Choose your own adventure: some thoughts on pilgrimage

IMG_1936My summer has definitely had a bit of a pilgrimage theme. A mini-pilgrimage I was privileged to make earlier this week with my son has me reflecting on the whole idea of pilgrimage. There are many different types of pilgrimage; one could of course say there are as many types of pilgrimage as there are pilgrims.

There was our Walk Across England, which was a certain kind of pilgrimage, where the travel itself was certainly more important than the destination. During that walk, I spent some time thinking about my ancestors, the Mayflower Pilgrims, who left this land, already in the 16th century, etched with stone walls and footpaths, for a perilous journey to the New World, where the pilgrimage was not so much about the journey or even the destination as it was about escaping a certain life in exchange for an uncertain one in an unknown place.

There is the pilgrimage described in the novel I just read, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Like some great memoirs old and new, this fictional story recounts two distinct pilgrimages in parallel: the outer journey to a particular destination and the inward journey backwards and forwards through one’s own uniquely challenging life. Perhaps all pilgrimage has this outer, geographical component as well as the inner component.

Durham CathedralThere are pilgrimages to famous sites: Canterbury, Santiago de Campostela, Mecca, places hallowed by history and places to which, presumably, a pilgrim connects through their own history, their faith, their heart. A few weeks ago I visited Durham Cathedral and the popular Shrine of St. Cuthbert, a pilgrimage site for many over the centuries.

Last night, my family and I got together with a friend who leads pilgrimages through the Holy Land. He and his wife spoke very movingly about how their everyday Christian experience which they had long taken for granted – saying or attending mass, praying certain prayers, participating in baptism – had been transformed for all time by being in those ancient holy places.

IMG_1942A few days ago, my 16-year-old son and I journeyed from London by train and then bus to the little Sussex village of Hartfield, where we made our way on foot through rolling sheep fields, along narrow, wooded lanes, passing several farms-turned-luxury homes, through the Hundred Acre Wood to the Pooh Bridge. This was clearly a pilgrimage site like all the others, complete with advance instructions that if one wanted to play a game of Pooh Sticks, one needed to pick up a stick along the path out of town, because the trees and ground around the bridge had been completely picked bare of any suitable branches or twigs.

IMG_1941As we left the bridge we saw a little shrine in a hollow tree where people had left small pots of honey and notes to Pooh, as well as a note from Pooh apologizing for not writing thank-you notes, because he was, of course, “a bear of very little brain.”

This was clearly a pilgrimage site as much as any other. My son has a lasting, personal connection, through his own story and his own heart, to the place and the literary history shared by millions around the globe. That mix of the personal and, depending on one’s perspective, the universal makes the Hundred-Acre Wood and the Pooh Bridge holy land.


My son’s connection to the story and the place is his own to tell (or not), but the pilgrimage experience in all its forms is ours for the taking. What’s your pilgrimage story? Where have your been, or where do you want to go?

nathan hundred acre wood

Up here at the 54th parallel

People who go to church with me know that I am fond of saying, about any given feast day (and even a few fast days), that this or that feast day is my very favorite day of the year. All Saints’ Day, Ash Wednesday, Advent I…all beloved. And this is how it’s been for me on this walk. With a few exceptions, every bed-and-breakfast, every meal, every village, has been better than the one before.

20130715-183534.jpg There was something especially sweet and enticing about the very last place we stayed before completing The Walk, Intake Farm just above the tiny village of Little Beck. (Beck is Old Norse for stream; we have followed many becks along this trek.) A working farm that raises about 60 head of beef every year, along with a few dozen lambs, the farm sits on a hillside with views of Whitby and Whitby Abbey to the north and the Yorkshire moors to the west. The farmhouse is huge, comfortably cluttered with thousands of books and mismatched overstuffed furniture. The upstairs guest rooms are large, light and airy. Our window looks east (where, somewhere over the hills is the North Sea and the end of the Walk) at a field full of cows and sheep and green hills beyond.

Up here at the 54th parallel it stays light until 10:30 pm, and the sun is fully risen, a bright wake-up call, before 5 am (daylight begins around 3:45). The nights are deliciously quiet, the mornings bright and inviting. This morning we both woke to the sun in our eyes as 5, and were packed and ready to hit the last stretch of trail by 6:30. With an hour to wait for breakfast, I had to be content with reading, drinking tea, and finishing my little coast-to-coast knitting project. Looking out at the sun on the hills, listening to the birds and the first sounds of sheep calling to each other, I didn’t want to leave. (“This is my very favorite B&B,” I said to Mark. “Let’s be sure to come back here.” It’s a running joke between us; we cannot imagine retracing the whole walk, but we have such a growing list of places where it would be great to come back and stay for a weekend, we might as well.)

