When we think of pilgrimages we think of white-robed faithful walking a spiritual journey. They leave their destination expecting to encounter hardships along the way and, while seeing new things, develop new eyes. New ways of seeing. Their aim is to be changed at journey’s end, to be changed spiritually and morally.
I saw Lee Daniels’ The Butler the other day, finally.
“I can’t believe all the things we’ve seen in our lifetime,” I said to my husband, as I went back in time with the movie. As I noted all of the things that have happened in the past 50 years it occurred to me that our lives are our pilgrimages, and we were watching a big part of ours on the screen.
We were so young when we learned about the Cold War and nuclear weapons. Oh, we knew nothing of plutonium or uranium or anything like that. But incipient threat hung in the air when the jarring alarm sounded in elementary school and our teachers taught us to duck and cover. As if crawling under those small wooden desks would save us. Very young, we learned that there were black hats (The Russians) and white hats (Americans) and the outside world was dangerous. Communists were especially menacing and were thought to have infiltrated everything. Everything. Anti-Communist sentiment was rampant, even surrounding a local school bond issue in our small suburb. A local school tax group was called a “Communist front” and people believed it.
Although I didn’t know it then, my pilgrimage–had begun.
We were barely past those bomb drills when elected officials set attack dogs on “Negroes” in the south and worse, killed freedom riders. People were being hurt because they wanted equal rights–how could this be? But none of this touched my white suburban life, not in any real way, until Rochester, NY became the first city to have race riots. My pediatrician father, who routinely made house calls, armed himself to go into the inner city where many of his young patients lived. I don’t remember discussions of race–my conservative, far-right father wasn’t a bigot –but I do remember disparaging discussions of people who looted and rioted and I remember fear.
I was only 12 when JFK was assassinated. When Dr. Martin Luther King was killed in 1968, followed just a couple months later by the murder of Robert Kennedy I was 17 and while I couldn’t articulate my political views with any certainty, the upheaval and violence imprinted itself on my psyche in ways that wouldn’t be clear for decades. Around that time a favorite relative had a moral crisis and the family was turned upside down.
Meanwhile, soldiers were dying in Vietnam and when those who didn’t die returned they were sometimes spit on by anti-war activists. The women’s movement was in full swing with marches and bra burnings and affirmative action policies that comfy white men in power didn’t like much. The Pill–capital P–entered the picture. I entered college at the tail end of the 1960s when the air vibrated with change and I explored everything from drugs to free love to peace rallies and more.
Against that backdrop, my every day life began to play out.
I got married. Young. I had no idea how to be married, so there was the inevitable and painful divorce. Wounded and alone, I rebounded into another marriage almost immediately. I could have lost my life in that one. I moved to California on an impulse and found my home. Had a career. Another marriage. When I look back I see that every step was a lesson and if I learned it, a milestone that I pushed past to the next lesson. Spirituality had nothing to do with it–it was survival in the jungle of life and I proved myself over and over again, healing from each wound, pushing past each obstacle.
I had no spiritual center at all. My childhood Catholicism never resonated but I had no idea what I believed or if I believed in anything at all. Faith, grace, spirituality were all great mysteries. What happened after this life? I was clueless.
If anyone had suggested that I was already on a pilgrimage, I would have laughed.
My mother’s death set me off on my spiritual journey. I didn’t see it at first, not for years, really. But looking back? There it is, the genesis of a big step on the pilgrimage called “life.”
While my friends dreamed of their dead mothers smiling and nodding happily, mine never came to me in my sleep. One morning, I woke with a start. My mother had visited in a dream and in a very stern voice, admonished, “Carol, you’re not a very spiritual person!”
I was crushed.
It’s not that I thought I was super-spiritual, just that I had hoped for an appearance more benign and a message of love. In her voice I heard disapproval and I couldn’t shake it off. It replayed in my head. Over and over and over.
I didn’t realize that vivid dream would be the catalyst for a huge spiritual shift in my life. That it had set me on a 14-year quest that I didn’t recognize for the first 12.
Of course, everything becomes so much clearer in retrospect.
What I see now is that I don’t have to visit Mecca or the Vatican or an ashram in India, although I’ve visited many of the significant pilgrimage sites during my odyssey.
My pilgrimage has been my life: the things I’ve seen, the world events that shaped my thoughts, the life experiences along the way.
I’ve seen the best of people and I’ve seen the worst of people on my journey. Those experiences formed a brew that I soaked and steeped in like a bath that was sometimes too hot and other times too cold. No, it wasn’t always comfortable and sometimes it was downright uncomfortable. Painful, even.
As I look back, though, I can see that I emerged refreshed and with the boundaries that define me today.
It took a long time. Decades.
Because we’re all works in progress on this pilgrimage called “life.” And if we’re paying attention, we can’t help but grow morally and spiritually.
If you’d like to share your spiritual journey in the comments, I’d love to learn about it. And so would other readers. I hope you will.