque-Gageac.

 

All photos by Jim Friedrich

The Village That Should Be

Morris dancers lead “Lord of the Dance” at the Puget Sound Christmas Revels (Photo: Puget Sound Revels)

“Everyone who ends up going to the Revels and loving it wants to say to the people who missed it, ‘You have got to see this!’ They don’t sit their friends down and try to explain this amazing thing. They just want them to experience it. And that’s why we all want to take people who haven’t been before. That’s why I started the Revels in Puget Sound. I wanted people to feel it, right to their core, because that’s where it ultimately touches us, and all the talking in the world about what is a Revels and what isn’t, or you’ll like this about it or this is how it’s woven together – it isn’t the same as experiencing it. What I do say to people is: it’s not a concert, it’s not a play, it’s a kaleidoscope of music and dance and drama that all create a sense of a celebrating community.”

–   Mary Lynn, Puget Sound Revels

 

Imagine yourself in a village square or a great hall in a culture where the community gathers every December to contradict the dark and the cold with high-spirited celebrations of life, warmth, and hope for renewal. Tuneful voices are raised to “joy, health, love and peace.” Dancers circle and leap their defiance of winter’s immobilizing spell. Playful mummers depict the dying of the old and the rising of the new. As you watch and listen, you find your own deepest impulses awakened and expressed, and before you know it, you too are singing and dancing along with everyone else.

Such elemental festivity is nearly impossible in the United States, where ritual traditions have been so fragmented, thinned and trivialized, and communal public life verges on extinction. But the Christmas Revels returns us to that celebrating village, that magically inclusive hall where the songs are sung and the dances are danced and the shadow of death is turned into morning.

When the late John Langstaff staged the first Christmas Revels in New York City in 1957, he was trying to recapture and share the communal joy of the caroling parties given by his music-loving family during his childhood. As he later wrote:

“My love of the carols and traditional music I grew up with eventually broadened into a fascination with folk material of every sort – rituals, music, dancing and drama. All have become essential elements in Revels. Revels’ focus on active audience involvement grew out of those same roots, and especially out of my awareness that few things bond people as powerfully as singing together.”

In 1971, Langstaff began to make the Revels an annual event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and over the years it has spread to nine other American communities on the West and East coasts as well as Texas and Colorado. Here in the Northwest, the Christmas Revels has been celebrated in both Puget Sound and Portland since 1994.

Each local Revels group chooses its particular theme for the year. It might be medieval, Celtic, American (Appalachian, African-American, Shaker), Scandinavian, Victorian, or the Italian Renaissance.. At the local Revels I’ll be attending this week at Tacoma’s Rialto Theater near Seattle, the subject will be the storied pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago.

The Christmas Revels always imagines a world better than the one we know, where high and low, rich and poor, find the distinctions between them blurred or even subverted, as the commonness of a shared humanity blends strangers and adversaries into a harmonious whole. This vision of true community is implicit in the way that all classes, ages and types of people sing and dance together. But it is also revealed in the gentle mocking of anything that divides us. A king might learn wisdom from the lowly fool, or the rich might discover the poverty of their isolation from a world of sharing.

Such bridging of divides can be more than fictional. I remember a California Revels in 1990, at the end of the Cold War. Toward the close of the evening, an ensemble of Russian dancers joined hands with the American cast for a circle dance during the Shaker hymn, “I Will Bow and Be Simple.” I noted the rapt attention of the young children around me in the audience, and it struck me that the very first fact they were learning about Russians was that they were people who danced with us.

Traditional celebrations usually contain an element of chaos and “misrule,” unleashing the energies from which new possibilities are born. In sword dances, mummer’s plays, and traditional dances and games, the Revels are deeply playful. But even as you are entertained, you are reminded of your mortality––and your longing.

Solstice rituals have always included mock battles, where a symbolic figure dies and rises again, like the earth in its seasons or the sun in its celestial journey. No matter how comic, these contests speak powerfully to our own anxieties when the dark and the cold are upon us.

In one production, during the feasting and celebration of a medieval court, the king was confronted by an intruder. It was Death, in the form of a giant puppet made of dark translucent gauze. The antagonists crossed swords, and the king was defeated. Only the lowly royal Fool remained as the last line of defense between Life and Oblivion.

Following the King’s death, the Fool entered to find the royal throne occupied by a motionless skeleton. After some tentative stabs at interaction, the Fool took the skeleton in his arms and danced around the stage with it. The daring incongruity of this image was quite funny, but it was also breathtaking––life winning after all, not with weapons but with dancing. “I am the Dance and I still go on.”

Finally, the Fool danced into the wings with the skeleton, and when he returned, he carried the skull in his palm as a trophy, and Death’s disjointed bones were now harmless playthings held by the laughing children who followed after.

