Kathleen Hirsch | 2017 January
Writing and musings by author Kathleen Hirsch.
kathleen hirsch, writer, spiritual director, boston, ma, spiritual writing
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January 2017

A New Kind of Pilgrimage

I have been thinking a lot lately about pilgrimage.  And exile.  Most days, it feels as if an invading force has entered the sanctuary of all I hold dear and pitched the icons over the city walls.  For the first time in my life, my government no longer feels benign or representative.  The “business” being conducted in the corridors of power looks a lot like that of the Third World countries whose people I used to pray for as a child at the end of Sunday Mass – mass resignations, egotistical posing, saber rattling at the opposition.

I have a choice.

If I assume the mantle of exile, I am able to feel more acutely the lives of refugees who have lost country, homes, roots, stories, holy shrines.  But I trade the crucial knowledge that I can still vote, write, speak out — and yes, pay taxes.

If instead I choose to see my life and that of many friends, students, local activists – as a new kind of pilgrimage, alienation takes on the coloration hope.  And with hope comes traction.

Each day brings more news that is almost impossible to absorb into our pre-existing democratic constructs, the political discourse and open process I so recently took for granted.  Executive orders that have the affected agencies reeling in confusion, the arrest of journalists, the bullying of trade partners, the gag orders on environmental personnel.

A dear friend leaves next week for her own pilgrimage — a trek up Kilimanjaro.  She will pass through five climate zones, scaling 19,000 feet, to summit the highest peak in Africa.  She is 67 years old.

For months, she has walked every day. Where there is a steeper grade, she will take it.  Stairs, she’s there.  She has watched documentaries and read about the climb.  Now, she is starting to pack her lightweight layers, stock battery packs, choose her journal.  She will travel in a reputable tour group with skilled guides.

She reminds me of all that goes into a good pilgrimage.

A pilgrimage starts with commitment – often to something that we don’t fully understand.  It is a primer in genuine sacrifice – of conveniences, comforts, assumptions, familiar landmarks.  Easy, on an unknown trail, to fall behind; in fatigue, to forget why you started, get sick, lose time and companions, run out of food.

 

Caring for ourselves as we move into new realities will entail the kind of attention my friend is bringing to her trip.   We need a huge daily dollop of mindfulness, remembering what we love and hold dear.  We need guides, not fellow amateurs — adults who have faced similar challenges, know the trails, and the wild things we might encounter along the route.  We need trustworthy map readers, whose quiet expertise and calm under any number of conditions we can trust.

And then — and this is the hardest part — we need to admit our ignorance.  We need to know what we don’t know, and be prepared to learn things we never imagined.

The great pilgrimages were journeys of conversion, undertaken with unlikely fellow travelers.  Survival depended upon staying focused and alert to current conditions, the prevailing winds, the height of the sun, one’s own energy and resources.  The greatest danger, on mountains or on pilgrimage, is to think so exclusively about the destination that you lost track of putting one foot ahead of the other in good faith.

My personal Kilimanjaro includes loaves and fishes: safety, health, good work, educational opportunities, kindness and inclusion, and the special care of children.  But I need the voices of experience to help me figure out where to place my feet, how to listen and observe well, how expend my limited energy, to hew to the good trail.

The sky is large.

At the moment my guide is Thomas Merton, but I’m always in search of others.  If we share our journey bread, our wisdom and good will, we can get there.

Intention is everything.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Namaste.

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Winter Roses

Roses and rosemary in January!  I am walking along a path in Los Angeles in the company of roses.  Rain has drawn out their perfume.  It wraps me in palpable grace.

A day earlier, I shoveled my front walk half a dozen times during a snow storm.  Now, here I am, bending to a bloom that opens my heart after a long, hard season.

On the morning of November 9, I discovered that I had lost my voice.  That day, I tried a few post-election letters to my world.  But a stone lay on my tongue.  Words seemed wholly inadequate to circumstance.  Or: the words I would have used would have skidded across the surface of a numbingly frozen pond.

My season of Advent, like that of so many friends, was long and dark and uncertain.   It didn’t feel anticipatory in the slightest.  I watched the sky (it seemed as good a thing as any to watch), but the stars didn’t speak.

In unaccustomed silence, slowly, I found that I was able to move away from grief, shock, fear.  All of the sure, strident, clever, glib, able words — all of the polished, official and oft-repeated phrases — fell mute.

At first, it felt a kind of withdrawal.  But gradually the sense of being a news-amputee gave way to a different, far more steadying quality of awareness.  I was no longer flitting from idea to idea, or text to text, from one shallow conversation to the next.  I was no longer focused on logistics and next actions.  I felt my attention shifting.  Or, better, the very act of “attending” was transformed.  What changed wasn’t the focus of my thoughts.  It was the quality of thought itself.

As long as I remained aware in this way, no unfinished wrapping, no late-arriving packages or broken ornament or family members’ “attitude” issues, could disrupt me.

More than this: I began to see the important life that matters beyond the glare of the headlines.

As sanity returned, so did a kind of moral memory: hurry destroys the capacity to be with oneself in any meaningful sense; our “out there” culture of activism with its constant pressures to identify with causes, have a position, be socially and politically useful, can make us brittle and leave no room for inner movement.  In the face of certitude and efficiencies, the “inner witness” falls silent, or just repeats what it is accustomed to saying.  Either way, it ends up failing me.

During these months, only thistles and thorns were visible in my garden, and this was oddly apt.  To renew, and see life with fresh eyes, I needed to stop.  Stop ruminating, producing for the sake of producing, and most importantly, stop consuming a diet of sound bites that was starving me of deeper wisdom and the still, small voice within.  For days.  Weeks.  Going on three months.  Winter, or just about.

Now here I am, walking down a path filled with roses and beauty, on a warm day under soft skies.  Perhaps, the roses seemed to suggest, it is time to emerge from hibernation and get on with the business of blooming again.

What have I learned?

I’ve learned how easy it is to join the wagging tongues, the policy patois, the dangerously false urgencies that always drive bad politics.  Easy to become too depressed or distracted to be present to what is in front of me: my loved ones, neighbors, community, and the needs right next door or under my own roof.

Healing and growth may both require the fallow time of the winter roses, the waiting time, when we unhook from reactive living and simplify long and amply enough to let some new green slip of insight unfurl. Each day is about becoming, isn’t it?  When I lose myself in the high winds of talking heads, and dishonest politicians, I completely forget the value of a more considered vigilance, which along with a certain detachment, prepares the ground for what the Buddhists call “right action.”

So.  Onward.

In honor of the winter roses, I have written a poem to illuminate the collage above, my New Year’s greeting to you, dear readers.

 

Wherever I look

Look!

If I allow myself the sweet prayer

of mere being,

I can see the greeting

of the winter roses,

the dance of the birds,

the beribboned and wholly

sufficient gift

of sunrise.

 

Original nature

rests in its just orders —

How we define or defile

right livelihood

will bring the winter roses

to their knees;

the nests of blue jays,

the red-capped woodpeckers,

the hungry hawk

on a barren bough

the cistern with its cold sweet water

our waiting doves of peace.

 

 

 

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