When I moved to Portland in 1986, I did so in a Ryder Rent-a-Truck, driving from Boston to Portland along Interstate 90, which I like to think follows, roughly, the 45th parallel that bisects Oregon. I’d never seen most of our country, and it was a wonderful odyssey. I loved the vast, flat states–Wisconsin, parts of South Dakota–almost as much as the wild mountainous parts of Wyoming, Montana, and the Idaho panhandle. I was so moved by seeing so much of the country that I was completely unprepared for the most stunning part to be near the end, when the only thing on my mind was getting to Portland and out of that truck. So imagine my surprise when we drove through the Columbia River Gorge.


That’s how it was today, finishing our Walk Across England. It was a perfect day for walking and we set out thinking only about the final finish line. I had expected that we would trudge through our three thousandth cow pasture and march through the village of Robin Hood’s Bay into the sea. Instead, we hit the sea about 75 minutes’ walking time north of the village, just south of Whitby, and were treated to a perfect path along the sea, worth every step it took to get here.

We made our way through the village down to the beach and did the ritual tossing of pebbles into the sea, pebbles we picked up eighteen days ago from the beach at St Bee’s on the Irish Sea on a misty-rainy day. It is hard to believe this particular journey – all 192 miles! – is behind us. I can’t wait to find out what’s next!


Postcards from London

We started off the day with coffee, of course. It's hard to argue with the signage.

We started off the day with coffee, of course. It’s hard to argue with the signage.

Today was our last day in London until the end of July. It was a full day, bits and pieces of which I’m hoping to share in what follows.  Enjoy!

We took the tube from our 'hood to East Aldgate, where I visited St. Botolph's-outside-the gate, where my mentor-friend Ken Leech was Theologian-in-Residence for many years.

We took the tube from our ‘hood to East Aldgate, where I visited St. Botolph’s-outside-the gate, where my mentor-friend Ken Leech was Theologian-in-Residence for many years.

The center of our day was spent on Brick Lane, which has for centuries been a fascinatingly diverse area, always dominated by one distinct ethnic group after another: ghettoized 19th-century Londoners, 20th-century Eastern Europeans Jews, 21st-century Indians and Bengalis.

If you’re not familiar with Ken Leech or his work, you might want to be. You can start here.

St. Botolph's hosts a lot of wonderful art. This is my favorite, title "Sanctuary" and dedicated "To all victims of oppression."
St. Botolph’s hosts a variety of wonderful art inside and out. This is my favorite, titled “Sanctuary” and dedicated “To all victims of oppression.”
We walked from St. Botolph's along Whitechapel Road, and passed the famous Whitechapel Bell Company. This is the oldest continuously running business in England (if not the world) and was the manufacturer of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Whitechapel bells come with a lifetime guarantee, and when a clever tourist complained that the Liberty Bell was cracked, the manager at the time said "of course we'll replace it, so long as you return it in its original packaging."
We walked from St. Botolph’s along Whitechapel Road, and passed the famous Whitechapel Bell Company. This is the oldest continuously running business in England (if not the world) and was the manufacturer of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Whitechapel bells come with a lifetime guarantee, and when a clever tourist complained that the Liberty Bell was cracked, the manager at the time said “of course we’ll replace it, so long as you return it in its original packaging.”
keep calm ramadan
We passed the East London Mosque, London’s largest and most influential mosque. I visited it in 2002 as part of a tour group, on a day when I found myself the only woman on Whitechapel Road without a head-covering. (The staff of the women’s entrance at the mosque happily provided me a headscarf to wear inside.)


We left the Whitechapel/Brick Lane area and walked for what seemed by the to be a very long way to Roman Road, where we passed St. Barnabas, where I spent six weeks as an intern of sorts in 2002.

In the park near St. Barnabas, we found a great addition since our 2002 visit: a playground for grown-ups, probably added in anticipation of the 2012 Olympics.


Yes, there is some writing happening these days!

And lest anyone wonder whether I’m doing any writing at all….we found a fabulous cafe in Bethnal Green before leaving the East End to head back to the place we’re staying, and I worked for about an hour.

The day ended with a trip to Euston Station to buy our tickets for tomorrow’s journey north to St. Bee’s, where we’ll dip our toes into the Irish Sea in preparation for our Coast-to-Coast Walk.

