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Source: The Road More Traveled

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The Road More Traveled

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Along St. Cuthbert’s Way, Scotland

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    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

—Robert Frost

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Last week, Mary Lee and I climbed a mountain (a very small mountain) in New Hampshire. Returning in late afternoon, we crossed a stream and started through the woods to our car. Suddenly, we realized that we were no longer on the trail. Perhaps because I was tired, or perhaps because twilight was setting in, I had a brief moment of panic—My God, we’ll be wandering these woods all night!—before retracing our steps and finding the comforting yellow tree markers and the path to the parking lot.

During what I think of as my Kerouac years, my great desire was to be free, independent of family and responsibility, to take the road less traveled. I disdained what I saw as my generation’s spaghetti-spined conformity. Fifty years later, however, I’m drawn to follow the path more traveled, worn down by the feet of those before me. And I wonder if, at some level, this isn’t true for many of us as we age.

One definition of pilgrimage I don’t often read about is that on a pilgrimage you’re following in the footsteps of others. Pilgrims have been traveling to Jerusalem since 900 years before Christ. Within a hundred or so years of Jesus’s crucifixion, St. Justin Martyr was writing: “If anyone wants proof for the birth of Jesus Christ, let him go to Bethlehem and see for himself both the cave in which he was born and the manger in which he was laid.” In Jerusalem, you can see carvings on the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher made by the Crusaders, prayers tucked into crevices of the Western Wall written by thousands of pilgrims, walkways and thresholds worn smooth by travelers. When Columba came to Iona in the fifth century, the Scottish island had long been a destination for Druids, and it soon became a burial place for early Scottish kings. Today, you can see cairns of stones pilgrims have left behind. Pilgrims have been walking the Santiago de Compostela since the 9th century.

Even on less ancient pilgrimages, such as St. Cuthbert’s Way between Melrose, Scotland and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, or to Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, or to the New Calmaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, I’ve followed  paths worn down by the pilgrims before me. And as I wrote in the last blog, when I drive to the cemetery to visit the graves of my parents and my daughter, I am making a pilgrimage millions of people make every year.

Like meditation, pilgrimage is a Celtic knot of solitude and companionship. And it’s important to embrace both. One gives you the opportunity to contemplate the other: to see yourself as being in communion, drinking the waters of renewal, eating the Eucharist of sacrifice and penance.

Of course, at the heart of any pilgrimage—at least any I’ve been on—is the desire to be in communion with someone you revere by walking in his or her footsteps. And there have been times when I’ve experienced the presence of some of those people. There was a moment, for example, as I sat in the chapel of Dominus Flevit on the side of the Mount of Olives, looking through the window of the church across the Kidron Valley to the Old City of Jerusalem, when Jesus spoke in my head: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” And I thought of all the blood shed on the streets of that city for thousands of years, and felt my eyes water in sorrow.

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Through the window of the Church of Dominus Flevit, the Mount of Olives

There was an afternoon when I sat perhaps thirty feet from the grave of Thomas Merton at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, and was suddenly aware of the monk’s presence within me, urging me to write my story. And catching my first glimpse of the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, the sun reflecting off the waters around it, I felt for a moment like the young Cuthbert ready to begin his life, instead of the old Rick approaching the end of his.

I’m not sure what was going on in any of those cases. As many people have noted, on a pilgrimage, perhaps because of the confluence of landscape and story, past and present, you disconnect from your everyday life so you can connect with something or someone deeper.

But it’s also easy to disconnect from reality. The “Jerusalem Syndrome” is a well-documented phenomenon that dates to medieval times where foreign visitors suffer psychotic delusions that they are figures from the Bible. An Irish schoolteacher comes to a Jerusalem hospital convinced she is about to give birth to the Baby Jesus when in fact she’s not even pregnant. A Canadian tourist believes he’s the Biblical strongman Sampson and tries to tear stone blocks out of the Wailing Wall. An Austrian man rages when a restaurant refuses to prepare the Last Supper for him.

I’m hoping my experiences were spiritual instead of psychotic, and that I’m seeing myself not as Jesus or St. Cuthbert but as one of those following their paths, wearing it down for others to follow. (That’s how, by the way, Mary Lee and I were sometimes able to keep to St. Cuthbert’s way: by walking the most trodden path.)

It’s taken me more than half my life to recognize the value of following the paths of others. After the death of my daughter, it was a group called the Center for Grieving Children in Portland, Maine (and if you’re looking for a good cause to give a donation to, please consider them) which helped me regain control over my life by listening to the stories other grieving parents told of their journeys through grief and by learning from their examples. Today, much of my spiritual growth has been nurtured not only by silence, but also by the men’s group I belong to through my church and the Al Anon group I attend. And as I approach the end of my earthly pilgrimage, it has been seeing with what grace and dignity my mother, my father-in-law, and some of my friends have died that shows me how I might walk that path myself.

The last time I consciously took the road less traveled was late this spring when I was walking in the woods behind our house. There are a number of well-worn trails I walk on, but this time I left the trail to, I thought, save time on the way home. Not only did I tear my shirt fighting my way through the puckerbrush, I wound up digging a tick out of my arm and going to the hospital for antibiotics.

I’m not sure that was the difference Robert Frost was writing about.

