Thursday, October 22, 2009

All My Bags Are Packed...

The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seekers' Guide to Making Travel Sacred
by Philip Cousineau

OK, OK, my bags are not packed yet, but I AM ready to go. The laundry is not done, the cash is not withdrawn from the account, the notes to the kids have not yet been written. BUT, in spite of some persistent worries about things over which I have no control, I do feel spiritually prepared for my trip to Israel, which begins in six days. I have read (and am reading) the suggested materials, am praying for wisdom and openness along the journey, and am meeting early next week with one of my spiritual mentors for a blessing. I'm ready.

The more I read about pilgrimage, the more I realize that I have never experienced anything remotely like it. I'm so grateful that our group had an orientation retreat at which we got to discuss and internalize some of the spiritual dynamics of this trip. I have participated in numerous trips that were meaningful in terms of learning a lot, countless relaxing veg-out vacations, and multiple mission trips that altered the way I look at life. Never before, though, have I traveled specifically to enhance my own contemplative life. I can't wait.

Cousineau has made a career out of pilgrimage. The Art of Pilgrimage is a more serious, more focused version of the blockbuster bestseller Eat, Pray, Love. Not totally, but there are parallels. Cousineau has traveled all over the world, visiting sacred sites, guiding others to those sites, and doing what he can to make the experience of pilgrimage more meaningful for those who choose to participate. The Art of Pilgrimage is, in my opinion, a helpful read before ANY trip. Even one that is not specifically a pilgrimage can be made more joyous and spiritually significant if the traveler is intentional about how he/she participates. Cousineau uses anecdotes of his own travels (and those of others) to illustrate his points, and he is full of practical suggestions for the ways we can make ourselves more open to the presence of the sacred.

One of his admonitions is to be in the moment - to not get too riled up about delays or unexpected changes of plans. Instead, he suggests that we see every twist and turn as an opportunity to spiritually stretch ourselves and perhaps to make connections with someone whom we ordinarily would not notice or pay attention to. This struck home with me. Too often, I am just in too much of a hurry. I am too busy getting to the next place to be where I am right now. So, my commitment to myself for the two weeks of this trip is to do my best to be there. I know I will miss my husband and kids, and the things that I am worried about will not magically disappear. I understand, though, that this trip is a gift, a series of gifts. I intend to unwrap the presence!

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Walk this Way

A Walk in the Woods
by Bill Bryson

I swear, Bill Bryson could write about the mating habits of fruit flies and make the finished product interesting and hilarious. This one of his has been on my list of things to read for years and I finally got to it. Interestingly, I read it just before immersing myself in a lot of writing about pilgrimage and journeying, but in retrospect I see that Bryson's adventures on the Appalachian Trail have a lot of the characteristics of pilgrimage. His desire to hike the trail certainly did not come from a need for a relaxing vacation. The yearning seemed to come more from a hope to experience something that would move him and restore his spirit in some way. He also used the seemingly endless miles that he hiked (many of them with his out-of-shape buddy, Katz) as a chance to test his own endurance and consider what is truly important (especially when making decisions about what to carry in a backpack).

Bryson pokes fun at other hikers (especially know it alls), but reserves his most wry observations for his descriptions of himself. The ups and downs that he and Katz go through in their relationship are indicative not only of the tensions that develop between participants in an intense physical experience, but the inevitable gratings and irritations that we are going to go through with anyone with whom we choose to hike the long-term path. It is also significant that the two guys work through those moments - rifts do not have to be permanent and irreparable.

I started the book under the impression that Bryson was one of the few who had hiked the whole Appalachian Trail - a feat very few accomplish. It turned out that Bryson and Katz opted out of a major chunk of the Tennessee trail, and they also did not make it to the northernmost point, located in Maine. In the end, though, that did not matter. They did what they could. They experienced something that enriched their lives and their relationship to one another. Bryson went on to write a book that educates anyone who cares to read it about the history of the AT, the need to preserve it, and the necessity of pushing our bodies and stretching our spirits if we are to be fully alive. Pick this one up and read it. It's worth the trip, and may give you impetus to pull those hiking boots out of your closet.

Reverent Reader

Friday, October 16, 2009

Howdy Pilgrim

Pilgrimage: Exploring a Great Spiritual Practice
by Edward C. Selzer

This was recommended at the orientation retreat that we had a couple of weeks ago for my upcoming pilgrimage to Israel that I have told some of you about. The retreat was great - the 20 participants had a chance to get acquainted, and we also got to know our two leaders a little bit. There was some planning for the trip and some travel tips - what to take, how much luggage is acceptable, etc. Thankfully, though, a major portion of the time was spent looking at pilgrimage as a spiritual practice and discussing how we can make the experience more meaningful.

The orientation made me more excited than ever about the trip, and as soon as I got home I dived into this (free!) new book. Pilgrimage is not great literature, and it is not the definitive writing on the topic, but it is a good way to become familiar with pilgrimage as a discipline and as a mindset. The book's bibliography also suggests numerous other resources for those seeking spiritual growth in a journey to the unknown place.

Pilgrimage looks at the history and practice of sacred travel in all of the major faith traditions. That was fascinating - I knew that it was important in the heritage of the three monotheistic faiths, but loved learning how pilgrimage takes such a major place in the spiritual lives of Buddhists and Hindus as well (plus many others). The book is more than a travel guide - it made me want to expand my horizons even beyond Israel. I'm already thinking of how I can someday get to some of the other renowned pilgrimage sites.