“Revels came out of human community in a way we all can feel,” says Mary Lynn, founder and producer of the Puget Sound Revels. “It came out of celebration, it came out of mourning, it came out of birth and death and hope, it came out of all the things that are part of our lives. No matter how different ‘the village’ is, we face all those things, in every time and place.”

Although the confrontation with darkness and death is a pivotal point in every Revels, allowing us ritually to release our anxieties about human fate in a time of darkness, the overall tone of a Revels is the very opposite of somber. Good cheer rules every performance. A fluid spectacle of characters, costumes and staging engages both mind and sense. The energy of dancers and mummers is irrepressible and often hilarious. And the music is the heart of Revels magic. Spanning a wide range of seasonal songs and instrumentals, it is always beautifully performed.

Sometimes there are stunning solo voices in a Revels performance, like Appalachian balladeer Jean Ritchie, or the Irish “sean-nos” singer Sean Williams. But the essence of Revels lies in the choruses of adults and children, whose harmonious diversity of voices images the very nature of community.

The audience is always invited to enter that community––not just as witnesses, but as participants. Singing is the principal bridge between spectators and cast. Everyone joins in on familiar carols and “Dona Nobis Pacem,” and the Revels finale is a stirring mass rendition of the “Sussex Mummers’ Carol,” whose lyrics pour seasonal blessing on everything in sight.

The miracle of Revels is that for a couple of hours an audience of strangers believe themselves to be part of something larger than their atomized private realities. They are ushered into a world of wonders, nourished by the food of human community, and sent back into the streets with smiling faces.

As Mary Lynn observes, Revels does something special to those who come: “Revels is about community, and feeling a part of that village on stage.” She is quick to point out that it’s not the village we live in now, nor is it a village from an idealized past. It’s a ritualized image of a human future, with the power to attract us toward a truer embodiment of community. “It’s the village that should be,” she says. “And at some point, you find yourself invited into that village, onto the stage.”

This point comes at the end of the first half of every Revels. A singer intones Sydney Carter’s song, “Lord of the Dance,” as white-clad Morris dancers, with their bells and red handkerchiefs, leap and dance around him. Meanwhile, other cast members move among the audience, inviting them to leave their seats for a line dance that goes up and down the aisles and spirals around the stage, as all repeat the chorus,

Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

It’s a moment that many of us live for each year. For a few minutes, cast and audience are utterly one, dancing, dancing, wherever we may be. My sister Marilyn, who introduced me to the Revels many years ago, always races downstairs from her balcony seat at the California Revels in order to join the dancers moving toward the stage. There are so many people on their feet for the dance, you never know if you’ll reach the stage before the music ends. Marilyn always calls me later to report on the success of her quest. “I wondered whether I would make it to the stage this year, now that I’m 80,” she told me yesterday. “But I did it!”

Susan Cooper wrote a poem called “The Shortest Day,” recited at every Revels. She imagines all the generations who preceded us, burning their “beseeching fires all night long to keep the year alive.” She hears their joyful voices echoing down from their time into ours:

All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!

Because the Revels are so unique, they are hard to describe. Most of the already initiated don’t even try. They merely tell their friends to trust them and come along. “You just have to experience it!” is the common cry. It’s like trying to tell someone what it’s like to be in love.

Debbie Birkey, a publicist for the Puget Sound event, moved and performed in local folk music circles for years without ever hearing of Revels. In the late nineties her husband took her to her first performance, and it was a revelation. “It’s incredible that I was here in Tacoma and this fabulous thing was going on and I didn’t know about it,” she says. “Then we came to the Revels and after about five minutes of being swept away, I turned to my husband and said, ‘These are my people!’ And it’s just swept me up ever since. So I’ve been in about eight or nine shows, and then I started helping with publicity. Here is this amazing thing going on in Tacoma and people don’t know about it, and I can’t imagine why that is. So I feel that it’s my mission to change that.”

Revels seems to inspire this kind of fervor. A typical audience will include some who were drawn by the publicity, but the majority are either loyal regulars who come year after year, or first-timers who have been dragged there by friends, because Revels is something you want to give to everyone you love.

Sharing Revels can be an obsession, and I myself confess to it. 2017 will mark my twenty-ninth Revels (10 in Oakland, 19 in Tacoma). I never go without bringing others along. And this year, as always, we will join hearts and hands and voices with all the other revelers, no longer strangers in “the village that should be.”

