Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A first blessing....



The first day in another country overloads the senses. A jet-lagged body soaks in stimuli like a sponge: an omni-present odor of lemon grass in the hotel, people’s faces, puff jackets with hoods rimmed in fur, the raw edges of early spring, the cobbled streets, a profusion of Baroque, patterns of signage – and hopefully, the traffic patterns.

In Prague pedestrians have the right of way, but trams trump everything. “Pozor!” means look out – and should be taken seriously. Brown arrows with white letters point out historical monuments, but it takes a while to figure out which. At first pass, the Czech language looks like a jumble of consonants with lots of inflections and a predominance of v’s and j’s, z’s and c’s.

It’s a lot to take in. We walked enough to get down basic bearings. Then, jostled and over-stimulated, we repaired to the slower cadences of the St. Agnes Convent and Museum.

Royal blood coursed through the veins of Agnes of Bohemia (1211-1282), and her parents sought a marriage of advantage. Engaged first to Henry, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, Agnes was packed off to imperial court, only to have that union thwarted by a local duke who wanted to wed his own daughter to the emperor’s son. Henry III of England emerged as a potential mate, but the emperor challenged the union. He wanted to wed Agnes himself.

At this point, Agnes intervened, choosing for herself a life of prayer. To safeguard the plan, she secured consent of the pope and land from her brother.

Along the Vltava River, her convent now houses a stunning collection of medieval religious panels and statuary, many devoted to Christ and his mother. In most of these, Christ is an infant, nestled in the arms of his mother and nursing at her breast. As Margaret Miles argues in A Complex Delight (University of California, 2008), early medieval religious art featured the infant Jesus, not the dying Christ. A nurturant mother, not a dying man, captured the medieval imagination.

Over and over again, in icons and statuary and paintings, we gazed on a child, latched onto the breast of his mother, nursing so eagerly we could almost hear him sucking. And on the face of the mother, a smile of infinite peace.

That smile blocked out the blast of the trams, the bustling of the streets, the riot of Baroque.

I held that smile with me for the rest of the visit: it was our first blessing.

Monday, March 23, 2015

When is a square not really a square....


Wencelaus Square is not really a square, but a long rectangle. At one end is the National Museum, a proud monument to Czech culture. At the other end is Na Prikope, a long sloping street. Once the former moat for the old city of Prague, the street encircles the old city with a string of temples to the gods of commerce, international corporations like Nike, Apple, H&M, Boss, Express.

This square which is not really a square is long enough for Soviet tanks to roll down in impressive array, as they did in 1968. This square which is not really a square is wide enough for the flames of Jan Palach’s self-immolation protesting the Soviet occupation to be seen at Na Prikope, the other end of the square. This square which is not really a square is vast enough to gather people, for whatever purpose they need to gather. In 1968 they demonstrated, ushering in the Prague Spring; in 1969 they watched silently, as a Prague winter descended; in 1989 they celebrated wildly, as Vaclav Havel, playwright not Soviet puppet, assumed the presidency. In 2015 they simply march from store to store, bags ever thicker with purchase.

A friend remarked: “The Communists were in power; they were all out for themselves. Now, the capitalists are in power; they too are all out for themselves. Nothing’s changed.”

But something has changed: capitalism will be harder to challenge. People wear the enemy on their feet; they march in shoes branded with swooshes. People write their screeds on computers bearing apples, the original fruit of temptation. Once a country filled with craftspeople, these former-craftspeople now work in a burgeoning “service economy,” importing their leather from Italy, their woolens from Bulgaria, and their woodcarving from Russia. Soon the Czech will import their glassware and crystal from -- Bangladesh?

A statue of King Wencelaus mutely surveys this latest occupation. Behind him is the Baroque façade of the National Museum, symbol of a culture that remains a political force more potent than weapons. After all, Jan Hus resisted Rome with the power of his preaching. Franz Kafka mocked in his fiction the very state he served as a functionary. Vaclav Havel, first president of the Czech Republic, was a playwright. Preacher and playwrights, artists and writers: traditionally they’ve served as the shock troops of Bohemia.

Were Wencelaus to lead them, how would he wage his campaign? Interviewing activist-writer-intellectual Ivan Klima after Havel re-established Czech independence in 1989, Philip Roth observed the change between Soviet occupation and this new independence: “For you, nothing was allowed, but everything mattered. Now you’re more like us: everything is allowed, nothing matters.” (Ivan Klima, The Spirit of Prague, Granta Books: 1994).

