Friday, July 20, 2007


"Along the road
Your path may wander
A pilgrim’s faith may fail
Absence makes the heart grow stronger
Darkness obscures the trail.

Cursing the quest
Courting disaster
Measureless nights forebode
Moments of rest
Glimpses of laughter
Are treasured along the road.

Along the road
Your steps may tumble
Your thoughts may start to stray
But through it all a heart held humble
Levels and lights your way."

~ Dan Fogelberg, Along the Road

It is consoling to know that pilgrimage as a practical way of spiritual life is not always relegated to the margins of asceticism. Indeed, just as a mystic’s viewpoint creatively interprets symbols and meanings, a similar poetic extension applies when we consider the unending sacred voyage of a pilgrim soul. And there need not be a specific time period for this to find relevance. Sojourning by air and ground transit, or in the newest hiking boots, need not lessen the intentions and substance of our heart-driven travels from the epoch of those who rowed the Irish Sea or braved dark lengths of crime-infested pre-medieval roads, on the way to places of significance peregrinatio pro Dei amore. If the destination cannot be easily reached today, surely by tonight’s rest we shall have arrived at a new stage on the pilgrimage of trust.

Saint Columba, a Celt of the 6th century, asserted that pilgrimage is of the essence for those who will advance their lives as response to the gifts of grace. Some of these journeying Celtic monks would discard their oars, and allow their canoe-like coracles to be simply carried by the tides to whither destiny would carry them. The ocean was the place of desert-wandering, for such island dwellers, and "the land would be reached," wrote Columba’s chronicler Saint Adamnan, "only by those who desire God." The 14th-century Cloud of Unknowing regards the concept of distance at a number of levels, encouraging the hearty young disciple that, "journeying ahead to our future with God is measured by desire, rather than by miles." Obviously the metaphors emanating from spiritual pilgrimage abound, and when the journey is regarded as both interior and exterior, I can easily see how essential is this perspective that makes it possible to view our lives in forms that recognize our very steps. Between the occasional mountaintop experience is the walk home from work, during which the person who stops to talk says something I needed to hear. And I notice the sunset as I turn to my street. The pilgrim’s way-station has been among the vineyards of Burgundy, as well as my simple dining table supporting a steaming bowl of coffee. Our landmarks develop as we proceed. And by this very nature, that of an unfolding, the life of moving forward in trust takes on a liminal aspect that inspires our spirits against stagnation. A threshold is something to be appreciated, particularly when its significance becomes clear. Thresholds are places, indeed, however they are typically antechambers transitioning from an exited space to a new environment.

The first time I’d ever driven halfway across the country, I covered about eight hundred miles on the first stage of the trip. The adventure took me through some unfamiliar roads traversing place names that were equally unknown to me. In the process, a rainstorm tore off my back window wiper blade. My stopping place was surely equal to the mileage, as I was joyously welcomed by complete strangers who were friends of friends of mine. They didn’t know what I’d look like, either, but for the rare sight of Maine license plates. And truly, with all matters being those of the moment, people want to hear a voyager’s stories: not just the weather and road conditions, but “what kind of work do you do?” and “where are you headed?” and “how do you like this part of the country?” Conversely, I want to hear stories, too.

Journeying calls to mind how we attach to places and yet how we detach from our beginnings and stopping-points, even as memories accompany our collected steps. The anonymous writer of the Cloud of Unknowing used the expression “nothing and nowhere,” in a fascinating description of the life of interior devotion. During several days of mountain hiking, I thought and wrote much about this esoteric idea. Suffice it to say for this writing, my musings turned to wonder as it became clear to me that when the medieval writer sought to detach from material justification (or what Thomas Merton called “the false self”) and choose to journey from his inner self, his “nothing and nowhere” was indeed an everything and an everywhere. The grandeur of creation transcends property and place. Sojourning in the spirit of trust can attest to this. If there is truth to the adage that we become the stories we tell about ourselves, might we become our journeys? Perhaps a beginning to a response to this question is to consider what is sought on this voyage of incremental sojourns. And surely, though a destination captivates our hearts- even that which we have neither seen nor heard nor dared to imagine- there is movement to be embraced and cherished.

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