Posts Tagged With: literary pilgrimage

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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