Literary Pilgrimages


Andalusia – the name alone invites many exotic images.  The site most associated with Flannery O’Connor was a nine hour drive to Milledgeville, Georgia, but well worth it.   Here was a place where a writer lived with her mother as she dealt with the daily reality of lupus and composed stories that reveal a shocking view of grace.  Furthermore, who wouldn’t want to go to a farm where peacocks used to roam?

I saw this journey as one to a fellow writer’s home, not a time for literary criticism. What would I find?  What did she see when she wrote?  What may have inspired her?  The entrance is a non-descript drive off a four lane highway across from a big-box shopping center.  I turned in and started to drive down the one lane path.  Quickly the traffic behind me disappeared and I was enveloped in another space.  Trees and other bushes lined the one-lane, unpaved road as I followed signs to park.  At a turn in the road the view opened and I saw the house – a white farm house with red roof.

Several other buildings were on the property – a barn, sheds, house – all in difference states of re-construction.  There was a lot to explore.  First, I headed to the main house.  The yard in front was filled with towering oaks, providing some shade in the oppressive heat of southern summer.  I walked up the red brick stairs to the screened-in porch that spanned the length of the house.  Opening the door I was greeted with the scent of lives lived.  This was not a pristine tourist stop.  It’s a re-opened home.  Paint is peeling from walls, drapes are fraying.  There was a sense of forlornness about the place.  Yet, at the same time I knew that this is the repository of great stories.

The tour was self-guided, though the director, Craig Amason, was ready to answer any questions.  Looking down the hallway, the dining room was on the right and Flannery’s bedroom on the left – a typewriter still at the ready – though not hers.  The bed was made, but the bookcases were empty.  Through the small gift shop shop at the end of the hall and on the right was the kitchen and then a room where people could watch a short video about the author.  Retracing my steps I returned to the front of the house and walked up the stairs.  The curtains in the upstairs bedroom were yellowed and torn.  I could sense this place had been lived in.  In a way, it needed the grace about which Flannery wrote.  A life in the midst of questions, of imperfection.  The ideal doesn’t need grace.

I didn’t feel drawn into the life of this house, though it did intrigue me.  There was a sadness of the life lived here no longer and I couldn’t see myself writing in this space.  When I stepped out onto the porch again, I sat in one of the white rocking chairs and looked out over the land.  This farm, a working farm when Flannery lived here with her mother, provided much to think about- the live oaks shading the summer sun, a land that had seen war between the states, the barn, the milk shed, the water tower, and much more.  Here was a whole world that could infiltrate the imagination of a writer.

This was a place

  • to create stories;
  • to think away from the crowd;
  • to understand a new life.

I walked around the yard – down to a pond and around the outbuildings.  Sat on the benches in the gardens near the house, looked at the peacocks – now safely in a pen and not walking around the yard.  I could detect spurts of life.  Seeds of stories.  Maybe I couldn’t write here, but I shouldn’t.  This was someone else’s world.  But I could look at my world more fully.  Where are the places I would write?  Not an old farm house with peacocks walking in the yard – but a campus ministry house, a small home in the suburbs, a local church.  My own exotic places.

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Seeds of a Novel – Uncle Tom’s Cabin

A two-story, white house, the only building left of what had been the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, is dedicated to telling the story of the seminary president’s daughter – Harriet Beecher Stowe.  It seems out of place now with a gas station across the street and a highway overpass just a stone’s throw away.  Still, it provides a sense of a story that grew to encompass much more than a small corner of this city on the Ohio River.

Four years after moving to Cincinnati, Harriet started her married life.  Eventually she moved back to New England with her husband and children.  However, the experience of living on the edge of the North/South divide remained with her.  Around the seminary and in her home she heard about and likely participated in the growing abolitionist movement.  Down the river in Washington, Kentucky she saw a slave auction and in Ripley, Ohio she heard first-hand accounts of escapes.  She learned from  friends and acquaintances how the Underground Railroad kept running.

However, this city inspired more than her stance against slavery, it provided her a place to practice writing.  During her time here she was part of a literary society – the Semi-Colon Club.  Within this group she and others shared their writing projects and found encouragement.  She honed her skills and early in her marriage published articles and stories to supplement the family’s income.  At some level this group likely planted and helped nurture the seeds that would grow into Uncle Tom’s Cabin – a novel that moved a nation to read and to act.  She wrote this novel after the family returned to New England, but it certainly had some roots in Cincinnati.