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Intentions: Steady Aim



A friend asked before I left: "Do you have any intentions for your trip?" I looked up blankly from our pizza. "That's OK: you don't really have to tell me."

I couldn't have; I didn't yet have words. But I knew I had intentions, and I knew the words would come.

Augustine wrote: "Solvitur ambulando -- it is solved by walking." No one can find out where, but if he didn't say it, he should have. The same insight could have come from someone else: Kierkegaard pacing the streets of Copenhagen. Kant crossing the bridges of Koenigsburg. Walter Benjamin savoring the streets of Paris as a flaneur. William Wordsworth braving the weather and the peaks of The Lake District. Post-modern hiker and peripapetic philosopher walks through the centuries with each of them in her history of walking, "Wanderlust" (Penguin, 2000).

I'd get some language for my intentions along the way.

An archer bends the bow back to propel an arrow forward; she exerts force in one direction to make something move in the opposite direction. Pilgrimage has a similar physics. Pilgrims walk toward something, but to get there they have to leave something else -- and some ones else -- behind.

I knew I was walking away from some things and toward others. Getting on the plane for Madrid, my biggest intention was to find out which was which.

My body told me. Whatever I carried in my pack registered on the soles of my feet. I paid attention to everything in my pack, re-packing to shift weight, downsizing to leave behind things that got in the way. In similar fashion, whatever I carried I carried in my heart registered in my consciousness. The long stretches across the Cantabrian Mountains, where there was nothing to do but think -- and keep climbing. I paid attention to everything that rented space in my head, discarding what I didn't need and what I did, shifting weight to allow things their proper importance. Sole-care became soul-care. That's part of the point of pilgrimage.

"Teach us to care
And not to care.
Teach us to sit still."

Pilgrimage is a good instructor, teaching the pilgrim to care and not to care -- or at least to be aware of what the cares are. In the same feat of contrary motion that the archer summons, walking allows the pilgrim to sit still.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Where Pilgrimage Begins: With a Place -- or a Person?



The question always comes: Where did you begin the pilgrimage? There are lots of answers, none of them easy.

Mostly, people want a place, something they can locate on a map. This most recent pilgrimage began in Oviedo, the seat of Alfonso the Chaste's (d. 842) ninth century kingdom of Asturias on the northern coast of Spain. Word came to him that the bones of St. James had been discovered in Galicia, and he resolved to pay homage. His entourage headed west, traversing the ruggedly beautiful Cantabrian Mountains. He carved out the first of the pilgrimage trails to Santiago, the Camino Primitivo. We followed roughly that route, leaving Oviedo on July 6th and arriving in Santiago on July 20th. Where did you begin? One answer: the pilgrimage started in Oviedo. But that's not quite true.

I could also give my street address in Minneapolis, where I locked the door, shouldered my backpack, and hiked to the light rail for a trip to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Stepping across the threshold ended the long period of preparation: breaking in boots and shoes, getting used to carrying weight, packing, re-packing, endless winnowing gear down to the absolute essentials. Turning the key in the lock meant preparation was over; pilgrimage commenced. Where did you begin? Another answer: the pilgrimage started in Minneapolis.

I could also give the name of our pension in Oviedo, Hostal Alvarez, because we spent a few days touring the old city, sampling the local hard ciders at quaint siderias, dining with friends, and seeing the sights. I wasn't geared up then, but decked out in the red dress that said: "I'm a tourist" and the shoes that moved with ease from nice restaurants to hostel showers. When I snapped that dress into its zipper-locked plastic bag and put on my boots, I transformed from tourist to pilgrim. Where did you begin? Another answer: The pilgrimage started at the Hostal Alvarez in Oviedo.

Medieval pilgrims on the Camino Primitivo began here, prostrated in front of this status of Jesus in Oviedo's Church of San Salvador in Oviedo. As other routes to Santiago de Compostela developed across the Iberian Peninsula, continental Europe, even the British Isles and Scandinavia, this statue came to have unique significance. An aphorism captured it all:

The pilgrim who visits Santiago and not El Salvador,
pays homage to the servant -- but not the master.

Pilgrims would often make the difficult detour to Oviedo to prostrate themselves in front of this status in Oviedo. Where did you begin? For these hearty pilgrims, it started with a person.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Pilgrimage of a Star: Sirius' Wanderings....


The bright star is Sirius, the "Dog Star." It defines the eastern sky in these "dog days" of July and August. Both the Egyptians and the Romans noticed it.