Like a lot of East End churches, St. Barnabas was bombed in the second World War. Hence the truncated steeple.

Like a lot of East End churches, St. Barnabas was bombed in the second World War. Hence the truncated steeple.

We had Bengali food on Brick Lane, which we've been looking forward to for months and months. Yum.

We had Bengali food on Brick Lane. Yum.

Here was a great collection of durable, outdoor resistance equipment, including a pull-up bar which seemed to do wonders for Mark's bad back.

Here was a great collection of durable, outdoor resistance equipment, including a pull-up bar which seemed to do wonders for Mark’s bad back.

The playground for grown-ups.

Another view of the playground for grown-ups.

In which I discover universalism in an unlikely place

I moved to the city where I currently live in May 1986. My first task, after making the beds and finding the grocery store was to find a church. I was twenty-six and a relatively new Christian, having been baptized two years earlier. I had never worshipped anywhere besides the church in which I was baptized, a shabby but beautiful place with an informal Prayer Book liturgy as the container for liberal-progressive theology and a strong emphasis on the arts. The cross-country move was an opportunity to continue sorting out what kind of Christian I might turn out to be.

photo 1 (38)On a beautiful June morning I walked to the church closest to our house, and soon found myself in the back of the church’s long, narrow interior of brick in different shades of brown. When my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness I saw elaborate renaissance-style paintings covering the wall behind the altar and in a small side chapel. Candles, paintings of saints, and gorgeous Tiffany-inspired stained glass windows were everywhere. I was a sucker for Christian art although I didn’t know much about it. I loved the stillness and the darkness.

The congregation was small, a couple dozen people, evenly divided between young men and old ladies, several of whom covered their heads with bits of lace, the elderly Anglican version of a Catholic mantilla. With a tank top and Indian wrap skirt, I felt a little bare and out of place. The pew was pleasantly cool when I sat down. A moment later the organ prelude broke the silence, and a few minutes after that, we stood for the opening hymn. The basic structure of worship in the Episcopal Church is the same the world over, a fact that is a source of comfort to some and a source of tedium to others: Opening hymn, opening prayer, song of praise, two bible readings with a psalm in between, another hymn, a reading from the gospel, a sermon, more prayers, and communion. I found this predictable order reassuring.

After the reading of the gospel, I heard—and felt—the collective creak of the pews as we all sat for the sermon. I looked forward to hearing what the priest had to say, as a way of learning more about that particular church. So far, I liked it because of its beauty and its size; I thought a small congregation would be easier to get to know.

Then the priest began to speak.

“I’m going to tell you all about an important thing that happened just a few weeks ago.”

He stood in a pulpit about five feet up from the rest of us, reading from a sheaf of papers.

“I received a phone call from my brother, whom I hadn’t seen for a while. He lives in Seattle; we’ve lost touch the way family members do when they don’t have much more in common than blood ties.”

This made me think of my brother, who was a year younger than me and had moved to Taiwan when he graduated from college, to make his way as an English teacher and English-language radio announcer. We had little in common and didn’t talk much, but were very close nonetheless. We always would be.

“My brother called me to say that his eldest son, my nephew, had died suddenly in a house fire. He was twenty-seven.”

I was twenty-six. In my youth I had not been able to imagine living past twenty-five, and now I had survived many of the dangers, toils, snares of a turbulent adolescence, was a newly-married lady, and felt like the best of my life lay before me. The priest’s words made me shudder.

“My brother was calling me because he wanted me to help him plan his son’s funeral, and he wanted me to officiate at the funeral.”

I felt a pang of sympathy for the priest. I had begun—crazy cart-before-the-horse person that I am—to think about perhaps becoming a priest someday, so I had been thinking about things like weddings and funerals from that new perspective. I couldn’t imagine how I would plan a funeral for someone in my own family, let alone offer words of comfort and explanation in the face of such a tragedy. I imagined that priests learned such things from seminary and from experience. My mind wandered off to contemplate what fun it would be to study theology and scripture at the graduate level.

“I told him, of course”— he lengthened the space between each word, for emphasis—“I told him that because his son was not a baptized Christian, I would not be able to help him.”

