The End of the Journey

The Cathedral at Santiago is undergoing renovation. So its best-known face, the Obradoiro Façade, was shrouded by scaffolding and no one could enter through that side of the church. We used the Puerta de las Platerias, on the south side. My very first impression of the church as we circumnavigated it was that it was a fortress; the Wikipedia entry for the cathedral notes that it is the largest Romanesque church in Spain and one of the largest in Europe. I remembered that St. James is known as Santiago Matamoros, the Moor-slayer, important to Spain’s political-national identity. The development of the Way helped attract Christians to the northern kingdoms of Spain.

Once inside I began to see nuance and detail in the vastness of the structure. We attended the botafumeiro ceremony held before the Sunday Mass for pilgrims. The cathedral was packed with people, many of whom left after the massive censer had finished smoking and swinging; large tour groups were present only for that showy ceremony, and the crowd thinned for the Mass afterward.

Santiago, May 28: The swinging of the botafumeiro was like watching a projectile moving back and forth in space, as if it wanted to reach the high high high ceiling, flashing in a smoky haze back and forth. Ritual writ large, literally. We sat on the cold stone steps and were blessed, as it were, to have a good vantage point on the procession entering the church.

The inside was flashy; we saw the vast pipes for the organ, which mesmerized Bill; fixtures inside glittered. Almost accidentally we got in line to pass by the box holding what are said to be the saint’s remains. There was too much to take in, and we who were inside following the Mass were urged to vacate so the next group of visitors could enter. But we sat on the cold floor for Mass, and that ritual joined us to millions of witnesses who had been here before us, since the cathedral was first begun in 1075.

Fisterra, May 29: This is the end of the (Old) World, so named by the Romans, who knew a lot but didn’t know what they didn’t know. Fish swim in small schools near the harbor walls. 

 

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We finally took a bus to this town on the Atlantic Ocean. It had never been part of our pilgrimage plans to walk here, though some do. Bill ran into a pilgrim he had met earlier, who had taken three days to walk from Santiago to Fisterra.

Spain that used to rule the seas and colonized the southern half of the Western hemisphere for centuries is today a modest and slightly broke country. Things change, they end. Our journey ended here, and both of us were more than ready to return. Fisterra, which once symbolized the end of the world, was the end of making my world bigger, growing it to encompass 46 million contemporary Spaniards, living in beautiful stone houses throughout the countryside, riding the Madrid metro, serving us the menu of the day with a bottle of local Spanish wine, welcoming us at the end of a hard day’s walk.

Today’s pilgrims, ranging from Pennsylvania to Sydney, Australia, (two who walked up behind us when they heard us one day speaking English), all have their homes too, and their boot prints follow in the footsteps of a millennium’s worth of pilgrims. Everyone has a story, everyone has a soul (we were struck by the Iglesia de Las Animas in Santiago, with its colorful relief of souls in the flames of Purgatory).

I summarize my pilgrimage for people who ask by telling them it was both delightful and difficult. I do not feel more holy, but I do feel more whole.

Dublin airport, May 31: Pilgrimage unifies mind/body/soul. The body is taxed and the mind goes a little wacky and the soul is touched.

Vision

Fasting is a spiritual discipline. Muslims do it every year during the month of Ramadan. Catholics do it every year during the 40-day season of Lent. Fasting’s purpose is to get one to think less about appetites and more about God, about our dependence on God. For Catholics, the fast of Lent is also understood as a period of waiting. The resurrection is coming, but the road to it is long, and suffering is going to happen along the way.

I am fasting this week as part of #Fast4Power, which I stumbled onto through social media. It struck me as a good way to hang out with people of faith as our country moves into a new era that will be shaped by lots of people with whom I vehemently disagree. More bluntly, I fear a time when it is socially acceptable to be mean. But the point here is not to spin out apprehensions and anxieties but think about how to be ready to resist whatever marks a retreat from the goals of justice and common good.

I have found fasting to be harder than I anticipated. The rules for fasting resemble those for a Ramadan fast: no eating between sunrise and sundown. Muslims are also expected not to drink liquids, but that was not asked here. In spite of the short days of January, it was difficult to go grocery shopping while fasting, hard to not hanker for some of the fragrant pea soup being served at Quaker meeting meal on Sunday. Ironically enough, I find myself thinking more about food. But then I have a chance to think about the power of the thought and how it comes to preoccupy me. Recognizing that it’s a thought and not an actual hunger is helpful, and a step toward letting go of the thought or countering it. These mental machinations are familiar to me from meditation, so it is like using mental muscles to redirect the flow of thought.