Who would have thought that the buildings of the seminary would be torn down, yet one house remains because of a book written by a woman?  Some of its views may appear dated and sentimental 150 years later, but it continues to draw readers into the story of slavery and its effects on the human spirit and larger community. This is the story that the volunteers at the house tell – of a family, a woman, a book – engaged with the world around them as they struggle to live out their deep belief that God created all humans to be free.

Together the abolitionist activity and the literary society created just the place Stowe needed to conceive and write this book.  I wonder what writing groups in Cincinnati are even now providing encouragement for the next Harriet.  What areas of town are housing young men and women that are stirred to tell a story?

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Pilgrim Desire

Sitting here in the middle of April with rain coming down, I long for a journey.  A trek to a place of sun and adventure. Or, maybe a wind swept moor.  It’s time for a pilgrimage, as Chaucer and his fellow pilgrims knew full well.  Time to travel towards a sacred story.  Time to get away in order better to live the story back at home.

Where would you go?  What story would you follow?


When April with his showers sweet with fruit

The drought of March has pierced unto the root

And bathed each vein with liquor that has power

To generate therein and sire the flower;

When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,

Quickened again, in every holt and heath,

The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun

Into the Ram one half his course has run,

And many little birds make melody

That sleep through all the night with open eye

(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-

Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage, . . .

Canterbury Tales Prologue, Geoffrey Chaucer

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Entering Laura’s Story

The Trail

After walking through Laura Ingall’s house, Rocky Ridge Farm, I sat for awhile on a bench just outside, taking in the house and the lives lived there.  Trees still towered over the roof, providing shade and the peaceful rustle of leaves.  The building itself was rather non-descript, except for its occupants.  Here Wilder had  created a home of her own, a three dimensional story that people can still explore and that is linked to her creation of the Little House books.  Her life was one of intentionally living in the places around her – giving her plenty of material with which to later build these still popular books.

When I got up, I went to the bookstore to buy some of the creations that came from this place.  These were some of the first chapter books I remember reading and I always enjoyed picturing myself in the adventures in which Laura and the others found themselves. I walked through the store at least four times pondering what books to buy for myself – focusing on those about travel and place – and what to buy for my nieces and nephew.  I wanted to purchase books that would draw them into these stories so they might catch a flicker of interest in writing, reading, and journeys.  Maybe some day they will find themselves outside of the house of an author, musician, or scientist who inspired them.

Along the Trail

I was ready to leave after taking a quick tour through the Rock House, a house Laura and Almanzo’s daughter, Rose, had built for them on an a distant part of the property.  Then I noticed the trail.  There is a walking path – just over a mile – between the two homes, but it had been closed due to excessive rain over the past weeks.  I had been disappointed that I could not walk the path when the guide at Rocky Ridge had said it was closed.   However, this part of the trail didn’t look too bad and I did not see a sign saying stay out, so I started walking – and kept going through woods and meadows.  I took time to look at wildflowers, watch butterflies flit from plant to plant, and feel the cool of the shade in the woods.  It was a quiet walk.  No one else was around.  I felt a little rebellious venturing into a closed area.  Further and further I ventured, breathing deeply and wondering what was over the next hill.

How fun to just play and have a mini adventure.  I was letting my bonnet carelessly hang down my back as Laura was wont to do in so many of the stories.  Not a bad practice.

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Finding a Little House

Leaving behind the river town of Hannibal on my mini-pilgrimage last summer, I spent an afternoon driving to Mansfield, Missouri to see Rocky Ridge – Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home during her writing life.  On the edge of the town’s square – complete with bandstand and memorials – I stayed at the Weaver Inn Bed and Breakfast.  Here was a sanctuary where I could revitalize before going to the next pilgrimage site.  After eating an authentic Mexican dinner at a small place next door, I took a reconnaissance drive to Rocky Ridge and then returned to take a much needed rest.

