It’s not Heart Surgery

Last-minute preparations: stop the newspaper, clean the cat litter box, pay bills in advance, finalize lawn-mowing arrangements, fill the bird feeder. Everyday living has lots of details to it that have to be handed off or sloughed off during an absence from home. I told my husband, whom I am joining in Europe, that I feel more like I am going to prison than going to Spain.

I have been paying more attention to little things I enjoy: the flash of the red cardinal in the yard. Cats snoozing in sunny spots in the house. Will those peonies open before I leave, and will they still be in bloom when I return? (The latter is very likely.) Morning sun through the windows. These are good things, being traded in for the unknown rain of Spain, which looks as miserable as rain anywhere else if you have to walk in it. Walking pilgrims have no choice.

The pilgrimage may be in Spain, but it’s not Club Med. It’s Club Camino, for walkers along the Camino de Santiago staying in inexpensive albergues where it is possible to encounter bedbugs, though Bill has made no such discoveries.

I don’t know what I’ll discover, besides how quickly I will adapt. This pilgrimage right now strikes me as extreme retreat, with lots of walking meditation required. I am discovering a combination of travel anxiety + pilgrimage anxiety + being away from home anxiety. On the other hand, it’s not open heart surgery, which I had last summer. There’s perspective. There’s anxiety.

I know what I will miss here. I think of the prophets called by God in the Hebrew Bible, and a number of them said: Why me? This is not a calling by any means, but I can relate to the foot-dragging reluctance before a new vista opens up. FullSizeRenderI don’t have to; I get to.

Shifting to gratitude and prayer always works. Bill was fortunate to get a blessing for his journey from a chaplain colleague at his hospital. I worked last night, and my duties included blessing of the hands of nurses, a sweet ritual that many really appreciate. At the end of my shift the two chaplains who came on blessed me for the road, including my reluctant pilgrim feet.

Getting ready. Part One.

So the plan is to walk the Camino de Santiago. This Christian pilgrimage route in northern Spain has been trod since the 9th century. It honors the apostle James, according to legend buried in Spain. More legend involves James in the Christian effort to evict the Moors from Spain in a battle in 844 that didn’t actually happen. Nonetheless St. James managed to become the patron of Spain and gained the sobriquet Santiago Matamoros: the Moor killer. This historical context of conquest and killing for religion’s sake will be something to reflect on as I walk the route. History cannot be ignored, but it need not be a mire in which to get stuck.

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Why am I doing this? It seemed like a good idea when my husband said he planned to do it. I happen to like Spain, having visited Barcelona. I like walking with my husband; it is one of our chief shared joys. And when I inquired, I discovered I could get academic credit from my seminary. It added up to a number of reasons to take a long walk.

I see preparation in two ways: spiritual and physical. I’ve started the conditioning, walking with a weighted backpack. My husband has already procured various waterproof sacks into which things one wants to keep dry are to be stuffed. I am wearing my old hiking boots right now, hoping they will suffice. I don’t think medieval pilgrims went out and bought new gear for the journey.

I have begun looking forward to something that has heretofore inspired mostly anxiety. I write to train my thoughts to go in this direction, instead of idling in the shadows. The spiritual preparation is harder and therefore easier to ignore. But at both levels, I have to figure out what I need to carry and what I should leave behind.

Much more later.

Travel Anxiety

I had a period earlier in my life when I was fearful about flying. I remember having some exceptionally turbulent flights that might have been the cause. It took a few years for that worry to recede. But I begin to wonder if it hasn’t been replaced by pre-travel anxiety. I notice I dread getting ready for traveling.

I’m going to walk the Camino de Santiago, a millennium-old spiritual pilgrimage route in northern Spain, in late spring with my husband. I keep waiting to get excited. Instead I’m worrying: what if he gets sick? What if I get sick? What if the accommodations are dirty? I don’t know very much Spanish. Will the cats be OK without us? I hate cold showers. My backpack is too heavy (six pounds).

I started googling. “Travel anxiety” got 54 million hits. The first aha: I’m not alone. You mean I’m not the only one who worries about going to a foreign country where I don’t speak the language and I’ll be walking 250 kilometers and wondering what to do if it rains as I walk? My first step down a path of many kilometers is a small one of relief.

Lots of help pops up when I research the Camino, which I have already started. I may be anxious, but I am also preparing: Tickets bought. Walking with weighted pack. Reading guides. And worrying.

Anxiety about the unfamiliar is normal; this I know, and I know concrete things to lessen anxiety, all of which have to do with reducing the unknown to the extent I can without becoming a control freak: find a cat sitter. Figure out what I will carry and weigh it. Keep up with conditioning.

Some of it is fear of finding out things about myself: I expect to be able to do this. What if I can’t? Then who am I? The farther I go down the road of what-ifs, the more I detour from the main route of learning, planning, hoping. This particular journey is intended to make demands. The Way of St. James is supposed to be hard. It is also voluntary.

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It is also a spiritual journey. For me that means my husband will not be my only traveling companion. Jesus, whom I have gotten better acquainted with over the past six years at seminary, lived a life on his feet, going from town to town. One of his best known journeys took place after the resurrection, when he went unrecognized by two walking companions going to Emmaus. Jesus on the road inspired a lot of Western artists. Carl Jung regards the much (re)told story, stuck in the imaginations of so many, as an instance of the “magical traveling companion.” I plan to remember that while walking.

