Baseball as Pilgrimage

I'm the third kid on the right, front row, beside Harry Agganis
Fenway Park, 1954: I’m the third kid from the right, front row, beside Harry Agganis

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Every year, millions of people make a pilgrimage to see their favorite baseball team. I’m sure most of them don’t think of taking in a ball game as pilgrimage, but as with all pilgrimages, going to a game often at some level involves making a journey that is both physical and spiritual, taking risks, paying homage, and searching for a source of healing and renewal.

It’s possible, then, that the first pilgrimage I ever took was to Fenway Park in 1954 to see the Red Sox play the Detroit Tigers. I remember the ride to and from Boston was interminable, Fenway Park was huge, Red Sox first baseman Harry Agganis (who would die a year later of a pulmonary embolism) looked like a god, and I ate lobster at a restaurant on the ride back, courtesy of my little league coach, a saint named Frank Knight (who would live to be 103).

I was reminded of my early love of baseball a few weeks ago when I started reading Dingers: The 101 Most Memorable Home Runs in Baseball History, by Joshua Shifrin and Tommy Shea. I’ve had the good fortune to have shared coffee and conversation with Tommy Shea, who was a reporter for the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican for forty years, including six years covering the Red Sox, and whose very being exudes the joy I once felt about the game. (Nobody’s perfect, however; Tommy is a Yankees fan.)

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 I hit two dingers in my baseball career. The first, in little league, cleared the fence and almost hit my family’s car. The second, when I was in what was then called junior high school, disappeared into the fog blowing in off Cape Elizabeth, Maine, but since there was no fence, I had to run it out. I run like a wheelbarrow, so I barely beat the throw home. Still, I thought I had won our team the game, until Ronnie Bancroft, the Cape third baseman, tagged me after I’d crossed the plate, and the umpire called me out. “Sorry, son,” he said, “but your foot missed third base by a good two feet.” (For those of you who don’t know much about baseball, the runner must touch every bag before touching home plate.)

So much for my making it into Shifrin’s and Shea’s book.

But one of the home runs that did make it into the book—Shifrin and Shea rank it as the fifth most memorable home run in baseball history—is Kirk Gibson’s game winning home run in the 1988 World Series against Hall of Fame relief pitcher, Dennis Eckersley. In fact, Dingers features on its cover what has become an iconic picture (so iconic that I can’t find one to post that’s not copyrighted) of Gibson, hand raised over his head in victory.

I remember Gibson’s homerun even more than I remember my own. His took place on the October weekend when my wife Mary Lee and I were visiting my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie in Ellsworth, Maine. That spring, Laurie had been diagnosed with Primitive Neuroectodermal Tumor, a virulent cancer. Over the summer, chemotherapy and radiation had shrunk the tumor and we were hopeful, but in September, while she was walking a beach, her leg collapsed under her, and since that time, the only way she could walk was with a walker. In continual pain, my daughter was trying to remain positive, living at home with her mother, working on various art projects and designing placemats for a new restaurant in town, but she was discouraged and afraid, often dissolving in tears as she talked with me on the phone. To give both Laurie and my ex-wife a break, Mary Lee and I drove up for the weekend, rented a motel room, and took Laurie to stay with us.

On Saturday afternoon, we drove around Hancock County looking at foliage until a freak snowstorm sent us back to our motel. That evening we went to the new restaurant that featured Laurie’s placemats, but my daughter’s leg pain grew so bad that we couldn’t finish our meal. Mary Lee and I had to carry her out to the car.

Back at the motel, Laurie lay down on our bed, closed her eyes, and, I thought, fell asleep. I turned on the television just in time to see Gibson, of Los Angeles Dodgers, who hadn’t been in the game because of a severely strained hamstring in one leg and a bad knee in the other, come to the plate as a pinch hitter. The Dodgers were behind the Oakland Athletics by one run in the bottom of the ninth inning. They had a man on first base, but there were two outs. With a count of three balls and two strikes, Gibson, with what Shifrin and Shea describe as “an awkward upper body swipe,” hit his home run. As he limped around the bases, pumping his fist, and one talking head after another extolled his courage in the face of pain, I heard Laurie say to Mary Lee, who lay beside her on the bed, “I know this cancer might—probably will—kill me, but hopefully not for years. I need to make the most of whatever time I’ve got left.”

I looked at my daughter, her bright red bandanna and matching socks, her eyes sunken, her face drawn by pain. Those assholes on TV have no idea what courage is, I thought bitterly.

