I’m a firm believer in the power of a pilgrimage. Not just the long journey across oceans to holy lands, but the country road drive to clear your head or the one-day trip to somewhere new just so the world looks new.
Not too long ago, I took a pilgrimage that may sound a little like stalking but it was sacred just the same.
Wendell Berry is a writer who makes the world look different to me. Hopefully you know him but if you haven’t had the pleasure yet, he writes essays and poetry about agricultural, social, and spiritual issues. He also has a series of fiction books that take place in a struggling rural town. My favorite in the series is Jayber Crow, the story of a seminary student who had too many questions so he became a thoughtful barber instead of a preacher.
I found out through extensive research, otherwise known as Wikipedia, that Wendell Berry’s hometown, the town that inspired his fiction and non-fiction, is right across the river from Cincinnati, just down the highway from where I live in Dayton. The perfect distance for a day-long pilgrimage. I believe all sacred things need soundtracks so I made a playlist and headed for holy Kentucky.
The town was exactly how I hoped it would be. I could see everything he wrote about. I saw shacks along the river where I imagined Jayber the barber making a home. I saw farms passed down through real sons and daughters just like Berry’s imagined Coulter family. There was a general store with actual older men sitting outside just like Berry’s imaginary old Jack did in his stories. There was also a graveyard twice the size of the town which seemed to show that more life had passed through there than could ever fit at one time.
I really wanted to take my pilgrimage/stalking adventure to the next level and walk around but something about that felt too intrusive, like I didn’t belong there and hadn’t earned the right into such a special place. So instead of disrupting the town as a stranger, I took just a few minutes to sit in a church parking lot (allegedly Berry’s church if Wikipedia is to be believed) and read some passages from him on life and grief.
To be honest, if I had not read Berry’s books, I would have never noticed this town. I would have just driven on through. I might have even mocked it, laughed at it, wondered why anyone would live in a place without a movie theater or coffee shop. But instead, because of his stories, I saw sacred space. I saw love, life, death, hope, fear, faithfulness, failure, grace.
The day reminded me how much we all bear the burden, responsibility, privilege, even the calling, to see the sacred and to speak it into being. It is through words, stories, memories, music, conversation, poetry, maybe even tweets, that we have the opportunity to describe what our lives really mean. We can use words to destroy, or complain, or compete. Or we can use words to pull back the curtain of our ordinary place and reveal a view of something entirely holy. The right words can make every step a pilgrimage.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Woody Hibbard
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