Posts Tagged With: reading

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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Reading Marilynne Robinson

Reading Marilynne Robinson’s book of essays When I Was a Child I Read Books, I’m met by someone who is thinking deeply about society and attempting to bridge the chasm between society/science/materialism and faith.  She is not pushing ideologies that must be believed, but is rather creating pathways into conversation, raising questions that people aren’t asking, and populating a renewed community.

Here are some tidbits of her writing. Enjoy.

  • We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small. (7)
  • There is at present a dearth of humane imagination for the integrity and mystery of other lives. (45)
  • I think of the acts of comfort offered and received within a household as precisely sacramental.  (93)
  • In these two narratives (Christmas, Easter) narrative fractures the continuity of history. . . . At the same time they have created a profound continuity.  (127)
  • There is . . . the urge, driven by righteousness and indignation, to conform reality to theory.  (152)
  • . . . we should cease and desist from reductionist, in effect invidious, characterizations of humankind.  (158)
  • . . . moment by moment, every one of us experiences, along with the whole of the cosmos this great mystery of being, this great unfolding of ineluctable, irreversible time.  (185)
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News from the Writing World

Today Mo Yan, a Chinese writer, won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature.  Every year I listen for the name – and often quickly forget it.  Attaining such recognition seems so foreign to me that it barely registers in my mind.  It’s just another piece of news and affirmation that literature still matters.

But did you also know that The New The New York Public Library is recreating Charles Dickens’ library of fake books. and Patti Smith visited the Brontë parsonage and Sylvia Plath’s grave.  Now these may not be life changing events, but they do show that writers, and their related items and places, continue to engage people in tangible spaces.  There is a life of reading and writing that goes beyond the covers of a given book.

Both of these news bits came from a website I recently discovered – Writers’ Houses.  As you will see, this site contains archives descriptions of a number of writers homes along with a weekly update on upcoming events or other connections to these houses.  It’s a virtual place to gather with others who continue to find importance in visiting these homes and other literary sites.

This could be dangerous for me.  Reading the list from two weeks ago I’m ready to go to Manorbier House, a Welch haunt of Virginia Woolf’s, that is still used as a writers’ retreat or find a way to live in one of the castles in the UK used for movies and television shows.  Who knows where I will be drawn to go over the next weeks as I return to the site.  Some of the ventures will be doable, others not so much.  But merely reading about the opportunities and getting a glimpse of the actual lives lived by these authors have inspired me to sit at the keyboard once again and get to writing.

In my research on literary pilgrimages to writers houses, I have found that such journeys don’t only or even primarily draw people to follow in the steps of the authors, mimicking their styles and attempting to recreate what had been.  Such visits also encourage people to step into their own life, and possibly writing, journeys on a more engaged level. There’s something about knowing that it’s been done before in a given place, with all its attendant difficulties, that makes writing or even another activity seem possible.

Now I may or may not purchase Mo Yan’s latest writings in which he merges “folk tales, history and the contemporary” with hallucinatory realism.  But I do know that I will return to a writer’s house soon to explore the places and surroundings that inspired them.  But even before that time, I will make my own journey into the practice of literature – both reading and writing in the places that surround me today.


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Returning to Summer Days

Streets are quiet at 7 am, school parking lots are empty, families are on vacation, offices clear out early.  Summer seems like a different dimension of space and time.  During June and July – months holding most the daylight hours – there is a palpable drive for people to get the most out of each day.  A sense of freedom and possibility surrounds these hours.

During these months a part of me is back in elementary school, eager to begin summer break.  In those years I saw before me endless days to to play, explore, hang out.  No more running around to lessons or being confined by the needs of school requirements.  Instead I could read a book, have lunch on the deck, or play with friends.  I was free to set my own schedule – mostly.  With this freedom I ventured into new activities and learning.  As I think back, there are some practices that still help me prepare for summer.

Cleaning my room.  At the end of the school year I would often thoroughly clean my bedroom.  Throw away papers, reorganize drawers, dust all surfaces.  I wanted to start summer afresh without any remnants of the past year.

Gathering friends.  As a child it was for the Nancy Drew Lemon Yellow Club – if I remember correctly.  I couldn’t wait to bring friends together around common interests.  Sometimes they came, sometimes not.  But I was out there looking for community.

Reading, reading, reading.  Summer was a time to read more books.  I would go to the library and select books – pulling them off the shelves eager to dive into their stories.  Then throughout the summer months I would escape into these new worlds.

As another academic year has wound down I am breathing a little more easily and finding myself again at another summer.  With a freer schedule I can finally take time to consider long term plans for campus ministry instead of just focusing on the next day’s activity.  I can also take time off and explore other avenues of life – have evening meals with family, take some short vacations.  What had been a series of weeks of planning, preparations, long days, is now an opportunity to re-vision.

I’ve already done the preparatory cleaning – now it’s time to gather, read, and enjoy.  What rituals indicate to you that summer has begun?  Let’s not waste these days, this extra daylight.

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