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And there’s part of me that still feels that way. I’m certainly not the first person to complain about how we have glorified beyond reason sports and deified grown people playing games. But like pilgrimage, sports—and I would say especially baseball—is a way to encapsulate the human journey in a few hours. We fans travel to what one of my favorite movies calls our “Field of Dreams,” and the players themselves try to get, as we all do, “Home,” where, as James Earl Jones says in the movie, “… what once was good … will be again.”

Home is where my daughter went less than three months after Gibson’s dramatic “dinger.” Now that I’m in my seventies, it helps to see myself rounding third base (making sure to touch it this time), heading to join her.

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Finding Thomas Merton

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I come out of the woods and cross Monk’s Road to another road that says “No Trespassing.” I’ll bet this is it, I think, and decide I’ll be damned if I’m going to travel two thousand miles not to see the hermitage of Thomas Merton, the closest thing to a hero I’ve had since John F. Kennedy.

When my wife, Mary Lee, first introduced me to Merton’s writings, I knew some of his story—cosmopolitan young man and promising writer leaves New York, enters the monastery here at Gethsemane and becomes a Trappist monk—but I didn’t understand much of what he wrote. Then, when my daughter was lying in the hospital, dying from cancer, I hated what I thought I did understand. I remember one night at the Ronald McDonald House reading from New Seeds of Contemplation—“All sorrow, hardship, difficulty, pain, unhappiness, and ultimately death itself can be traced to rebellion against God’s love for us”—and throwing the goddamned book across the room.

Ten years later, however, as I recovered from bilateral hip surgery, I read Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. This came at a time when I was starting to feel that after thirty years in public education, it was time for me to do something else. But what? Merton showed me that I should start living the life I wanted to, and trust that God would reveal some way to make it work. So I began writing—took a summer workshop, joined a writing group—became more active in my church, started going on spiritual retreats. And it worked: I retired from public school teaching, found a part-time job as a writing assistant at a nearby college and worked on my writing, which soon became tied to my discovery of contemplative prayer, where Merton became my guide through books such as Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, The Secular Journals, Selected Poems, Wisdom of the Desert, Raids on the Unspeakable, Zen and the Birds of Appetite. I even reread New Seeds of Contemplation.

Now, I’ve made a pilgrimage to Gethsemane Abbey because I’m again struggling, both with my writing and with the rest of my life. After years of working on a memoir about the death of my daughter and my resulting faith journey, I’ve realized I still don’t have the perspective to analyze the years since Laurie’s death that a good memoir requires. I’ve decided to turn the memoir into a novel, in the hopes of distancing myself from the events as I change them to suit the arc of the story. But someone whose opinion I value wondered recently if I’m not stuck in the past, unable to let go of Laurie’s memory and my grief; and I’m worried that he might be right—that I’m wasting both my time and God’s with my writing instead of doing something more active, such as teaching a class at the state prison, doing more pastoral care, working in the soup kitchen or with Compassionate Friends.

So far, this pilgrimage hasn’t helped me find any answers. Ever since Mary Lee and I have been at Gethsemane, I’ve felt like an outsider, a tourist instead of a pilgrim. As a non-Catholic, I haven’t been able to take communion. Merton’s hermitage, where he wrote so many of his books, is, I’m told, off limits to visitors. Late September in Kentucky is hot. The air smells charred. Leaves are chewed and full of holes, tinged with brown or black. In the afternoon, storm clouds mass over the burnt-brown hills like an army preparing to attack.

My only consolation has been reading in Merton’s journals about how often here at Gethsemane, he, too, felt like an outsider, how often he questioned his life, whether he ought to be writing, even whether he ought to be a monk.

Then, yesterday afternoon, as I sat under a tree beside the cemetery of white crosses where Merton is buried, I read a journal entry in which he writes about how he’d found his “deepest self” through a “creative consent to God.”

I’m not sure what that means, but this morning I’ve been on “A Walk to the Statues,” along a stone walkway leading to a field, past a lake, and up some wooden stairs to a path through the woods, where I passed a variety of statues—some modern, some traditional—of cherubs, monks, and a variety of Madonnas.

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Turning a corner, I saw two statues depicting Jesus and three of his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. (And if you’d like to see and read more about these statues, see my earlier blog, “Locked in the Garden of Gethsemane.) At first—probably because of my mood over the last few days—I identified with Jesus’s feeling despised and forsaken. But then I saw on a rock, a bronze plaque explaining that sculptor Walker Hancock created these two statues in memory of Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal divinity student who was martyred in Alabama in 1965.

Suddenly, I remembered the end of poet Gregory Orr’s memoir The Blessing, when eighteen-year-old Gregory, still suffering the trauma of having accidently killed his brother in a hunting accident, beholds artist David Smith’s almost three hundred sculptures arrayed in long rows across a field, and sees in them the human spirit rising up, trying to transcend the limitations of our mortal, human bodies and at the same time trying to celebrate them; and how Orr realized that language, too, can transcend death by giving it shape. Poetry, Orr wrote in another essay, “sustains us in crises…[as] “…an expression of your experience with disorder and your need for order.”

