Tag Archives: nature

What is Reality?: Pilgrim Visions

David Guterson’s 2003 novel, Our Lady of the Forest, calls vision, belief, reality and hallucination into question. It examines mendacity and power structures of the Catholic Church, which are mobilized by an itinerant mushroom-picking seer’s visions of Mother Mary.

Many of you have read Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. I shall not attempt to place Guterson in a genre, other than to say that he is an author of the contemporary American West (and possibly of other times and places, but I do not pretend to have read all of or summarize his work, only to give some anchor to those who entirely unfamiliar with it.) It is not fantasy or science fiction, but the Marian visions of the ill, impoverished teenage seer, Ann Holmes, do–as is typical of Marian visions–bring apocalyptic warnings. Guterson’s Mary warns, as did the Mary of Lourdes, of evil that will befall a humanity that has ceased to attend to her son’s teachings.

Mary’s dire warnings are accompanied by the nuanced and multi-vocal concerns about the environment. A checkered character, Ann’s spokesperson Carolyn Greer spars with representatives of a large lumber company. Greer is a complex and interesting character. She is knowledgeable about the devastation of heedless deforestation. She reduces the arguments of the lumber company reps to an empty chorus, when she vividly describes their unethical logging practices. The lumber company’s concern is only with the bottom line, and Carolyn’s caustic critique is spot on. Carolyn’s desire to use the forest as a pilgrimage path and site are, however, seemingly motivated by the same concern. The novel is set in the forests of the Northwest, in Oregon, where loggers joke of spotted owl pie and resent environmentalists who threaten their livelihoods.

The most richly drawn and conflicted character of the novel is the young and kind, but neither youthful nor particularly vital, priest, Father Collins. Father Collins is able to entertain the possibility of the miraculous transcendent and skepticism simultaneously. He is aware that he has fled to the priesthood out of fear of sexual rejection, and suffers from sexual longings, which inspire a mild, resigned guilt. He has an intellectually rigorous knowledge of the teachings and arguments of the Catholic Church through the centuries. Father Butler, the “inquisitor,” is sent by and representing the official Catholic Church, and even antiquated, anti-feminist doctrine. The debate between Father Butler and Father Collins will not only interest Roman Catholics, but anyone interested in the institutional religious doctrine versus religion as practiced on the ground. Father Butler’s name is, I suspect, a well-chosen play on words: he is a lackey of official, unquestioning, religion. His character, though drawn with some amusing quirks, never becomes multi-dimensional.

Pilgrimage is a practice of religion “on the ground” that has grown in popularity worldwide since the 1980s. Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists are today’s pilgrims. The atheist pilgrim with a personal mission to fulfill, is represented by Donald Sutherland, in a recent movie, The Way.

Despite normal human flaws, Father Collins is a likable character, concerned with the well-being of his parishioners, if shirking, now and then, interactions with the most difficult of them. Father Collins never shirks his duty for long, and despite self-doubts, is cast as a man eminently suitable for the priesthood.

Guterson addresses the questions of bodily practice–the physical aspects–of religion well. The “Inquisitor” focuses intently on Ann’s bodily habits, especially use of alcohol or drugs, from antihistamines to mushrooms, to determine whether she is a fit vehicle for visions of Mary. Her recent conversion and unbaptized state are less important concerns to Butler. Those pleading with Ann for help, plead for cures to physical ailments. The one complex exception to those pleading for a cure is that of a troubled logger who pleads for his son’s paralysis to be reversed. Tom is one of the novel’s central characters, so I will not reveal the outcome of his dire family and financial situation here.

Wrestling with one of the ultimate existential questions, “What is reality?” is difficult. Guterson acquits himself well in his very readable novel, which I recommend. Because of the philosophical nature of the debate at the heart of the novel, it is somewhat unsatisfying. But it was doubtless Guterson’s intent to leave his readers with more questions than answers.

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Embodied Religion

By Jule_Berlin (originally posted to Flickr as [1]) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ponte Maceira on El Camino by Jule Berlin (via Wiki Commons) Share Alike

I continue writing about pilgrimage: embodied religion in nature. Serenity itself? Yes. There is beauty in nature, and oneness with nature that those who don’t hunt or fish or climb mountains might not otherwise access. There is beauty and peace in nature, and even fear, in nature that those who go on an evening stroll might wish to deepen or face. In deepening one’s connection to the land, one may deepen one’s connection to a transcendental God, or to the immanental god within.