Pilgrimage is also a great resource for movies and novels that have a pilgrimage theme. The closing two chapters are basically annotated lists one is a list of 40 famous pilgrims, where they went and why their experience was important. The other lists 40 major pilgrimage sites - why they are important, who tends to go there, and what one can expect upon arrival. I found myself just wanting to start at the top of the list and work my way down, backpack over my shoulder.

I feel blessed by the Israel pilgrimage already, namely because I am gaining a sense of travel as a spiritual experience that can transcend ordinary life, rather than as a vacation, an educational opportunity, or a mission trip. Those are all good things, but travel for pilgrimage is different. I am so excited to experience it! Stay tuned...

Reverent Reader

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

An Unforgettable Character

Olive Kitteridge
by Elizabeth Strout

This collection of short stories won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction several months ago, deservedly so in my opinion. I like short stories, but have to admit that I have difficulty retaining them. With the exception of a few of Tolstoy's, I usually read short stories, enjoy them, and promptly forget them. For some reason my memory does not hang onto them like it does a novel or some other narrative. My theory is that there is just not enough time to bond with the characters of the short story before it is over. The reader just forms an idea of who each person is, and the narrative ends. If we are reading a collection, we are immediately on to something else, a whole other story with different people. Strout has dealt with that problem in a clever way by having Olive Kitteridge be the common thread that runs through each of these stories. Sometimes she is a principal character, other times she is peripheral, but she is always there. Her presence ties the whole collection together and gives it an anchor. It's a stroke of genius.

Olive is a complicated person - sometimes you love her and sometimes you want to smack her. She is caustic and sarcastic with her gentle spirited husband, Henry, but when he is debilitated by a stroke in a later story, she tends to him with fierce loyalty and devotion. She can also be unexpectedly compassionate with other characters, such as the anorexic girl in "Starving," and Marlene in "Basket of Trips."

There are times when , in spite of her mean streak, the reader feels empathy for her. I wanted to cry in "Little Bursts," when she is so proud of the dress she has made for her son's wedding, until she hears her new daughter-in-law whispering about how hideous it is. Also in "Security" when she totally screws up the visit with her son - she knows it but somehow cannot stop herself. There is something about Olive - her desire to connect with other people combined with her inability to do so, that makes us forgive her mistakes and recognize ourselves in them. One has the sense throughout that she is trying - she desperately wants connection and relationship, but seems to sabotage herself just when things are looking up. At the same time, her perceptiveness and way of discreetly reaching out to hurting people reminded me of my dear grandmother Omie. In "real" life, Omie did not have Olive's edge, but I could see her playing Olive in a movie.

The last story, "The River," leaves us on a hopeful note, but the book is certainly not all sunshine and happiness. Instead, Strout has done an amazing job of balancing the moments of despair with the instances of grace that characterize all of life. This is a short story collection that I will likely return to over and over again. In addition to creating this compelling character, Strout just writes well. She creates sentences and descriptions that are dead on. This collection is worth savoring several times.

Reverent Reader

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Belated Blog Birthday!

Many apologies to my Ex Libris Fides friends - I have not posted lately for several reasons. My dad has been seriously ill and I made a quick trip to Oklahoma last week to spend some time with him and my mom. Also, have been busy preparing for a pilgrimage to Israel that will take place from October 28 - November 11. I'm sooooo looking forward to the adventure and its potential for spiritual renewal. The good news is, I've read some great stuff about Israel and also about the ancient practice of pilgrimage while I've been getting ready, so stay tuned.

And today I get to take a three-year-old to the doctor with a juicy nose and goopy eyes. Sigh. But, I'll probably be able to get back into the swing of blogging in the next couple of days. There will be another hiatus while I'm away, but will give you all a heads up about that.

Anyway, somewhere in all the chaos I missed my own blog birthday! It passed quietly by on Saturday, October 10. Welcome to the "Terrible Twos," Ex Libris Fides!

Reverent Reader

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Done Better Elsewhere

Holy Fools: Following Jesus with Reckless Abandon
by Matthew Woodley

Holy Fools is a look at the early desert mystics and the way faith permeated their entire existence, rather than being a dusty, boring faith that sits on a shelf until Sunday morning. It's worth reading, but Rowan Williams covers quite a bit of the same material in his book Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another. It's not that Woodley doesn't have good information, but he seems to have a little more personal ego involved than Williams does. Sometimes a writer protests too much, if that makes sense. He refers over and over again to his own brokenness, and makes the point with tiresome repetition that even as a clergy person he is constantly in need of grace (duh). I am all for humility, but the paradox is that when someone overdoes it, it becomes it's own kind of ego thing. "See how I flagellate myself...see how humble I am...truly I am prostrated at the foot of the cross." Really? Also, Woodley just is not the writer that Williams is. His sentences are not poetry disguised as prose. They do not sing.

Having said that, and in spite of that, Holy Fools has got some good stuff in it. His chapters on surrender and discernment are especially engaging. I like his summation of the early desert fathers' approach to discernment: "Their sense of discernment was informed by two very earthy qualities: God-given common sense and humane balance." Hear hear. Sometimes I encounter people who seem to think that the option that fills you with the most dread and despair must be what God is calling you to do, because after all aren't we supposed to surrender our desires to God's? While I would agree that the road to which God calls us is often not the easiest one, or the one that is initially the most attractive, I also do not think that God wants us to be miserable. We need the balance that Woodley writes about to find the middle ground between our own gifts and affinities and the place where God needs those gifts and affinities. Where those two things intersect is probably the point to which God is calling us.

Woodley's writing is characterized by a gentle humor, which reminds us that joy is supposed to be a major piece of this journey. Lots of his material has been covered before, but some messages bear repeating.

Reverent Reader