The Geriatric Pilgrim: Traveling the Landscape of Faith and Grief

 

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November 30, 2015

RETREATING

Going on a pilgrimage and going on retreat are for me interlaced, like one of those Celtic knots. Both have a spiritual component, both involve both external and interior journeys, and both carry the risks and rewards of renewal.

My first retreat came 25 years ago this December, on the second anniversary of my daughter’s death from cancer: at a time when I was angry with myself for somehow causing Laurie’s death, angry with the world for ignoring my grief, and angry with God for being a Super Saddist getting kicks torturing innocent eighteen-year-olds.

But the previous fall, I’d attended a program on “Meditation as Part of the Christian Tradition,” led by the Reverend Cynthia Bourgeault, now a nationally recognized retreat leader and author of a number of neat books on the spiritual life, who that evening introduced my wife and me to Centering Prayer, a form of Christian meditation. While I wasn’t sure how I felt about Centering Prayer—part of me thought it was absurd, while another part wondered if, after swearing at God for two years, I at least ought to shut up and listen to what God had to say—I grew interested when Cynthia said she was going to lead a retreat in December on Swan’s Island in Maine’s Penobscot Bay. The idea of spending the anniversary of Laurie’s death on an island made a hell of lot more sense to me than what I’d done on the first anniversary: namely, drink myself into oblivion.

I thought a “retreat” would mean withdrawing from the world to a sanctuary, a safe place. That weekend was anything but. As I got out of the car to catch the ferry, my back felt as if someone had suddenly shoved a hot iron into my spine. The fog shut in for two days, so as far as scenic views were concerned, the farmhouse in which we met might as well have been encased in garbage bags. My meditations were filled with surrealistic, frightening images: huge teeth which turned into tentacles that I could feel squeezing me until I couldn’t breathe, a vision of climbing into a biplane piloted by your quintessential WWI flying ace, another image of someone who may or may not have been Jesus in a trench coat and fedora, vivid memories of Laurie’s last tortured breaths. The sound of a teakettle softly steaming on the woodstove became a deafening wind. Sitting in the softest chair in the room felt like sitting on broken glass.

Saturday afternoon, during our free time, my small 3rd floor bedroom turned into an asylum for the insane (which, I’ve since learned, is one of the definitions of the word “retreat”). Instead of the nap I’d planned on, the grief—the sorrow and the anger and the pain and the guilt and the shame—which I’d suppressed (usually with booze) for the past two years erupted in molten spasms. I remember doubling over, as racking sobs tore into my stomach. Of sliding or falling off the bed on to the floor. Of holding on to the iron bedpost with one hand and punching the bed with my other hand, driving my fist into the mattress. Then I grabbed the bed with both hands, raised myself onto my knees and slammed my head into the mattress. I drew back and slammed my head into the mattress again. Again. All the while making yelping noises and kicking the floor until, exhausted, I fell asleep.

The next day, however, I left the retreat feeling less angry, less guilty, and more serene than I had since Laurie died. The feeling didn’t last of course, but it was never as bad as it had been. Looking back, I see myself broken open, which, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, was how the light got in. Even before Laurie’s death, good New England male that I am, I’d always keep my feelings hidden, even from myself. Feeling grief—really down and dirty and covered with shit grief—would ironically make it possible for me later to feel joy.

My wife and I attended more of Cynthia’s retreats on various Maine Islands. Later, after becoming Members of the Fellowship of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, we started going to their monastery in Cambridge and their retreat house in West Newbury, Massachusetts. These days, we also try to travel at least once a year to somewhere we’ve never been before, such as the Desert House of Prayer outside Tucson, the New Camaldoli Heritage at Big Sur in California, the Norbertine Retreat Hermitage in New Mexico, the islands of Iona and Lindisfarne in Great Britain.

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I’ve often asked myself—usually after seeing my American Express bill—if I need to go so far away for these retreats. Can’t I just put my phone on airplane mode, lock the door, and walk in the woods behind my house?

I do and it’s helpful, but the only way to completely pull the plug on all those radio stations playing in my head is to get out of Dodge. Physical and spiritual withdrawal are as entwined for me as pilgrimage and retreat.

And learning to see the world as interwoven has been one of the greatest gifts of going on retreat. Like most Westerners, I tend toward a dualistic view of the world. I grew up learning to distinguish between “us” and “them”: white hats and black hats, Commies and Red Blooded Americans, Maine residents and flatlanders, good and bad, smart and stupid, strong and weak. “You can’t have it both ways,” my mother would tell me. It’s taken me over 70 years to learn that most things are not “either …or” but “both … and.” Such as when I’m on retreat: both “withdrawing” and “confronting,” both in solitude and in community, both in continued grief over Laurie’s death and in gratitude for the gifts that continually grace me.

