Monday, May 30, 2016

berkshire pilgrimage

“Spring was moving in the air above
and in the earth below and around him,
penetrating even his dark and lowly little house
with its spirit of divine discontent
and longing.”

~ Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.

Liminal spaces herald the passage of time. A threshold into a new season is a reminder of the close of what preceded it. Of course, the days and months advance, and we have no control of that. What we can do is take notice. Acknowledgment settles thoughts across thresholds. As I’ve often done, over the years, during the trudging drudgery of winter’s traversal I plan spring retreats. I’ve learned how valuable it is to plan some respite, while amidst particularly intense spells of work. Recognition prompts movement, and at this time of the year, I want to be able to see and taste the spring season I’ve only been able to notice as a backdrop. While juggling the daily business of life and labor, I noticed enough seasonal progress to decrease the number of clothing layers, parallel to increasing temperatures. As well, I’ve immediately cherished the return of post-6pm daylight. Surely a sign to pause the pace and savour the season.

A pilgrim soul recognizes the subtlest of ingredients as contributing to the grander journey. My hard-won earned time off is attributed in weekly increments of 2.8 hours, corresponding with my full-time employment. Indeed, calculation is part of the preparation for a pilgrimage. Also swept up in the planning are tasks such as paying bills, maintenance on my car, and gradually tossing provisions into a tote bag at the base of my desk at home. As the travel draws closer, each accomplished project, each lecture, each household chore joins with my pilgrim path. The early months of this year merged into a challenging obstacle course, yet I was able to fulfill all my commitments in time. During the two weeks prior to setting forth, I had been an organizer in two large community events, in two different Maine cities, and served a community dinner in between. Even my writing projects had to be postponed. Some holy adrenaline was followed by catharsis, all of which pointed me south and west to my chosen place of retreat.

During the winter, while thinking about a spring retreat, I thought of where I might find a lot of unstructured quiet. And fresh air. I wanted unimpaired aromas of the season. As usual, it needed to be a place conducive to spiritual renewal. With these things in mind, I thought of the Berkshires. The mountainous region of western Massachusetts- before tourist season- can be healthfully peaceful. Stockbridge has a pilgrimage destination, the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy. I had not been there in four years, and my first extended retreat in that area was twelve years ago.

the pilgrim arrives

Gathering these physical and spiritual threads is the act of pilgrimage. This is to say an intentional sojourn for the purpose of maturity and comprehension of the sacred. Indeed, I remain ever in agreement with the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, who affirmed that our advancement toward holiness is measured not my mileage, but by desire. “Love and desire constitute the life of the spirit,” he wrote. It is such profound and propelling motivation that brings souls to reach forth to holy sites and reminders of creation. Seeking and finding recurs many times. Continual searching indicates continual discovery. It is the deepening of a lifetime of faith.

While pilgrimage is a physical stretch forward, and retreat a contemplative pause, struggles can follow the traveller. Along with the forward advance are invasions from the past, especially the recent past. To better appreciate and savour beautiful surroundings, it becomes necessary to shard off the accumulated detritus of anxiety, worries, workplace hardships, and lingering negative thoughts. That takes time. A good change of scenery helps to balance perspective. I used much of my four-hour drive, diagonally across the heart of New England, to lecture to myself about my recent ordeals. There’s nothing like a solo road trip to give yourself your undivided attention and set things straight! As the scenery rolls along, traffic thins out, and my own recognition gives way to acknowledging fatigue and longing for positive change. My self-talk runs its course, and words advance into prayers. The Massachusetts Turnpike finds its westernmost terminus in West Stockbridge, and I depart to mingle with curved and steep little quiet roads. My back seat is freighted with clean clothes, books, and writing materials- and I have a head filled with thoughts and hopes. Retreats are lifelines, liminal spaces between treacherous desert stretches. Gratitude comes very quickly, along leafy and lilac-scented lanes.

Wheeling into Stockbridge, and recognizing some familiar places, I checked into my little 18th century room. There was a welcome note on the writing table, with some baked treats. The blended aromas of linens, the ancient interior, and lilacs at my window reminded me to make note of the present. Monument Square suddenly felt at least 240 miles behind me. There was no more travelling or arriving to be done. And I proceeded to do the “what tells me I’m here” things. That’s my way of beginning to absorb a place long-awaited. I took my camera, and walked a few steep hills near the shrine church; I walked some bucolic pathways, looked skyward, and drew in deep breaths of sweet mountain air. I wanted some new imagery to fall asleep by. Writing and reading followed, after which I sunk into an antique bed. The arrival to a retreat is simply for absorbing the surroundings. It is a place for inquiry and intention, not for problem-solving. In a short evening’s arrival, I already saw I’d chosen the right place.