 

 

 

The Puget Sound Revels, focusing on the Camino de Santiago, has two remaining performances at the Rialto Theater in Tacoma, WA: December 19 & 20 at 7:30 p.m. While some of the nationwide Revels have completed their run, you can still get to performances in Portland (OR), Santa Barbara (CA) and Boulder (CO). For a list of all ten Revels sites: https://www.revels.org/revels-nationwide/

A version of this piece originally appeared in Victory Review, a Northwest folk music journal, in 2005.

Border crossing

An hour before the 1960’s ended, I left a noisy party in L.A. and headed for the ocean, craving some solitude where I could reflect on a memorable and formative decade before it passed. I drove into a large asphalt lot next to the beach, parking in a pool of light beneath a street lamp. There were no other cars around. The surf broke faintly in the blackness beyond the sand. Just before midnight I would walk out far enough to peer beyond the waves into the horizonless dark and wait for the future to roll on in. But for the moment, I propped my journal against the steering wheel and began to write.

I wasn’t alone for long. After about twenty minutes, a police car pulled up beside me. The patrolman got out and walked over to my window. He asked me whether I had heard of the Zodiac serial killer, who had been terrorizing northern California for the past year. Police were on statewide alert, and a single male, parked alone in a deserted spot around midnight, had aroused his suspicion. He wanted to know what I was doing there. I told him I was journaling. He asked, politely, if he could take a look. Instead of asserting my First Amendment rights, I was delighted to have found a reader! I handed over my notebook, and he began to murmur aloud from the first entry, written months earlier when the Clyde Beatty–Cole Brothers Circus came to Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The magic of that circus – a tent of wonders suddenly erected in an empty field, only to disappear and move on the next day – had been, for those of us doing campus ministry at an Episcopal coffeehouse, a vision of the Kingdom of God. It arrived with little advance warning, defied the dominant order of gravity, hierarchy and death, then moved on to somewhere else before we could possess it for ourselves.

And so it was that on a bare asphalt stage at the edge of the sea at the end of the Sixties, a policeman performed aloud my whimsical musings on a day at the circus:

And those still endowed with the gift of longing caught another glimpse of the darkness and the dance. But the kingdom is not yet … The circus priests of pain and laughter remain on the other side, though for a day and a night they seemed near enough to touch.

These were not, in his judgment, the ravings of a serial killer, so he wished me ‘Happy New Year’ and departed in peace.

That surreal night comes to mind because I now find myself at the end of another sixties – my own. Tomorrow I turn 70. That seems officially old in a way that 65 did not. Of course I don’t feel old in the way my younger self once imagined life’s third act to be. “Old age isn’t for sissies,” my mother and her friends would joke in their nineties, as they struggled bravely with failing bodies. But I’m not there yet. No one rises to give me their seat on a crowded bus. I can walk 500 miles in a month. My work isn’t done. I am not tired of life.

But “70” feels like a border crossing, though the change may not be immediately apparent. When you travel Highway 5 from California into Oregon, the rainy land of evergreens is still far up the road. The dark green oaks scattered across the arid grasslands of southern Oregon look just like the landscape in your rearview mirror. It’s easy to imagine that you haven’t really gone anywhere. But somewhere up the road it will finally hit you: you aren’t in California anymore.

It still seems premature to brood on mortality. The question posed by one’s seventies (at least while good health lasts) is not so much about death as it is about time. How much time do I have left? How shall I spend it?

“Have you lived here all your life?” asks the Arkansas traveler in the old folk song. “Not yet,” the farmer replies. Exactly. My story is not yet done. But the number of pages preceding “the bookmark of Now” are far greater than the ones remaining. As always happens when the unread portion of a novel shrinks to a fraction of an inch, I wonder how much incident can possibly be crammed into the remaining pages. How will the author tie up all the loose ends in so brief a space?

I could panic over the ceaseless erosion of future; I could rue my wasted past. Or I could just keep on walking (as in this video from my Camino), thankful for a refulgent sun and fruitful earth, mindful of the privilege, for a time, of casting one’s own shadow upon this sweet old world.

The end of the world

[Note to my readers: many thanks for joining me in this journey. I am so appreciative of all the good and supportive comments you have contributed along the way. I wish I could have made individual replies, but the nature of the Camino made necessary some limitation to my online time. And if you have enjoyed these posts, know that while my Camino has ended, the Religious Imagineer will continue, with reflections and provocations concerning theology and religion, the arts, liturgy, imagination, and the beauty of the world: wherever “the fire and the rose are one.” Stay tuned.]

How do I write an ending to the Camino? Certainly with no summary remarks, for such reductions would do disservice to the complex flavors of the journey. I feel like the pianist who was asked to explain the composition he had just played. Without a word, he sat down and played it again.