Rocky Ridge

The next morning, after a filling breakfast, I was off.  Similar to my time at Mark Twain’s sites, I toured the museum and the house.  However, these places were a little more rustic and not as sleek. The glass display cases contained items from Laura and her family – quilts, photographs, and tableware – labeled with hand-typed cards.  I felt I was peering in into the attic treasures of this family.  At one point, a guide directed some of the other guests to look at Pa’s fiddle, one of the more popular items in the museum.  Pa’s fiddle?  Ah, yes, that emblematic item of the Little House on the Prairie stories and television shows.  What I remember most about Pa’s fiddle are the sarcastic comments my father would make related to the television show and how Pa always managed to save the day.  Somehow I had walked right by it this relic.  Yes, relics.  In many ways this site had the feel of a reliquary, a place to honor the ‘bones’ of a saint, more than a mere museum that preserves the past.

This feeling continued as I entered the small, white house – a full immersion experience.  Unlike other historical houses I’ve visited, the guides did not provide caveats about this house being lived in by the writer, but the items only period pieces that they may have owned.  No, this was the house as Laura left it when she died.  She and her husband, Almanzo, had placed, if not created, everything, including the additions to the original small house.  Beds, books, pots, tables – everything was theirs.  They looked through these windows and decided on that wall paper.  I wanted to browse through the shelves of books that they purchased and read, but that was not part of the tour.

We left through the front door, crossing over a threshold that had seen much life.  Creation emanated from this little house in the forms of Laura’s books and Almanzo’s farming.  It was good to be in this place.

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A Day in Hannibal

Mark Twain's Childhood Home

Last summer I was antsy to undertake another pilgrimage.  I wanted to fly over to England again and relish the passion of the moors or maybe follow the steps of Martin Luther in Germany.  But that wasn’t to be.  Lack of time caught up with me.  But I did manage a quick three-day get away to Missouri where I ventured to the homes of two iconic American authors – Mark Twain and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

For the past years, much of my focus had been on planting myself at home and learning this thing called campus ministry.  Unfortunately, this has led me to forgo one of the practices that has given renewed energy to my life – pilgrimage.  I’m not sure why I do this – bare knuckle my way through an activity because I think I should, while ignoring other parts of life.  Maybe I fear that if I allow any type of enjoyment into my schedule, I’ll give up practical work for foolish ventures.  However, often these foolish ventures provide the impetus, and even wisdom, for the practical.

So back to my latest pilgrimage.  I left on a Thursday afternoon to reach Hannibal, Missouri, on the shores of the Mississippi River.  I’ve enjoyed reading Mark Twain’s works, but have never really studied him.  One day in Hannibal wasn’t going to change that, but I thought it would help me to get back on track with my story.  The evening was wonderful as I walked through this small town, gorged on Italian food, hiked up to the lighthouse, gazed at the flooding river, and listened to an outdoor concert.  This was definitely a small town kind of evening and I allowed myself to just enjoy it as I was drawn into the interplay of people and place.

The next morning I made my way over to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum.  When I stepped in, a rush of familiarity overcame me as I entered this literary site.  The museum was softly lit with well-produced displays covering the life of Mark Twain.  Immediately I started reading the words on the walls, looking at the copies of his books, and picturing the life that had made this writer.  I walked outside to the small Huckleberry Finn house and finally entered Mark Twain’s boyhood home.  The rooms had to be viewed from the distance of a plexi-glass divider, but I still got a sense of the life lived here.  Images of family life interspersed with lines from Twain’s works created a connection between the boy and the future writer.

Overlooking Hannibal

Of course the tour exited through the museum shop, and I loaded up on books to familiarize myself more with this writer – particularly his travel writings.  Striking out on adventures and telling childhood stories, even embellished ones, drove Twain’s life.  Did it make the stories he told a lie?  Not necessarily.  It helped direct and provide meaning to his life.  As a reader I was content to listen and be drawn into the adventures whether along the Mississippi (Huckleberry Finn) or in Egypt (The Innocents Abroad). These stories contain wonderful hijinx that show the characters relishing life.  I ended my time with lunch in a former bordello – still with a musty smell of a well-lived place – and a milkshake from Becky Thatcher’s Sweet Shoppe.

