Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
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.
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.