Last weekend my part in our Lenten pilgrimage was interrupted by unexpected family responsibilities. In today’s reflection, we will try to find how obedience to these interruptions can in fact be the real journey.
We have been together on a spiritual pilgrimage to the Desert these past weeks and learning lessons about conversation, speaking and listening, and humility and obedience. We have heard from some of the original Desert Fathers, like Anthony, and from the Mothers, like Syncletica. And we have heard from later collectors of the tradition, like Evagrius. Today, we were going to hear from one of Evagrius’ students, John Cassian, an interpreter of the Desert Tradition to early medieval Europe. Cassian was to teach us about obedience and the practice of detachment. But as in almost every pilgrimage, something unexpected has come up, and the next stop on the way (the next temple, or shrine, or holy site) must wait for us, as it has done throughout time.
During this Lenten journey Almut and I have been watching a public television series about pilgrimage.
The narrators take us on six sacred journeys: The Hajj, Jerusalem, Kumbh Mela, Lourdes, Osun-Osogbo, and Shikoku. Each is an ur-old holy destination visited by pilgrims. For some, only one religious group can do the pilgrimage. For others, many different religions and those of no religion, gather along with the faithful.
A common theme in each film is the experience of pilgrimage, with its goal of personal transformation, and the unexpected turns that produce that transformation. Some pilgrims sprain an ankle, others hear from home of a sickness or death, others meet unexpected obstacles, or necessary detours.
And here is the question: when these detours arrive, can we treat them as part of the journey?
My detour (and therefore ours) came this last weekend. My mother, who has lived in Florida since the early 1950s, has now reached that stage in life when she needs support. This weekend a story arrived that makes it clear. Several phone calls, more text messages, many emails with care takers, and our prayer and meditation here at home over the weekend have resulted in a radical change of plans. Instead of spending Spring break through the Easter weekend together on a writing retreat with our beloved sisters at Saint Benedict's monastery, MN I found myself booking a flight down to Florida, where I will spend 10 days trying to pull together a care plan for my mother. Almut, my partner on life's journey, who has carefully and patiently encouraged and facilitated this Desert pilgrimage with you, was the first to comfort and remind me that unexpected twists lie at the heart of every pilgrimage. She will now go alone to the Monastery, to keep things together from there.
I thought I was on a pilgrimage with you all to understand something about the Desert Elders and try to incorporate that in our lives. I already had planned out each stop on the way. And even though I knew this moment was coming, I was surprised at its arrival. Arriving with it came all the accumulated joys and sorrows of a lifelong relationship with a parent, and the fearful turn to becoming another kind of adult – one who cares for the parent when the time has come. I both welcomed and feared its reality. Many of you may know this kind of late-life growing up.
So Cassian and his wisdom have been put on hold for a moment, as I try to grapple with this. But I think the wisdom of the desert is still to be found in this process of turning. We turn turn, at the call of an elder or the need of a family member, from one goal or task to another. In his Rule, Benedict often mentions the quickness and singleness of heart that a brother or sister must have when called from work to prayer, from one task to another. And Cassian, drawing on the emerging work of monasteries of his day, says the manuscript copyist in the scriptorium, upon hearing the call to another task, should stop writing in the middle of even of a letter, and turn immediately to the new task with a single heart. This description of single-hearted action comes in the middle of Cassian’s writing about obedience. This attitude is the heart of obedience.
Can I do that? At my most optimistic, I do not know. I have been reluctant to take on the burden. But the call this time is unmistakable and must be answered either yes or no. Will I look back with longing on those things I might have done? Blog posts, house projects, classes taught, the garden newly greening, research projects, and plans for deepening our marriage?
But perhaps the point of pilgrimage is not to do any of these things only for its own sake, but to do each of them as a part of the journey. The pilgrims we have been watching in the documentary series often take the obstacle, the black eye, the blisters, the newfound sorrows, and mysteriously incorporate them into the journey. They relate to them not as obstacles, but as the Samaritan saw the broken man on the side of the road. He was “moved by compassion” and turned to immediately care for him. Almut and I watched one documentary as a pilgrim struggled on road of the Buddhist temple circuit in Shikoku. He needed to deal with his physical ailments that required he slow down the planned pace of his journey. While walking, he found a way to incorporate the new pace and the new pain in his journey. And his face was transformed over this time from one of worry and disappointment to one with the shining eyes of enlightenment.
So this is my task in the next days, to be moved and motivated by compassion when my pilgrimage is interrupted. To be obedient to the call. What pilgrimage are you on and what interruption might be turned into a call? How might you find obedience to some call transformative? These are your questions and tasks.
John Cassian will wait patiently for us, and welcome us when we return.