And I realized that by giving shape to my grief, my writing was helping me stay alive: that I couldn’t not write. What might or might not happen to anything I wrote afterwards wasn’t up to me. Jesus’s words from that night in the Garden of Gethsemane came back to me, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.”

Maybe, I thought, this is the kind of “creative consent” Merton was talking about in his journal.

Which made me feel better, and which has prompted me to follow this forbidden road behind Gethsemane Abbey, figuring I can plead ignorance—“Oh, am I trespassing? I didn’t see the sign”—if anyone comes along.

I come to another turn off, this one marked “Monastic Enclosure.” I decide not to push my luck and keep going until I come to a power line. I follow it and then double back through the woods to a clearing. Yes! I recognize from photographs that I am indeed looking at Merton’s hermitage. Wiping the sweat from my eyes, I take a picture.

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I turn to see the fields and the barn and the monastery grounds that he wrote about from where he saw them—memories I will take home with me both for the strength and solace to continue writing and for the serenity to accept whatever happens to it.

I head back to the power line. I suppose I should pray, Forgive me my trespasses, but I’m not very sorry. Somehow, in finding Merton’s hermitage, I’ve found something in myself.

 

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Inside a Self-Directed Retreat

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Let me get this straight—you’ve come to another crossroads. Okay, it’s more like a rotary, with about four different directions you can go with your life. And you can’t make up your mind so you go round and round. You carefully consider each turn off, each option, but they all look equally desirable or undesirable depending on the time of day. You stare at the scenery, pulling on your lower lip. Round and round and round.

You decide to stop and get away from it all, so you go on retreat to a hermitage in the New England countryside, close to nature. But what do you discover? Nature can’t seem to make up his/her/its mind either. It’s April. The sky wavers between dark clouds and bright sun. Driving here, you stop at a light and watch somebody wearing a down parka pulled over his or her head walk past a guy wearing shorts and a T-shirt.

You reach the hermitage and it’s the same ambivalence. The fields are green; the trees are bare and brown. Looking into the woods, all you see are dead leaves, while beside your porch, yellow daffodils wave in the wind. The first night you walk along a tidal river. Standing on a bridge, you look to your right and the river is full, reflections of trees etched on the water. Turning to your left, you see the water drained away, leaving mud, broken tree limbs, and more dead leaves.

The next day is worse. Most of the day is hot—94 degrees according to the thermometer outside the main guest house—with a southwest wind that must have blown directly from Arizona. Until suddenly, in late afternoon, the wind suddenly shifts to the east and picks up, bending the spruce trees and churning the river into white caps, and you’re shivering and trying to find a sweatshirt. The sky darkens and for about ten minutes, a cold rain falls. Then the wind dies, the sun returns, and it’s spring again.

None of which helps you make up your mind.

Let’s walk by the river on this carpet of dead leaves. See, sticking up through all that brown—green shoots. Kick some of those leaves aside and what do you find: more green. Has it ever occurred to you that Nature is not indecisive? That what you are witnessing is the evolution of winter into spring, a process that doesn’t happen in any kind of linear progression, but which ebbs and flows like that tidal river in front of you. Look up. Into the trees. See? Today’s heat has brought out the leaves in the birch trees, like tiny green butterflies fluttering on the branches.

It’s April. It’s the Easter season. In Sabbatical Journey, Henri Nouwen writes:

 

The resurrection stories reveal the always-present tension between coming and leaving, intimacy and distance, holding and letting go, at-homeness and mission, presence and absence. We face that tension every day. It puts us on the journey to the full realization of the promise given to us.

 

Have you considered that on this journey—this pilgrimage, as you like to call it—we are always in the process of becoming? That we’re always facing decisions, one rotary after another? That there is always tension? The promise of Easter is that you are loved, no matter what you decide: “and lo, I am with you always; even to the end of the age.”

Look, you’re not going to reach a decision about what to do with your life here on this retreat, but you might realize that what seems like inaction and indecision is actually a time of germination and growth. Your decision will come, as surely as the leaves will burst from the branches of the maple trees around you.

In the meantime, look at those trees along the river outlined against the sunset. See how their fine, bare branches fan out like a net one might cast into the sky, perhaps in hope of catching a few stars. Watch the blue sky turn to gray and the pink clouds darken to red. Listen to the chorus of birds. Look at how the houses on the opposite shore send chalk-lines of light across the river. See the new moon.

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