On Monday afternoon, I continued on from Santiago to Finisterre (“the end of the world”), an extension of the Camino that predates the Christian shrine at Santiago. For the ancient Celts, and many pilgrims since, the natural place to make an ending is where the land is swallowed by the sea and the sun disappears over the edge of the known. Some make this journey on foot (54 miles west from Santiago), but I, alas, took a bus, needing some rest for weary legs.

Finisterre is a high headland with a charming harbor town, wild hills and dramatic shoreline. I made the obligatory walk to the lighthouse at the southern tip, where the last Camino marker reads 0.00 K, and pilgrims can leave or even burn a symbolic offering (shirts, boots, and walking poles were among the abandoned items). But the souvenir stand and tourist buses were not contemplative aids, so I took the spectacular trail along the western side, high above the sea, bright with yellow flowers, descending finally to an isolated beach. In my own act of letting go, I wrote PEREGRINO (pilgrim) in the sand, and watched the tide erase it. Then I climbed to the rocks on the cape’s highest point to watch the edge of the world erase the sun.

I still had one more walk to do, from Finisterre north to Muxia: 18 miles of pine and eucalyptus woods, pastures and crop land, remote stone villages, flowered meadows, an estuary brimming with fish, and white sand beaches. I wanted to make this final trek not only to make intimate acquaintance with a remote corner of Galicia, but also to end my Camino just as I had begun it – on foot.

It was a hot and demanding day, but when I reached the fishing village of Muxia, I didn’t stop to shower or rest, but continued the final 800 meters to the furthest point, where massive stone slabs slide into the surf, and the Santuario da Virxe da Barca (Virgin of the Boat) faces the setting sun.

Here my Camino came to an end.

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Arrival

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
And even to anchor at the island
when you are old,
rich with all you have gained
on the way,
not expecting
that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you
the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never
set out on the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.

– Constantine Cavafy

It was still dark Sunday morning when I first stepped into the Prazo Obradoiro – the wide plaza in front of Santiago cathedral. It was deserted but not silent. A taxi sat motionless in the far corner, idling its engine, waiting for what? After ten minutes it finally departed. The new day began to light the spectacular west facade, but one of its towers was hidden by scaffolding – had I walked 500 miles only to see its glory veiled?

I had told myself along the way to have no script for this moment, no expectations for my journey’s end. But this first glimpse of the cathedral, if not exactly disappointing, was at least bewildering. Where were the tears of joy, the flood of emotions? The cathedral’s great bell struck seven, deep and resonant like the voice of a god, but in a language dark and alien, not addressed to me.

Before the crowds arrived, I drifted around the quiet interior. I placed my hand in the Tree of Jesse, the carved central pillar of the Portico de Gloria, my fingers sinking into the deep handprint left in the stone by the caress of countless pilgrims. I descended to the crypt to kneel before the silver casket containing James’ bones. But I was granted little sense of arrival or completion.

Returning to the plaza, now bright with sunlight, I saw a large group of Portuguese pilgrims, singing, clapping and dancing in a great circle. “Resucito!” they sang. “Alleluia!” Many other pilgrims had joined this joyous perechoresis , and I did the same. My heart began to lift, as I remembered – just in time – that the Camino experience is not a possession to be grasped, but a communion to be danced. Lord, I want to be in that number!

But as the day went on, my Camino still seemed unfinished. I felt rather disoriented, no longer walking toward certain goals, no longer sure how even to spend the afternoon. I went to the crowded pilgrim mass at noon, saw the celebrated “Botafumeiro” (gigantic thurible) swing back and forth between the transepts, exchanged “well done!” with a few pilgrims I recognized from the road. But most of my Camino family had either already arrived and departed, or were still a few days back. I felt a bit lonely.

Late afternoon, I wandered over to the little visited San Martino Pinario, and walking inside felt like falling in love. Set amid its plain walls was the most breathtaking altar, a Churrigueresque ensemble of golden sculpture and ornamentation that worked emotionally in a way that so many baroque altarpieces do not. The declining sun streaming through it from behind intensified the effect. This was not mere showy theatricality, but an overwhelming physical presence that didn’t just symbolize belief. It created it.

Back outside the church, I spent some time making camera studies of the fantastically dynamic staircase that leads down to the entrance from the street (an evocative reversal of the more typical ascent to holy places – here you descend to go deeper). And I suddenly realized I was happy. I would even call it a state of grace. I didn’t earn it, seize it, discover it. It discovered me.

After that, it was enough to wander the old streets and plazas around the cathedral, noticing the pilgrim joy in the faces of strangers, enjoying the sense of celebration that is perpetual in this city of arrivals. I dined with some companions of the road before ending the day as I had begun it, in the darkness of the Prazo Obradoiro. But now the moon shone down upon the ancient stones, and strains of Galician singers filled the air. What more could I ask?

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.”

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