Wailing is a start

Yesterday I was too tired and too viscerally scared to write. My fear relates to fascism, which frightened me a lot when I was growing up. People being mean really scares me and throws me back to feeling young and helpless. I had already imagined our neighbors down the street with seven Trump signs on their lawn banging loudly on my door, coming to get me.

I see a lot of fear from my friends on Facebook: pictures of a swastika already spotted. A lesbian friend insulted on the street by a stranger. African-American women feeling numb and bone-weary. The weary need to rest and take time to mourn. (I hope Hillary takes a little vacation, too.)

I took a long walk on an insistently sunny day and got some sleep after a stressfully long election night vigil. I also thought about biblical lamentation; never mind that my biblical studies teacher suggested that there is a difference between lament and complaint. Be that as it may, I stumbled on a strong lament/wail/complaint from the Psalms, a wonderful compendium of praise and curse, gratitude and despair:

…As for the gang leader of those who surround me,

Let their mischievous words cover them; smother them in trouble.

Let hot coals fall from heaven upon them

And cast them into the roaring fires.

May they sink into the muddy marsh from which there is no return.

Let no liar find a home anywhere in the land;

Let evil hunt down the violent man and do him in quickly. …     Ps. 140: 9-11

I understand my Bible better this morning: wailing can help. There is a time for that too.

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And then … I have also begun thinking about what I am called to do: what’s my task that uses my talents and not only takes energy but gives it back? I can stand with my journalist friends and advocate for a vigilant press because we’re really going to need eyes on someone who has a track record of dishonesty – he reminds me of Richard Nixon – and who has worked hard to vilify the press in order to undermine its credibility. I am also starting to see fake news stories, which really sows confusion. Lots of forces are at work here, actually, and this is a good analysis for those interested. I just signed up to be a supporter of the Guardian , which I had been reading for free. The press is important; freedom of the press ended up being a constitutional right for a reason.

That argument is a little more abstract than I wanted to make. A better question to pose and answer is how can I keep heart (especially since I had a really expensive cardiac repair job just this summer)? A lot of my progressive friends are angry and calling for organizing. I don’t think that is my call; anger tends to hinder me and make me inarticulate. It’s a tool I don’t use well. I think love and empathy are better tools. These things are lower on the list of progressives, derided as hippie-ish or kumbayah in our postmodern era. Yet one of the reasons many of us find Donald Trump objectionable is what appears to be his total lack of empathy  – the ability to imagine and respect what someone else experiences. As a new chaplain, I’ve had the opportunity to study empathy; it can be cultivated.

I was reminded about empathy when my friend Jana Riess posted Mr. Rogers’ advice about looking for the helpers in a column she wrote about post-election trauma. To that I would add as a Quaker: what is your gift? What is your call? What can you do that will sustain you, your neighbors, and the planet? There’s a lot that needs doing. Pick the need and sign up and in.

Lament

Both Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jon Stewart have spoken my mind on the murders in Charleston. I feel heavily the charge that white people need to speak more forcefully against racism. One thing I can do is use my particular gift of writing; I’m also privileged to be in seminary these days, wrestling with understanding the Bible. I know for sure: the Bible speaks about violence, understands violence, portrays it. Who needs Game of Thrones to understand exquisite cruelty, anger, revenge? The seeds of violence are in the human heart and it is a most persistent weed; it is evil in the garden.

The sin of racism has allowed this weed to flourish for centuries. When violence arms itself with guns, wraps itself with flags, seduces the cowardly or weak-minded, the result is lethal. There is lament in Charleston and throughout the land.

Do what you can. Those of us who are privileged cannot afford despair. Read, march, weep, pray. There are many prayers of anger and lament in the Bible:

Don’t kill them,

or my people might forget;

instead, by your power

shake them up and bring them down,

you who are our shield and my Lord.

For the sin of their mouths,

the words that they speak,

let them be captured in their pride.

For the curses and lies they repeat,

finish them off in anger;

finish them off until they are gone!

Then let it be known

to the ends of the earth

that God rules over Jacob.

Ps. 59: 11-1

The Still Days

After the service of Holy Thursday, lights dim to shadowMichelangelo_Merisi_da_Caravaggio_-_The_Entombment_-_WGA04148, and sound ceases: no organ, no bells, no singing. We mark the three-day passion, death, and entombment of Jesus in silence. In earlier times, these were known as the Still Days. No sound until Easter morning, when we, like Mary, will discover that Jesus has risen from the dead.

Yet until we learn that, time is interminable and still. The three days that mark the nadir of the liturgical year for all Christians are days of betrayal, agony, suffering, death. How could that be? Jesus’ followers must have wondered at the terrible turn of events: a close aide betrays him, his frightened friends scatter and hide. The man whose words drew crowds is tortured and crucified, bearing a painful and humiliating punishment that brazenly trumpets the mightiness of the Powers That Be over the lowly people to whom Jesus gave bread and hope.

We reflect on this on the still days, in the quiet. We are alone; where is the Lord? They have seized him, they have murdered him. Stillness is the frame for tears, anxiety, fears, despair. The minutes of the still days stretch on. The sun will not set; sleep will not come.

As a follower in mourning, what would I have done? Walked, I think, down dirt paths and byways, trying to hide, in order to be alone and weep, trying to somehow run fast enough to run back into the past, before the horror happened and the world was not rent, like the curtain in the temple. On the still days, sorrow muffles any feeble words that might offer consolation but utterly fail.

We wait in the still days for the time to pass, the air to move. We wait for nothing, hearts broken, numbed, dazed, cried out.

What next? No answer. Only stillness.

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?