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November 16, 2015

WHEN PILGRIMAGE FEELS LIKE EXILE

I think the first time I ever thought about the word “pilgrimage” was just before the trip my wife and I took to Israel. Before we left, I happened to read a magazine article in which the author distinguished between pilgrims and tourists. Tourists, she wrote, go out from the center of their worlds, their homes, in order to vacation; pilgrims, on the other hand, seek to travel from the edges of their lives to their center, their homes. Well, that sounded like a pretty good distinction to me. Faithful Christians that we are, ML and I were, I thought, going “home” to the origin of our faith.

However, while ML had a great time, my trip felt like being exiled to the furnace of fire Jesus talks about in the Gospel of Matthew, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” Or in my case, the gnashing of bowels.

Every day the temperature soared to well over 90°. Within two days I picked up an intestinal bug and was popping Lomotil like sunflower seeds. From the moment we arrived, we were lost. The first day we wandered for three hours through the labyrinth of streets and alleyways of the old city looking for a way back to St. George’s Cathedral Guest House and its friendly hollyhocks and familiar Evensong. The next day we found ourselves locked in the Garden of Gethsemane and wandering blindly on the backside of the Mount of Olives.

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On Friday, we joined the Franciscan Friars on their Walk of Devotion up the Via Dolorosa to The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built where tradition says Jesus was crucified and buried. Walk of Agony was more like it. If you’ve never been to the old city of Jerusalem, know that every one of those damned cobblestone streets rises at least 45°. Every twenty steps my stomach felt as if one of the ubiquitous Israeli soldiers had kicked it with a combat boot. Swarms of young boys tried to pull us into booths featuring five-foot posters of baby Jesus and the Virgin, baskets of wooden rosaries, and passages of scripture woven on dishtowels.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was a sauna. My intestines twisted as ML and I were funneled into a room where Jesus hung on a cross, wearing what looked like a tin diaper, his head covered from ear to ear with a semi-circle of silver. Cameras flashed. Voices babbled. Smells of incense, body odor, and stale cigarettes.

Downstairs, the Holy Sepulchre looked like a block of dirty cement. Some kind of priest in a tall black hat berated a woman for having bare shoulders. More cramps as people pushed me through a doorway into damp sour air, candles, aluminum icons and Jesus wearing another tin hat.

The place felt about as holy as a sardine factory.

 

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And then three days later, I sat in the Garden Tomb, the alternative site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. Yellow and red roses covered the stones and cool, shaded paths wound under cypress, palm, and pine trees to a large platform with wooden benches looking out over “Skull Hill,” whose crumbling stones and small caves make a face in the side of a cliff. Earlier, our guide told us that in 1882, General Charles Gordon, Bible student and British soldier, decided this was the true Golgotha, or Place of the Skull.

Our guide also showed us a burial spot in the side of an adjacent hill. Inside, the rock was smooth and looked as if you could lie down on it and get a good night’s sleep. He pointed to a hole cut above the entrance through which light shone into the cave. “The first spot light of the world,” he said in his charming British voice.

I inhaled the fragrance of the flowers and the trees, watched swallows swoop through the leaves. Now I was home.

And that’s why I knew this was the wrong place for Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. If your message is that love of God and love of your neighbor are the greatest of all the commandments, the only way to prove it is by seeing this teaching tested in the worst possible conditions: heat and crowds of conflicting nationalities, soldiers and souvenir sellers, physical pain and taunting ridicule. I thought of ten years earlier, when each day I walked what I realized was my own Via Dolorosa from the Ronald McDonald House to the Eastern Maine Medical Center, where my daughter lay dying from a rare cancer diagnosed only months earlier. I’d felt exiled from my wife and stepson to a living hell of doctors and CT scans and catheters and—most of all—hopelessness. During those endless frustrating days, I needed to know that someone had cried out as I did, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and yet had overcome death. I needed to believe that Laurie would enter into eternal life.

And I think it was at that point, sitting under the trees in the Garden Tomb, that my exile became pilgrimage, not in the sense of experiencing the beauty of the sun rising through the fog over Maine waters, but of having an emotional and physical encounter that deepened my understanding of what holy means.

Even if it did take two more weeks before I could eat solid food.

 

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