Posts Tagged With: path

Literary Pilgrimage – A New Look

Literary pilgrimage.

  • A journey to places of story related to literature and its writing.
  • A  memoir of reading and journey.
  • A narrative of place and story, parable and poetry.

The introduction to the draft of my forever-in-progress book on literary pilgrimage, Walking the Path of Story, describes what the book is trying to do – build a connection between pilgrimage, literature, and reader.  It even lists the books and questions approached throughout the chapters. Yet, something is missing.  However, it doesn’t really get to the heart of this writing, the why it’s important, a reason to read.  So what is that reason?

This book is not full on literary criticism or religious ritual.  Nor is it a random jaunt to a tourist site.  Literary pilgrimage could be a way of simply following in the practices of earlier pilgrims, the authors and readers who have trod this path before.  But it’s not a path of imitation that underlays pilgrimage.  It’s a path of guidance.  This guidance frees the reader’s own story to come out as she lives in the places along the journey – the novels’, the authors’, the sites’, the pilgrims’.  It opens up new paths into the original story and into the pilgrim’s life.

Sitting in a grove of olive trees across from the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, I could barely keep my eyes open.  Jet lag was pressing in on me even as the breeze of this land drifted across my body and I sat before ancient temples.  My first evening in Europe felt like a dream.  I didn’t know what to expect over the next twelve days on this Mediterranean tour, but I was ready to follow our guides as we heard familiar stories and were surprised by new ones. The growing connection of place and story slowly dissolved the dream and I was soon on an unexpected journey.  Each day one story led to others, drawing me on to the next place – whether the Aeropagus in Athens, the Forum in Rome, or this book on literary pilgrimage.

Many times the guidance on these journeys comes in the language of the book itself.  Readers engage with words penned in a specific time and place by a specific author.  The contemporary interaction of the reader with the authored words brings meaning to life in the practice of reading.  So, what happens when this contemporary interpretation includes places along with words?  How does the reader encounter these places?  Definitely not in the same way as the author.  This contrast is part of the richness of literary pilgrimage.  It puts one face-to-face with the uniqueness of both reader and writer and allows them to be in a multi-layered conversation.

On an overcast day in July I spent several hours on Cadbury Hill – a possible site of the fabled Camelot.  Through the trees I could see a lone piece of land rising out of the earth –  Glastonbury Tor, the Isle of Avalon, home to the Lady of the Lake, the grave of King Arthur.  The grass underneath and branches above grounded me in an actual place, yet there was more.  While sitting in this place numerous stories came together as I read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novel, Mists of Avalon, and recalled other Arthurian legends.  Lives opened up.  Imaginations roamed.  A fullness welled up as I contemplated being in that place, at that moment.  Men and women had been walking across those fields for centuries.  Stories of kings and knights had been lived and embellished, given new life for others to retell.  In these connections I was drawn to the stories all the more.  Yet, many others had come this way before.  What difference did it make that it was new to me?

Similarly, what difference would it make for others to walk in the paths of stories that drew me on journey?  I had found connections that opened up the novels of Jane Eyre, Little Women, To the Lighthouse and The Girl of the Limberlost, but would others also find these connections inspiring?  Ultimately, these journeys shouldn’t only be about the pilgrim’s experiences.  Through the readings and the places, the writings will get into the heart of the journeys, the wanderings, the way of the initial interactions.  But, the should also provide pathways on which readers can start their own journeys.

On an overcast March day I was wandering through the ruins of Whitby Abbey on the eastern coast of England.  A storm rolling in from the sea made the place seem even more desolate.  Over the next days I also explored Bolton and Fountains Abbeys.  These immense skeletons of stone are all that remain of church buildings that were caught in the midst of a political and religious battle.  Grand architectural monuments now decayed.  Remnants of a religious legacy that people alternately romanticize and critique.  In these places men sensed the power of God; but, also abused human power in God’s name.  Now we only have the vestiges of these buildings calling us to hear their former stories and fill them with new ones.

Though the paths and stories encountered taken in this book are not through stone ruins, they do form a scaffolding that will hold a new story, a new community.  They can provide a path for others to understand these novels through new means.  This path won’t be in a stranglehold of rules and procedures for reading, but in the telling of stories.  It’s a journey into words, outside of the chains of expectations and into the grace of living a story.

What is such a book for?  To help other people engage in pilgrimage – first vicariously, and then on their own.  To relish literature, story, these types of journeys.  To show God’s story in the midst.  It’s not just about these authors, these places, one person’s journey.  It includes the readers.  It’s about their stories and our stories interwoven.  Through the chapters we walk down a pilgrimage path exploring the liminal elements of life – on a journey to stories and at home.

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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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Cracks in the Abbey

It’s a cold February Sunday evening, I’ve finished my work, wrapped myself in a thick blanket, and have the television turned on.  I’m ready to be immersed in a story – Downton Abbey.  Somehow I had missed this series’ arrival on these shores.  Yet, it didn’t take long to catch up and for the last seven weeks I’ve been engaged in the lives of Mary and Matthew, Sybil, Mr. Bates and Anna, Daisy, and others.  The microcosm of this English abbey and its interaction with the wider world has provided an escape from weekly routines.  In such a ‘home’ and village, how could there be anything but fantastic stories?  It’s not another bar down the street, a house in the suburbs, or a city apartment.  Yet, something in these shows has me reflecting on my own life as well – beyond a desire for fine clothes, lavish surroundings, and an adoring suitor.

At one level it’s great fun to think of myself entering the story as one of the ladies of the manor – growing up in a world of privilege with plenty of time just to sit on a bench under a tree and read.  Yes, I would enjoy a slower paced life and the safe structures of a well-defined society with apparently no real worries.  However, at the same time, the many constraints and expectations would eventually drive me crazy.  What’s wrong with attending a political rally or seeking out my own mate?  Why must I dress for dinner and be kind to the guest who is obviously using the family?  The stress of keeping up appearances is all too apparent in most of the characters as cracks in their individual and intertwined stories emerge.

These cracks grew larger as the season finale brought several characters to moments when the stories they had been bravely trying to author, fall apart.  After the war the macro-predictability of Edwardian England is gone, as well as the micro-predictability of one’s role as a servant or even an earl.  What they had expected out of life is often no longer possible.  This can be frightening or merely irritating to someone intent on keeping the comforts of past decades.  However, it can contain also the seeds of freedom.  After creating self-made prisons in order to bear responsibility for mistakes, several characters take the risk of speaking about their offenses.  Intimations of their prisons draw family members and friends to draw out these confessions.  Fearing rejection, they are surprised when their errors don’t condemn them to a life of judgement.  Instead, their honesty provides a new path for a life not previously imagined.  In the aftermath of war, more importance is put on living in an honest mess, than a perfect lie.

I can’t wait to enter this world again on Sunday evenings.  In the mean time I’ll be pondering some questions and looking at the cracks in my own story: What lies am I using to protect myself and others?  What structures in my life and work are useless and even counter-productive?  What new worlds might courageous honesty open?  And, of course, how can I find that adoring suitor with a fantastic accent?

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