I think I sat up two inches straighter in my pew, as if that stretch of the spine could make me better understand what I had just heard. I must have heard wrong, I thought. How could this be? As I puzzled over these words, he continued about the benefits of a Christian burial and the promise of heaven. His message horrified me. I looked around. No one else seemed particularly shocked. A few people nodded at the priest’s words, in agreement. I waited until everyone stood for the creed before slipping out.

photo 2 (41)On that day I learned something important about what kind of a Christian I was turning out to be. I was the kind of Christian who—if anyone asked me—did not distinguish between baptized and un-baptized, Christian and non-Christian. If I were a priest in this or any church, I would want to care for people, in death as in life, whether or not they were baptized, whether or not they were Christian or any other kind of religion. I couldn’t imagine someone being excluded from the church because they didn’t believe as I believed, or were in a different place along the journey. Later I learned the churchy word for this: it turned out I was a universalist, someone who believed that if there was in fact a heaven—a big if, in my book, at that time in my life—there was not just one way to get there, but many ways to get there.

*                        *                        *

Last week I visited that church again, for the first time since that early June Sunday twenty-seven years ago. It was an amazing experience. The music was to die for, especially the cantor. The liturgical style was reminiscent of my favorite parish in New York City, St. Ignatius of Antioch, where I did a year as a seminarian intern. (St. Ignatius used far more incense!) The stained glass is even more beautiful than I remember it. The head-coverings, which I felt sure would have faded out of fashion by now, were out in full force, on women and girls of all ages. I looked around a bit when I arrived to be sure I was not the only woman without one.

The order of service had changed a bit over the decades, and I missed the predictability of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Sparing my patient readers the details let me just say that there were things about it that made me, shall we say, cranky. I almost left several times but had gone with the feeling that I needed to finish the service that I had left unfinished 27 years earlier.

This notice appeared in the service bulletin for the day and also in the season missal in the pew:

This parish observes a closed communion. Following the historic practice of the Anglican Church, preparation for Communion includes sufficient instruction and the Sacrament of Confirmation If you are not prepared to receive, we invite you to join the communicants at the Altar rail with your arms crossed over your chest to receive a blessing.

eucharistBy the time, after about 90 minutes of praying and chanting, it was time for communion, I was not sure I wanted to receive it. And I was not sure it was intended for me, as a woman priest with no mantilla and affiliated with a much more open and inclusive brand of Anglicanism than theirs. But I was hungry for Eucharist. I read over the notice again and decided that I had indeed received sufficient instruction, and was indeed prepared to receive.

It was at the altar rail, sometime between receiving the bread and the wine, than an amazing thing happened. I felt a little shudder in my chest, a catch in my throat, a familiar little prick in my sinuses, and I began to weep. Weeping at communion is not, of course, an abnormal occurrence for me or perhaps for you. What seemed strange was to do so at that place where I’d begun to get my back up a bit, and where I’d spent much of the service taking inventory of all the ways I surely disagreed with that community about so many things.

What I realized, at that moment and in later reflection, was that I was gobsmacked by the power of the Eucharist, by the mysterious capacity of the sacrament to transcend differences and, more to the point, to outsmart all of our interpretations and expectations. Rather like God. This sacramental experience, in that place whose identity seems to be all about affirming separation and difference, was, in fact universal. That little wafer, thin enough to melt in my mouth so I wouldn’t have to chew Our Lord, binds me to everyone in that place and, more importantly, binds all of them, whether they like it or not, to a whole host of others, many of whom are not necessarily the kinds of people with whom they might choose to share that holiest of meals.

When I visited that church 27 years ago, it was where I learned that I was a universalist. The second time I visited a week ago, I learned that–at least in my opinion, from which many of you may differ–the Eucharist makes universalists of us all.

“Look, here is water!” What would you do?

Have you ever baptized anyone?

Ten years ago I spent a summer working with a priest in East London. Like a good Anglo-Catholic, he wore his collar most of the time. One Saturday afternoon, he ran into a sex worker on Roman Road, where the streets were full with the weekly outdoor market. She grabbed his arm, gripped his eyes with hers, and said “I want to be baptized. Would you do it?”

He was about to tell her to come to the church the next morning to talk about it when he realized that the chances of that were slim to nil, and that she wanted to be baptized at that moment, where they stood. They went into the nearest mini-mart for a bottle of water, and then into a side alley away from the traffic. She knelt down on the sidewalk. He asked her name and then, splashing bottled water on her head, repeated the name alongside the universal words of Christian initiation: I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The original Greek of the ancient formula translates “into the name,” so she was baptized into that crazy extended family that starts with the Trinity and includes everyone, even street workers who make up so many names for themselves, that only their mother and God know the real one.

He never saw her again, although there was something about the way he told the story that said he thought of her every time we walked down that part of Roman Road. Waiting for the next person to grab his arm and ask for the same thing.