And all those pilgrim symbols, from staff to cross, and pilgrim paths, within European borders do other, less obvious work. They provide a moving tableaux, a visual demonstration of Christianity as a physical presence. European pilgrimages connect European nation to nation, not undermining the all-important nationalism or nationhood, but reinforcing pan-Europeanism. There is also, surprisingly, something dark that bubbles up in pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is not only a simple and age-old act of putting one foot in front of the other, and circumnavigating a region by foot. It is also often a political act. In some cases it is, and has been, a political act for the good. Sometimes a political act against gender constraints keeping women at home. At others a political act of defiance against circumscription by Vatican authority, commanding the laity at what place, and how, they must worship.

Pilgrimage in Europe, meditative walking, may be broadening, ecumenical, and inviting. It may also be exclusive. Going on European Christian pilgrimage generally does not exclude atheists, agnostics, and seekers. In most cases, however, pilgrimage in Europe is Christian pilgrimage and excludes those of other faiths.

Today, as in ages past, it is the pluralism of Christians and Muslims living together in Europe that is being worked out. Is walking an act of territorial inscription? Probably in part, yet it is much more, and adds much that is positive to the individual and communal good. Pilgrims are certainly more than border control
agents.

Pilgrimage: Journey and Destination

Wildflowers in Swedish Meadow by Circespeaks

Wildflowers in Swedish Meadow by Circespeaks

To see a World in a Grain of Sand and a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.

–William Blake

The little flower carries a promise. It is not dangerous to see ones smallness. Small is not worthless….That which is small can bear the grand in the wonder that holds the infinite…

–K.G. Hammar

Pilgrimage in Sweden today is more focused on the journey than the destination, as was traditional in medieval times, and as is traditional in many Catholic pilgrimage sites, such as Lourdes, even today.

Pilgrimage is a common metaphor for the journey of every life, from beginning to end. Surely many of us are also more focused on the journey than the destination. Even those who have a very clear vision of what the ultimate destination following life on earth is, often agree that the right sort of journey will lead to the desired destination, even if the path is not clearly mapped.

It is at this point that opinions, religious and spiritual convictions, diverge. The journey that is sacred for one, is secular for another. In Swedish pilgrimage today, the distinction between the sacred and secular is not sharply drawn. Many of these pilgrims reject the language and authoritarianism of organized religion in favor of spirituality. Whether a Swedish pilgrim joins a pilgrimage through a tourist organization, an educational or cultural association, or a church, or because it is conveniently passing through the person’s hometown, the sacred and secular are brought together with every step of the journey. Though atheist pilgrims, and some agnostic “seekers” would not use the language of sacred and secular, pilgrimage is both for all. Pilgrimage takes place in the physical lived world, and is sacred, as in set apart from daily life and activity. Each footstep may be a lived prayer or a step towards improved psychological or physical health.

Ideally, we would all live each moment as mindfully as those on organized pilgrimage, but for those not devoted to the contemplative life this is not an easily achieved goal. Nor do all desire such a life. Leaping first and looking second may yield surprising benefits along with the possibility of risk.

Walking and running are not my usual forms of exercise, but the misty morning called to me. Once outside and in motion, I was greeted a woman holding a booklet in her hand. She was only momentarily distracted from meditating on booklet which appeared to contain Christian prayers or Bible verses. When I arrived at the track, I noticed a woman walking slowly yet speaking rapidly without pausing. Her words had the cadence of a prayer, perhaps from the Qur’an or other sacred text, perhaps a repetition of her own petition, or the recitation of multiplication tables. She spoke a foreign language, so I can’t be certain, but the latter seems most unlikely. She spoke with focus while walking, and stopped praying or reciting when she stopped walking. Though we may not think of short walks as pilgrimage, local pilgrimage has also always existed, especially for women, who could not leave the home for any length of time. Lunch-hour pilgrimages go forth from the Pilgrimage Center in Gothenburg, Sweden, and from many Swedish parish churches. We are each on our individual and communal pilgrimage. A common Swedish pilgrim prayer, the prayer of St. Birgitta follows. Rather than beginning by invoking “Lord,” which has an authoritarian, masculine, Christian connotation, simply substitute “Spirit Within,” “Earth,” “Gaia,” “Higgs Bosun Particle” or the name of an inspirational figure or religious leader of your faith.

“Lord, Show me Your Way, and make me willing to walk it.”

–The Prayer of St. Birgitta