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The road less traveled behind my house in Maine.

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Pilgrimage to Riverside

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I’ve read that one of the most common pilgrimages is the graveside visit. Just about all the strands of pilgrimage are present: the call to leave ordinary life, the need to pay homage, the crossing of a threshold, the act of sacrifice or penance, the return home. I would also add that pilgrimage—at least for me—also thrusts you into what seems to be another time zone, somewhere between past and present and future. Which is certainly true when I drive across that threshold between the two stone pillars shaded by maple trees at the entrance to Riverside Cemetery in Yarmouth, Maine. I can feel my body chemistry change.

When I consider how far the cemetery has expanded on the other side the road, I think of the line from the Isaac Watts hymn I once sang growing up in Yarmouth: “Time, like an ever rolling stream.” Across the road was once part of a market garden I used to work in. I spent hours planting, cultivating, and harvesting beet greens, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, and squash where now marble and granite stones grow in evenly spaced rows. Even more jarring is that the stones lie under trees at least twenty years younger than I am, and which now stand some seventy-five to a hundred feet high.

Dead leaves and yellow daisies—images of death and life—punctuate the green and yellow grass as I drive around to the back of the cemetery overlooking the river—first past the newer stones, with laser prints of cars, boats, dogs, even photographs, and then by the older, lichen-dotted marble, granite, and slate stones that feature names I immediately put faces to: Snap Moxcey, my old barber, Frank Knight, my little league coach, Red Beal, my eighth-grade teacher and coach, parents of many of my former classmates.

It’s a gray, windy day, the first real day of autumn. An inky dragon-shaped cloud prowls the horizon. In the back of the cemetery, the maple trees look ancient, yet blush orange, like bashful teenagers. I park the car in front of our family lot and get out. I pull a few dead blossoms from the impatiens around my mother’s grave. I straighten the American flag in the VFW marker by my father’s flat bronze memorial, and then move over to clean the sticks and dead leaves from the memorial stone for my daughter, who died of cancer three years after Dad. Just up from Laurie’s stone, a similar granite stone honors my Grandmother Cleaves, who died less than a year after my daughter.

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I recall that a year before Dad died, Hurricane Gloria knocked out power in parts of Maine for up to two weeks. I was living Down East at the time, and the day after the storm I got up early to drive Laurie to church camp for the weekend. I continued on to visit my mother and father, and when I pulled into the driveway I saw Dad standing in strewn leaves and fallen branches, trying to fry bacon and eggs on a charcoal grill. Nanny Cleaves, who’d come over from her apartment for a hot breakfast, stood at the window.

What I think of as pilgrimage time can not only expand memories but also compress them, so that today, the deaths of my father, my daughter, and my grandmother in less than four years become one moment that I recall as an emotional hurricane that made Gloria feel like a summer breeze. Throw in a divorce and remarriage during that time, and I can see now why I needed an anchor in all the winds that seemed to be assailing me.

Riverside cemetery, I realize, was and remains that anchor. I walk to the center of our lot, to the granite stone from the old cellar hole of my mother’s grandfather and grandmother’s house. I clear away fallen leaves around the stone with my foot, knowing full well that by tomorrow more leaves will take their place. Somehow, though, it’s important for me to tidy things up. Cemeteries, of course, are for the living not the dead: a way to show respect, certainly, but also to concretize the great mystery of death—shape it in stone, decorate it.

It took me three years after my daughter’s death to realize this. Laurie had not wanted to be buried; she’d wanted her ashes scattered. Once she died, however, her mother was adamant that she wanted our daughter’s ashes buried in her family’s plot in Steuben, Maine. Reeling from Laurie’s death, I couldn’t handle any more confrontation, so I said to go ahead, but that I was not going to go to any funeral, would not attend any graveside services. Three years of spending Memorial Days in this cemetery planting flowers, however, and summer evenings tending them, and autumn afternoons taking away pots and the St. Francis statue my brother, sister, and I added, made me realize that Laurie needed to be here as well—No, that’s not right. I realized that I needed Laurie to be here as well.

I run my hand over the creviced surface of the stone that once was part of the foundation of the old family homestead. This granite is thousands of years old, yet as with the rest of us, time will eventually wear it away. Still, it won’t be in my time, not in what I’ve heard called Chronos, or human time.

No, these stones, this cemetery, make me aware of what’s called Kairos, God’s time. (Isaac Watts again: “A thousand ages in Thy sight/Are like an evening gone…”) And maybe that’s what pilgrimages do: help us to leave, even briefly, ordinary time, and experience God’s time.

I walk to the bank, which overlooks the river that gives this cemetery its name. Through the birch and the oak and the scrub maple, I see the Royal River flowing into the harbor and then on a mile or so to Casco Bay. Starting somewhere in the middle of the state, its waters swirl past the house my parents lived in when Hurricane Gloria struck, down over the waterfall by the house in which I grew up, and into the boat yard, where my father kept his little sixteen foot boat, the boat I inherited when he died, the boat my daughter Laurie liked to go out on before she died. Now, almost thirty years later, I look through the trees to the river. I watch a cormorant fly down the channel and disappear around the bend toward the bay and the ocean, where I imagine my father and my daughter in that tiny boat, waiting for me to join them.

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