I preach and lead worship in a tradition that sends mixed messages about baptismal preparation. On one hand, we baptize infants early and often. On the other, we take baptismal formation for unbaptized adults very seriously, and most adults wanting to be baptized undergo some fairly in-depth preparation. Or we like to think they do. I recently led a worship service that included the renewal of baptismal vows. No one was actually being baptized that day although there were half a dozen infants in the congregation and as many unbaptized adults. I stopped just short of a “font call” and later wished I’d gone ahead and said “y’all come.”

If someone asked you to baptize them on the spot, would you do it?

Reading my father into Neruda

His hands shook so wildly he could not feed himself,
and as I watched his wife I wondered:
Is it possible to feed someone and not love them?
The love was part of the food.

Something in Neruda made him zigzag around “To Sadness”
(a la tristeza)—
All about black wings and longed-for darkness
Tristeze, necesito/tu ala negro
And wild scissor-lines around “Goodbyes”:
And, newly arrived, I promptly said goodbye…
left everywhere for somewhere else.
de todas partes a otra parte…

Happy Birthday, Joey Hudoklin, wherever you are!

Although I have been known to forget my own brother’s birthday (he knows I love him anyway), some birthdays are forged into my memory from that particular quasi-adolescent, pre-drugs-and-alcohol time of life when my mind was a sponge for numbers. Not numbers that would help me in math class, mind you, but birthdays, phone numbers, zip codes, street addresses, and combination locks like the one I still use every day, which I bought when I was 14.

When I was in seventh grade, I loved Joey with an everlasting love. I always knew it wasn’t reciprocated but a girl can dream, right? And dream I did, with a far-fetched fantasy life worthy of the overdeveloped twelve-year-old I was. I know I wasn’t alone (some of you might even be reading this post). Girls, and probably a few boys, adored Joey, with his designer clothes, perfect hair, smooth jump shot and aloof manner that seemed–at least to me and probably to my lovesick peers–to hide a deeply complicated and troubled soul.

We led a charmed life, our gang of friends, roaming Greenwich Village, where we all lived, and beyond, park to park, walking that fine city-kid line between staying out of trouble and looking for trouble.

Midway through eighth grade I moved away from New York, and kept in touch with my gang through old-fashioned mail, the occasional outrageously expensive phone call, and regular visits. My everlasting love for Joey faded to an enduring sense of connection.

The last time I saw Joey, I was probably sixteen or seventeen. It was a cold, gunmetal grey afternoon in January or February, and the park was empty except for a few drug dealers, a die-hard pair of chess players, and Joey and his frisbee friends. By that time I knew I could always find him there: he’d traded basketball for freestyle frisbee and spent all day, every day, in Washington Square Park. Somewhere along the way he’d dropped out of high school. I watched him for a while, just like I used to watch him play basketball every day after school when we were twelve. He took a break and I went over to where he was.

“What are you going to do?” I asked him. It was so cold I couldn’t sit down on the bench next to him, but hopped on one foot and then the other to stay warm. “Don’t you know that if you don’t go to high school you can’t go to college?”

“I don’t need to go to high school and I don’t need to go to college. I can’t learn what I need to learn there.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Just you wait and see,” he said, tucking his hands between the bib of his overalls and the Irish knit sweater underneath it. “I’m going to become freestyle champion of the world.”

That was probably in 1975, maybe 1976. I didn’t believe him, of course. I’d heard Joey say those things before. Back in junior high he promised to break all of Wilt Chamberlain’s records in his rookie season with the NBA. Never happened, and I didn’t expect this latest dream to happen, either.

But the thing is….he did it. I found that out a few years ago, doing the kind of random-web-surfing-for-childhood-friends that I rarely do. Sitting around after dinner with my husband and a friend looking at all of Joey’s wikipedia listings, and watching a video, we marveled, not so much at Joey’s great prowess as a freestyle player (that, too), but at the idea that someone actually achieved the kind of outlandish goal that kids say all the time. You can look it up.

Joey didn’t show up at a huge reunion we Village kids had in 2009, the summer of our fiftieth year. I don’t know much, except that he plays the guitar, doesn’t use email or facebook, and still has a following of adoring fans, especially now that freestyle frisbee seems to be making a comback.

Around the time of my everlasting love, Natalie Cole came out with a song called “Joey,” and the refrain went like this:

Joey, Joey, Joey, Joey, Joey, Joey, Joey, Joey, Joey
Hoo, don’t you hear me calling to you, Joey, Joey, Joey

Happy birthday, Joey, wherever you are.