If you’ve read these blogs before (or my latest book, available on Amazon or through Maine Authors Publishing, hint,hint), you know that making physical pilgrimages to places like the Old City of Jerusalem or San Francisco’s City Lights Book Store helped me discover how my life itself has been a pilgrimage, one through both grief and grace.
These days, my great pilgrimage is one into old age, and I’m finding it helpful to try to bring the same curiosity towards aging that I had when Mary Lee and I walked St. Cuthbert’s Way—Hey, there’s a new pain in my shoulder. Never had that before!
Now, pilgrimages are all about having a destination, a place of personal, often spiritual, significance, and lately I’ve been asking myself, just what is my destination, as I age?
The obvious answer is death. My Christian faith teaches me that death means some kind of afterlife, and over the years Christians have been stereotyped as believing in two kinds: heaven and hell. I’m not big on either one. I prefer the way Brother Geoffrey Tristram of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist describes the afterlife: “We have a specific destination: our heavenly home. Our pilgrimage journey is toward God.”
My faith, and other religions with which I’m familiar (not to mention any number of secular books and films), often refer to this heavenly home as paradise. But while I can think of my own pilgrimage as being one toward God, perhaps because God remains such a mystery to me (I always refer in these blogs to God of my not Understanding), I have trouble imagining what this heavenly home, this paradise, looks, feels, tastes, sounds, and smells like.
I’ve just finished the book, The Half Known Life, by my favorite travel writer, Pico Iyer. Iyer tells us the word “paradise” comes from the old Iranian term paradaijah, a walled garden, which then became an emblem of and an enticement toward “the higher garden that awaits the fortunate.”
Christianity, of course, has the Garden of Eden as a paradise. And while I agree gardens are nice, having worked in a market garden 70 hours a week, I can tell you they’re not my idea of paradise. When Pico Iyer journeys to various “paradises”—Iran, North Korea, the Himalayas, Japan, Ireland, Jerusalem, Sri Lanka—he finds dirt, danger, and disappointment. So, he decides paradise is an “an elusive place where the anxieties, struggles, and burdens of life fall away.”
Now, this is a definition I can get my teeth into. Isn’t this where we all want to go, regardless of our spirituality, religion, or lack thereof?
But I still ask: where is this place and what does it look like?
My answer comes in remembering that after my daughter died, the only way I could visualize her was in a photograph album somewhere between one week and eighteen years old. Gradually, however, as I began, through meditation and counseling, to develop a new relationship with her, I began to imagine her in a stone cottage on a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean, painting, sculpting, and cooking gourmet vegetarian meals. Then, one day I was sitting in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, having coffee and picturing her at a potter’s wheel, when suddenly, I knew she was sitting beside me. I felt her hand on my shoulder. It was one of the most “real” experiences I’ve ever had.
These days, I can easily forget what Laurie looked like during her life here on earth (coming upon her photograph now will sometimes surprise me). Rather, my daughter is more like the air I breathe, unseen but vital to my life, no longer living in some distant land, but always with me.
You may say—and some people have— “It’s all in your head. It’s merely your imagination.”
I think imagination is not in the head but in the heart. And there’s no “merely” about it. As I think about it, through imagination, I’ve experienced both hell and heaven. (How many times, I have a made a situation worse, hellish, actually—an operation, an argument, a power outage or a frozen pipe—by imagining the worse-case scenario, “awfulizing,” as 12-steppers say). But then, at least lately, if I can shift my focus, my imagination, to God of my not Understanding, grace happens.
So, what is my “imaginary” picture of paradise? As when I first envisioned Laurie, my paradise would be overlooking the ocean (got to have water!), on a bluff, surrounded by spruce, pine, and fir trees (complete with smells). I would have a cabin—wood, I think, with a lot of windows, at least one circular, framed in stained glass. A stone fireplace…bookcases…leather chairs… music (lots of music)….
And where is it?
Obviously, dummy, it’s right here. In front of my computer in what I call my cave, in my house, in my town, in my state, in my country. My destination these days should be to the here and now of this imperfect world, but the here and now of this imperfect world seen through the divine gift of imagination. Laurie came to me in the middle of the gassy fumes and dirty snow of Harvard Square to become this constant, vital, presence.
So I conclude paradise is a state of mind, and my pilgrimage a journey toward recognizing the divine in both the hell and the heaven of the everyday.
This state of mind is for me, and I expect for all of us, a never-ending work in progress, one which involves challenges and doubt at least as much as stability. It involves letting go of old habits, compulsions, and preconceived ideas: heaven is for “good” people, hell is for anyone I don’t like…I can find my daughter only in old photograph albums…I need to go to Jerusalem or India or the South Sea Islands to find paradise. Instead, it involves discovering serenity in the midst of confusion, trauma, and disappointment. It involves wonder and imagination and creativity.
All challenges. But as I think about it, I can’t imagine paradise, either here or in some afterlife, without having a challenge. I certainly don’t want to spend eternity just sitting in my heavenly log cabin looking through stained glass windows at the ocean and listening to early Elvis.
2 thoughts on “My Pilgrimage to Paradise”
Rick, this entry speaks to me eloquently where I am right now. Thank you so much for it.
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This made me feel like crying: “my life itself has been a pilgrimage, one through both grief and grace…” That is a lovely and accurate summation of where I am too! I think the tears are from seeing that someone understands. Thank you Rick, for your beautiful writing and your beautiful spirit. Happy to be walking with everyone here, as we are all “walking each other home. Bright blessings to you, and all Pilgrims, especially to us Seasoned ones. PS, right with you on the “curiosity”…new knee pain yesterday, oh joy 😉
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