I’m honored to be hosting my friend and fellow author, Christine Valters Paintner of Abbey of the Arts here today on the Anam Cara blog. This is part of Christine’s virtual book tour for her latest offering, The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within. To win a copy of her book, just comment on this post, and a winner will be drawn by Friday, July 24.
My heart sank when I stepped tentatively into my mother’s room. She lay there connected to a complex web of tubes and wires, eyes shut. The thin skin on her face was sunken and bruised, her lips were raw. She had a serious pneumonia that had entered her bloodstream causing septicemia and leading to unconsciousness, kidney failure, inability to breathe without a respirator, and dangerously low blood pressure. The previous evening she had gone into cardiac arrest twice but they had resuscitated her.
I took a deep breath and I began to pray those feverish prayers of desperation as death whispered in my ear. When you suddenly hope the way you have lived your life somehow earns the right to a miracle even though you no longer even believe in miracles and deep down you know that’s not how the world works. I prayed that she would be able to go home. But as day gave way to night, I realized that the meaning of that prayer had shifted. Going home would mean something entirely different.
I spent the hours perched on the edge of my mother’s bed, rubbing hospital lotion on her arms and legs as a private act of anointing. Each stroke became its own kind of blessing.
“She can hear you,” the nurses kept assuring me, despite her not being conscious, and so I sang simple chants to her choked by tears. Words of longing would rise up in me and I would bathe her in song. I told her again and again that I loved her and that she was beautiful and I wanted more than anything for her to open her eyes again and gaze on me.
Five days after I arrived to that hospital room, my husband John and I were there alone with her, her blood pressure and heartbeat began to drop and I knew my mother and I were both at a threshold in our lives. The slowing beep of the heart monitor sounded as though it marched her toward death rather than merely recording the journey. And when the beeping became one long sound, I began to wail.
We returned to Seattle and in those November days I found more solace among trees than people with well-meaning, but often trite, advice about grief.
First, came the brilliant gold leaves of the bigleaf maple, then the orange Pacific dogwood, and finally the reds of the vine maple. Then the slow process of letting go and watching the leaves fall from the trees became a daily meditation.
Once the last leaf had surrendered its futile grip and drifted gently to the ground, I was propelled into winter. Bare branches. Days that grew shorter. The sun, when it was visible, dipped low along the horizon so even in daytime there was a darkness that lingered and pressed upon my imagination.
My mother’s death was a threshold and grief became its own kind of pilgrimage through my life. The seasons became witness to the slow unfolding of loss from the release of autumn, to the ache of winter, to spring’s renewal of possibility, and the fruitfulness of summer.
We live in a culture that worships spring and summer. In my own pilgrimage of healing I discovered the wisdom and depth of winter. I have learned to love it on its own terms – not just as a preparation and precursor for spring’s blooming – but for all the ways it calls me deeper into unknowing. Being fully awake and conscious in the dark days of winter can be challenging.
But pilgrimage thrusts us into these spaces of unknowing and mystery, that are so often uncomfortable experiences. We have all had winter seasons in our lives when what was familiar is stripped away and we have to hold grief and open ourselves to the grace of being rather than doing. Winter calls us to trust that fallowness and hibernation are essential to our own wholeness.
For me, making a pilgrimage is not about growing more certain about the world, but embracing more and more the mystery at the heart of everything. In a world where so many people are so very certain about the nature of things, especially in religious circles about who God includes and excludes, I believe unknowing calls us to a radical humility.
As we mature, we must engage with what our own mortality means for us, knowing that we one day enter what I call the Great Unknowing. The season of winter helps us to practice for this and naming these experiences as times of pilgrimage helps us to understand them as ancient journeys.
This is the gift that pilgrimage can offer, a way of connecting our experience to thousands of journeys that have been traveled before. Some for very long distances, and some just along the tender borders of the heart.