I have also found it helpful to reflect on my favorite Bible verse: The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (For those who don’t recognize it or unfamiliar with Christian scripture, it’s Galatians 5:22-23.) My self-control needs work, and that muscle too is getting exercised. Self-control also comes to my mind as I reflect on and remember the civil rights movement of the 1960s. What kind of training, courage, and self-control did it take to face police dogs and police with clubs and fire hoses? And those were just the legal barriers. We could ask Congressman John Lewis, who was there. I wasn’t, but I was born, so this is not history but memory. I was part of the larger web of connectedness, learning in my youth about the world.

The other part of #Fast4Power is community. It’s not just about the self. Ramadan is supposed to work in part because it builds awareness of ummah – the world Muslim community. It has certainly helped that my husband is doing this. The #Fast4Power organizers, We Say Enough, have a daily online meeting to provide food for thought. Some servings have been better than others; the poetry has been especially palatable, and the teaching about community has made me more aware of my white individualism. It’s not my agenda, and I am here in solidarity. Thinking about what solidarity means has been a good lesson.

Which comes back to fasting. As a spiritual discipline, its purpose is to express solidarity with those who don’t eat well or enough – those who are involuntarily fasting. Most of them, unsurprisingly, are women and children, according to the World Food Programme.Reflecting on the 795 million people in the world who are chronically is perspective-giving, well beyond American shores. It’s a basic exercise in empathy: not everybody lives like me.

Community simply means we are in this together. Given the multiplicity of interest groups and issues these days, I am not sure who is included in “we.” But I know this is true, courtesy of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world.” My pre-sunrise tea came from England, but it surely wasn’t grown there. Today’s #Fast4Power question dealt with vision. I dream of a world where everyone has a beautiful and bountiful basket of fruit of the spirit, to sustain them when they hunger.

What do you dream of?

On first looking into the Quran

If I were one of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, this might be a rite of passage for me. But I am an American Quaker Christian studying the Quran at my seminary. I’ve been to mosques, read books, attended numerous iftars (fast-breaking dinners during the holy month of Ramadan) and interfaith dinners, heard panels and lectures, and learned from my Muslim friends. So I am using a sympathetic lens informed by more than two decades of exposure to Islam.

But I’ve always been a little frightened by the Quran with what I anticipated might be its judgments and commands and justifications. (Sacred texts have a reputation for that.) It stands there in my imagination like a very tall man I met many years ago from Kuwait. He was dressed in traditional garb, except for the wingtips on his feet. He looked down at me during our conversation about Islam and asked, “Now that you have seen the truth, why don’t you accept it?”

His question rings for me when we discuss at seminary the “truth claims” made by religions. When in the Gospel of John the Roman governor Pilate asks his prisoner Jesus “What is truth?” I have a certain amount of sympathy for that even though I know Pilate is supposed to be the bad guy in the story. I have taken biblical studies courses and have found myself able to at least dogpaddle in the deepest waters of centuries of interpretation. But the Quran, and its centuries of tradition and multiplicity of cultural heritages, comes at me like a flood of foreignness, surprising me with my own assumptions as well as its teachings.

The Quran is written in Arabic, a language foreign to me, and I know next to nothing about the history of 7th century Arabia. But familiar characters appear: Isa (Jesus), Musa (Moses), Yusuf (Joseph), Maryam (Mary, the mother of Jesus). Maryam is more developed in the Quran than in Christian Scripture; I want to enter the text through that inviting open door. Central themes are also familiar: justice (adl), mercy (rahma), beauty (jamal). What the believers ought to believe is threaded through the text, of course.studyquran

My beautiful text (The Study Quran, a beautifully designed edition) comes with footnotes, as all study versions of sacred texts do. They promise to be helpful when I come to the texts of terror, to use the phrase of biblical scholar Phyllis Trible. But she didn’t get that phrase from a study of the Quran; that comes courtesy of close reading of the Scripture that Jews and Christians share. (Significantly, the Quran offers an alternative merciful reading of Hagar.)

While knowing biblical texts helps, I am also leaning on the poet John Keats, who wrote memorably about his encounter with Chapman’s translation of Homer. Poetry is (or was?) my first love, and phrases from Keats have popped up for me mentally throughout my life. I may be a writer but I cannot fully explain the power of being struck “Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” I’ve spotted a new world that is all the horizon there is for so many, thrilling, intimidating, and vast, vast, inviting contemplation.