No literary breakthroughs here.  I can’t say I deeply connected with any of the stories.  Yet, I found myself moving toward pilgrimage again as I engaged with the stories of the place.  I even started to recall those my own from childhood.  Stories of enticing neighborhood kids to our porch with a set of building blocks, playing dolls with friends during summer breaks, and building forts with furniture and sheets on snow days.  It was a breath of fresh air that helped me break from the rut I had been creating.  Let’s play.

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Pilgrimage: A Journey to a Story

Moors of Haworth

A journey to a story – this definition of pilgrimage deeply resonated with me when I first encountered it in the book The Life you Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie. Stories are powerful elements of our world.  When connected to places these stories can take on new dimensions.  In fact they can lead to the transformation that often accompanies pilgrimage as a person seeks to entwine themselves in a story that relates to some of their deepest ideas of self.  Walking the paths of story is a powerful way to learn more about specific pieces of literature –  it opens a person up to learn from literature, not just about it.  Let me take you back to one of my first.

On a cloudy afternoon in July of 1993, I boarded a bus in York, England, to complete a solitary, five-hour journey that had begun in London the day before.  I was a bit nervous heading out on my own, away from my study abroad group for an entire weekend in an unknown country.  The bus schedules I used to plan this trip were unclear and I did not know if I would make all the necessary connections.  Still, I went.

Two hours later, the bus stopped at the foot of a hill that led to Haworth, the village where Emily, Charlotte, and Ann Brontë had lived.  After touring the Brontë Parsonage, I turned at last toward the moors, the land that had drawn me to England in the first place.  The sky was clear and the sun shone along the paths through the wild expanses of purple heather. I couldn’t believe I was actually here.  Along the way I alternately scanned the horizon to grasp its breadth and bent down to touch the heather.  Then, without warning, clouds gathered and the land’s shadows were the guides along the same paths that now evoked a more solemn mood.  My walking slowed to match. Through changing weather conditions the landscape appeared as a vast, and at times turbulent, sea of green, blue, and gray.

Such continual transformation echoes the changing passions that move the characters through Wuthering Heights.  At that point I more deeply understood Emily Brontë’s description of young Catherine Linton that compares her to the land in which “shadows and sunshine [flit] over it, in rapid succession” (202).  The land, and associated weather patterns, evoked a more intense emotion than I had gained by reading the book alone.  Brontë provided a visible image of the depth of passion, particularly melancholy, that was encroaching on young Catherine’s life.  This passion was not only an internal trait, but also a composition of her interaction with the environment and other characters.

Although I could not explain it at that time, this novel had moved from being an object created primarily within the imagination of the author or reader, to being a living transaction among a place, author, and me. From that moment on I’ve been exploring pilgrimage, particularly those associated with literature, and am continually amazed at the transformations that arise at unexpected moments and in unexpected places.

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Story of a Pilgrim

I have been on a journey through life, punctuated by intense sojourns to places of significant stories.  These moments put faith and life into relief, helping me to grasp that which is often hidden deeply within.  Over the past twenty years I have spent time exploring how faith weaves into life, through involvement in a small Lutheran church, participation with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, as well as through job stints as an economic analyst, strategic planner at a zoo’s education department, site director of an AmeriCorps program, and now a campus minister.  Each of these opportunities helped me to see through different perspectives how the Word of God infiltrates the world today.  During this same time I was also exploring another type of journey, that of literary pilgrimage – a journey to a place of literary significance.  These interactions of place, literature, and pilgrim provided additional insight into literature, as well as provided a journey into faith – whether the site was Walden Pond; Assisi, Italy; or Haworth, England.

Now I’m taking these works beyond my comfortable confines and sharing them with others.  Through posting words on this blog, engaging with students in campus ministry, and talking with people throughout the community, I want to learn more about this practice of sacred journey.  What stories do we carry with us?  How do specific places and journeys change our lives?  How is it possible to redeem pilgrimage – walk those paths of stories that can help us see our stories more clearly within God’s larger narrative?

At least once a week I plan to share observations of journeys I’ve taken, thoughts of pilgrimage, adventures in daily life, reflections on readings, integrating pilgrimage into ministry, and much more.  However, this isn’t only a place for me to wax eloquent, but a place to create a community of pilgrims sharing our journeys together and learning from one another.  A place to share stories as a way to create and cultivate culture.  I hope you are ready to take up your walking staff.

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