For the Egyptians it meant the Nile was about to rise. For them the "Dog Star" was a watchdog: it told them to move to higher ground.

For the Romans it meant the arrival of the hottest, most humid part of summer. For them the "Dog Star" was a listless, panting pooch: it told them to get out of town. They called the season of Sirius, the "dog days," "dies caniculares." They believed it to be an evil time, and they sacrificed a dog to ward off demons. Then those who could afford it beat a hasty retreat to the mountains or the beach. Centuries later, another Roman put the season into words: "the sea boiled, the wine turned sour, the dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid."

I haven't sunk so deep into the August doldrums not to be up before dawn. Sirius still burns a bright hole in the sky before sunrise. So what is the "Dog Star" telling us?

I'll speak for myself.

Here in Minnesota, at 45 degrees N in latitude, dawn takes its time. If I'm up early, the star commands the eastern sky. I sit in a pool of lamplight and steaming coffee, putting together the morning ritual of reading, writing, and prayer. When I look up, a new light crowds out the Dog Star. Sirius loses luster, less dominant in the eastern sky. Minutes later it vanishes, eclipsed by the rising sun.

By all lights and by any reckoning, the sun is a lesser star. Standing on Sirius, you couldn't even see the sun.

But it's our star, and it rules our days. By the time it rises, Sirius vanishes from view. I regard the star as it dims, flickers, then blinks out entirely. Its departure from the eastern sky marks the beginning of my August workday. With sunrise I head to the river path, the pool, the computer. The List begins; the Day's distractions take over.

Just as the earth turns away from the Dog Star, I turn away from the morning rituals to lean into the day's tasks.

But does Sirius really go away? The Dog Star is always there. True to its nature, the Dog Star remains faithful. It may be temporarily overwhelmed by the brighter light of lesser stars, but Sirius is always there.

And when the earth turns to it again, as it does in these days before dawn, Sirius does not fail us.

A metaphor for the Mystery: when we turn to it, it's there, ever faithful, ever luminous.

So here's the question: what is Sirius telling you?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Evil, ordinary and not: The dark side of pilgrimage


Lest I leave people with the impression that pilgrimage yields pleasure, fitness, and spiritual insight, let me speak to its dark side. There's danger along the way, sometimes even demons -- and I'm not talking about blisters or sunburn or running out of water.

Let me enlist the help of Paulo Coelho and his luminous account of walking the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, "The Pilgrimage" (1987). In 1986, as part of his initiation into a mystical fraternity, Coelho made the pilgrimage to Santiago. Yes, he harvested the gifts above, but he encountered demons, some of them creatures of his own projection, some not. Integrating his account with my own, I want to create a taxonomy of the dark side's inhabitants.

First, there's ordinary: you notice what rents space in your head. You have to: it obscures the beauty of the landscape you're actually walking through; it crowds out companions; it distracts. Eventually, walking makes ordinary evil just one more piece of unnecessary baggage.

Pilgrims leave all extra weight behind, including this. To symbolize the unburdening, they pick up a stone at the beginning of the day, unloading it along the way. As we hiked the Camino, Lisa and I often crested a hill -- only to find ourselves in a valley of such stones, large, small, and stacked like some ancient hieroglyph. This is the best revenge for ordinary rubble: turning it into art.

Another dimension of evil manifests as simply the projection of the pilgrim's deepest fears. Whatever it is, however subtle or not, pilgrims encounter along the way what they most fear. Coelho confesses his fear of water. Accordingly, part of his path took him up the face of a waterfall, calling out physical and spiritual strengths he didn't know he had.

I fear abandonment. When one trek didn't offer the bonding I'd anticipated, I walked for several days in a funk. I scoured bus and train schedules in every major village we passed through, looking for escape. Then, I reset my compass, engaging where I could and making tiny forays into the villages and countryside on my own. I discovered a different kind of bonding that had been there all along. Expecting something else, I'd simply overlooked it. And I now have an intimate acquaintance of a very particular part of the Pyrenees.

Finally, there's a dimension of evil that I'll simply call the abyss. I don't want to linger too long here, lest I fall in. It came to Coelho as a large black dog, threatening his very life. He'd had premonitions of the encounter, which only added to the terror.

But is this last kind of evil a presence? I was talking yesterday with a philosopher friend, Vida Pavesich, who's studied and taught about evil. She argued that evil is a presence, an active force. I side with Christian neo-Platonist philosopher and theologian Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), who believed evil was the absence of the good. A recovering Manichaean, Augustine vehemently rejected a world in which forces of good and evil raged against one another. He denied that evil had any shred of being. Perhaps he protested too much....