 

Meditation: Lobstah Land

To my prairie-formed Midwestern eyes, Maine looks like nothing else I’ve seen: big water and hard granite. I come from the land of lake and limestone, where one watches for deer darting across the road, not massive moose that will best your car in a collision. The water around the island of Vinalhaven, where I am visiting, is dotted by colorful, bobbing buoys that mark the location of lobster traps. It’s lobster (or lobstah, as Mainahs call it) roll time and the season for summer people, down east and midcoast or wherever it is I am, not at home but visiting someone at her home.

My friend’s family is as native to Vinalhaven as its granite. Her great-grandfather polished the granite columns on the library; she points them out to me, and later shows me the farm her grandfather sold during the Depression. It’s now owned by summer people from Boston. Some people have been here a long time; her family name helps her fit in to the community of year-round residents, which is smaller by a few thousand than the summer population. Everybody wants to be in Maine in summertime, especially those who live the rest of the year in hot cities elsewhere.

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It’s not easy to get there; you need to know the ferry schedule. And the weather might mean the ferry won’t run, so you need to be ready with a plan B. Your car might not fit on the boat, which is OK because there’s no place you need to drive. The commercial strip is a few blocks long, and then it’s trees and rocks and houses sprinkled in outlying areas.

Besides granite, water, and lobsters, it’s all neighbors. My friend knows the vendors at the farmers market; one apologizes for not recognizing her. Stops to chat with people she knows are frequent. It’s a small place: small means everybody is up in your business, but pretty discreetly so. They give you your space. They’re Yankees: self-reliant and industrious, respecters of privacy, but there if you need ’em.

The Harbor Gawker restaurant, celebrating 40 years, is for sale. It’s called that because as it was originally sited, before the street was re-engineered, customers could sit and gawk at the harbor. The tablecloths are red and white checkered oilcloth. The menu is neatly printed on chalkboard after chalkboard after chalkboard, listing a dizzying variety of ways to serve fish and shellfish and, of course, lobster. It’s known for generous servings. My lobster roll is so stuffed with hunks of mayonnaised crustacean that I eat it with gusto and deliberation, so none of it ends up in my lap.

Place: what you see, what you hear, what you eat, how people live. Foreign or familiar, offering roots yet changing. Work, food, ancestors, neighbors, weather, the horizon of history and rock and big water. Millions of permutations of home.

Resurrecting That Old House

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John 2:19

That old house has finally sold. It’s been empty for a while, and what used to be a grand old place on West Main Street now looks more ramshackle than rambling. It’s a big red brick place, a relic of Richmond, Indiana’s, 19th century economic glory and also a street side memento of the family that once lived there and likely hosted grand gatherings. The house looks like it’s easily suffered years of neglect. I’d like to interrogate it: why are you empty? What were you like before?

The whole place takes up an acre in the city, along a busy thoroughfare. Most of it is a yard so overgrown with woods and weeds it resembles the forbidden forests of fairy tales. One year I saw plenty of poison ivy. This year I have seen a collective of cats. I’m guessing the Enchanted Forest hosts a feral colony that can live there discreetly and safely. I’ve even heard the cats live in the house, which wouldn’t surprise me; it would certainly have enough bedrooms to accommodate an extended feline family. There are still curtains on the house’s front window, a leftover touch of elegance, an intimation that light and hospitality once were there and can come again.

It will take work for that old house to be resurrected. These past two weeks at seminary while studying the subjects of poverty and justice I’ve seen photos of Resurrection City , the tent city erected on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1968 by the Poor People’s Campaign begun by Martin Luther King Jr. It is both a good idea and a rough place there at the intersection of hope and faith, a fixer-upper in a less well-heeled neighborhood of the Kingdom of Heaven.

In the pictures I’ve seen, Resurrection City looked pretty depressing, a shanty town. If it had beauty, I guess you had to know where to look for it or know how, through a very active imagination. Dr. King certainly knew; his mind’s eye opened by God, he told us he had seen the Promised Land. In the speech he delivered in Memphis the night before he was assassinated and months before his campaign marched on Washington, he saw something very few others could see. ,Beyond the Memphis sanitation workers strike, beyond the snarling dogs and fire hoses and jail cells of the civil rights movement, he could see the kingdom, because, like Moses, he had been to the mountaintop. The rest of us lack imagination or are hustling along in our lives. Some are angry; others lack faith.

I wonder where the flowers were in Resurrection City. Cities need little details to make them livable and pleasing: cats padding around at twilight, flowers that bloom welcome, kids playing. Did those city planners want only to tell the truth? Truth is not always beautiful; sometimes it’s simply the medicine you need when you’re sick, bringing healing and tasting bitter. If Resurrection City was a failure, perhaps it was because they didn’t plant flowers. They certainly planted seeds. How long, oh Lord, till those seeds flower?