But we agreed that Augustine captured a fundamental characteristic of evil: it's parasitic. It feeds off something else: life, love, joy, even competence. Think of the sound of water sluicing down a toilet; think of how draining it is to be around an "emotional vampire." For this reason evil enthralls, ensorcells, engulfs; it drains life out of everything within reach.

Another Christian writer, the apostle Paul, claimed that love is stronger than death. I hope he's right. But is love stronger than evil? I want to say yes. Here love is a political act, and it embraces everything from kindness in the midst of uncharity to the bold decision to on the part of French villagers to hide Jewish families during the Holocaust ("Lest Innocent Blood be Shed," by Philip Hallie).

In her book "The Human Condition," Hannah Arendt identifies the work of love in the public square: the practices of forgiveness and promise-making. Promises hedge against unpredictability, ensuring that we will be tomorrow who we say we are today. Forgiveness shields against irreversibility, calling halt to the juggernaut of vengeance. Yes: love is stronger than death, stronger even than evil.

Err on the side of love.

(The etching is William Blake's illustration of the book of Job: The Satan with Job and his wife.)

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Being a Pilgrim By Staying at Home: The Habit of Attention



Somewhere along the road between Lucca and Rome, my vision changed. It got sharper, clearer – and that’s saying something for someone who had eye surgery at the age of five and spent the rest of childhood in a series of skin-colored eye patches and bifocals. Vision has been both a struggle – and subject of endless fascination.

How could pilgrimage improve such shaky eyesight? Quite simply: I had to pay attention.

Pilgrims walk with eyes wide open. We look for waymarkers to stay the course. In Spain we trained our eyes to notice yellow arrows, which pointed the way forward. In Italy, where the route was less-traveled and more poorly marked, we scoured the landscape for burly brown pilgrims with staff in hand and red banner overhead. Pilgrims pay attention to the path.

We register anything blocking it: the stray rock that could trip us, cars that buzz by at dizzying speeds, a dog untended – and unchained. Pilgrims pay attention to problems.

We notice landscape: the olive groves and vineyards we passed through, the sudden sighting of Lake Bolsena, whose breezes we felt long before we caught sight of its waters, the dome of St. Peter’s as we approached Rome, and always always always: elevation of the road ahead. “The only problem with these damned hill towns,” I remarked at the end of a day as we climbed into one, “is that they’re all on hills....” We’d hiked quite literally “under the Tuscan sun” all day. It beat down on us from above; it radiated up into our faces from white gravel paths and black macadam. The sun stole my energies – and sense of humor. At least temporarily. But pilgrims pay attention to landscape.

We survey the terrain of the spirit. Each town had one. My hiking buddy Tara and I sought it out, hiking around town at the end of even an arduous day. We were trying to figure out, as I put it, “how this place works.” How do they mark their houses? Who lives in them? Where do the men hang out? Where do the women congregate?

We saw lots.

*In Acquapendente we watched a funeral procession filed past, the mourners on foot, the coffin in a slow-moving black hearse. We found three women in a doorway, one crocheting, one waving the flyswatter, one carrying the conversation.

*We sat in the square at Ponte a Cappiano, watching our lingerie flap in breeze of a window in our hostel a block away – literally, on the ponte or bridge across a canal. Tara sketched; I wrote; the town’s youth cheered wildly for the Italians playing in the World Cup; the old men sat at another café on the other side of the street, regarding us and our laundry and all the commotion.

*Toward the end of our hike, I stalked the narrow streets of the medieval city, trying to imagine how it might have worked in the 16th century. A medieval fair was in progress, and people brushed past me in all manner of medieval regalia, aiding my imagination.

Pilgrims pay attention to the landscape of the spirit.

Finally, I noticed the inner landscape, where its surfaces were smooth or rough. I noticed where the path had been straight-forward, where it was more circuitous. I regarded the kind and quality of markers, whether yellow arrows or burly pilgrims – or still other pointers. I observed obstacles that had stalled or impeded steady forward motion. Finally, I lifted up the signs that had pointed the way forward: an opportunity that had come my way unbidden, a series of “coincidences” that, under closer inspection, weren’t really random, a desire denied whose fulfilment would have darkened the spirit. Some of these waypoints turned out to be people: I saw their faces more clearly along the way – and gave thanks for their guidance.

Pilgrims pay attention to the landscape of the spirit, and that habit of attention persists, even and especially back home.

Not perfect vision – but vastly improved.