Follow Me: Christian Growth on the Pilgrim's Way

Follow Me: Christian Growth on the Pilgrim's Way

by Brett Webb-Mitchell

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A collection of essays written after the author's visits to several pilgrimage sites in the United Sates, Central America, and Europe. There are also reflections on pilgrimages he has led, primarily while teaching at Duke University Divinity School. The book is structured around the stages of a pilgrimage, beginning with an idea and moving inexorably toward the


A collection of essays written after the author's visits to several pilgrimage sites in the United Sates, Central America, and Europe. There are also reflections on pilgrimages he has led, primarily while teaching at Duke University Divinity School. The book is structured around the stages of a pilgrimage, beginning with an idea and moving inexorably toward the pilgrim's geographical and spiritual destination.

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Christian Growth on the Pilgrim's Way

By Brett Webb-Mitchell

Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2006 Brett Webb-Mitchell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59627-161-6


An Inkling

If a man wants to be sure of his road, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark. —St. John of the Cross

Morning Impressions of Earthly Pilgrimage

It is an early, warm, autumn morning. I alone am awake in the stillness of the slowly dawning hours of the household. I hear my son snore softly upstairs from his bedroom, while across the hall my daughter turns over in bed, her bed sheets making a soft swishing noise. Not even our dogs notice such a gentle sound. As if I am sleepwalking, I mumble through morning prayers in the large, overstuffed armchair in the dark living room. No squares or rectangles of sunshine fall on the living room floor. All is a comfortable darkness. Stillness. Rest-filled quiet. My only companions are our dogs, who turn a sleepy eye my direction as I rustle the onion-paper pages in the prayer book and, in hushed tones so no one else awakes, while letting sleeping dogs lie, I pray softly the words to the Lord's Prayer. "Amen," I mutter to no one in particular. The collective response of the dogs is a snort. They blink their droopy eyes closed. Silence. Unstirring rest.

No one else is awake within the darkened Cape Cod-style house on this gentle hill. Rubbing early morning sleep from my tired eyes, I leave the sleeping house behind, opening and closing the front door with only a slight click from the lock itself as I turn it and shut the door. Soon I am trotting, almost stumbling, behind Lil, my overly enthusiastic young Labrador who leads the way to the empty street at the bottom of the sloping gravel driveway. The new chocolate Lab pup, Toby James, halts the bumbling procession to relieve himself on the weed-filled lawn, and soon catches up with Lil. From afar I see the slender shiny white plastic sleeve that holds the newspaper tightly. It lies at the bottom of the driveway, almost in the road. The newspaper unfurls quickly as I take it out of its protective girdle-like sleeve. The headline blares: "War Breaks Out in the Middle East," as it has for decades now.

I glance up and look eastward along the now-quiet country road, a place far removed from war's hellish wrath. This road gently passes by the front of my house. The asphalt roadway swoops up and glides to the left, toward the east, tall trees straddling either side, disappearing quickly at the horizon's edge. The forest of trees with their gnarly limbs and massive trunks provides an interesting textured canvas for the morning's first light. The light is slowly piercing the veil of a dusky morning mist. The trees and thick green and yellow bosk are beginning to be splashed with a Monet-like watercolor wash, with pastel shades of pink, red, and yellow of sunlight's serendipitous splashy debut showing off the start of the day. It is a movie trailer for the day to come. The late George Harrison's simple, melodic Beatle tune and words, "Here comes the sun, little darling," floats through my memory. I smile and start to hum it. "It's all right," I sing.

Lil is looking down the road with me as Toby James sniffs the new morning dew for any signs of nocturnal visitors. While Toby's attention is elsewhere, Lil and I face the east. It is as if we are expecting someone, something, to arrive down the road. She senses something coming, her sleek body stiffened and poised, her black nose twitching, catching scents along the invisible rushing river of smells that only she can discern. Her smart brown eyes are fastened onto the dawning horizon. Her sitting posture is regal, as if she is looking over her vast kingdom, is well pleased, and is expecting guests at any time. Toby sniffs incessantly around our feet. He springs onto her back, like Charles Schultz's beagle Snoopy imitating a vulture, and Lil's concentration is gone. Around my legs the playful dogs vie for my attention and affection, their leashes entwining me, as if I were a squat maypole. With both of them playing underfoot, now out of the leash snare, I trundle back up to the house, newspaper in my arms.

The Earth's Pilgrimage

The earth is on a pilgrimage. I sense it in the sudden hint of warm Indian summer breeze picking up, disturbing the cooler autumn morning calm that preceded it. It is an almost sultry breeze upon my unshaven face, a remnant of summer's hot, hazy, and humid dog days. Some of the pages of the open newspaper under my right arm rustle freely. The soon-to-be-falling leaves flap together fast enough to make a whishing, stirring, almost white static noise. There is almost a rhythm to the movement of nature. Sometimes, when the wind is strong enough, the limbs high in the trees will reach over and clack-clack against each other high over my head, sounding like large South American claves hitting one another to the rhythm of the wind. The rustling and clacking sound make such a racket that it seems like a vehicle is coming down the road toward us, when all it is is a steady breeze.

In Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical West Side Story, one of the gang members sings about something stirring, "Who knows? Could be ... might be?" Something is happening, coming my way. Something might happen today.

The blacktop of the roadway, with its yellow stripe in the middle, resembles a large skunk. My sandaled feet are moist, laden with dew as I follow my dogs on their walk in the high, brown grasses in the front of the house. For a moment I stand there, the road vacant of cars, taking in the growing intensity of the bright morning on this fine new day. A scenic morning vista is being created before my very eyes. Layer upon layer of watercolor pastels are piling on top of each other now, one color washing, blurring into the next. Now it looks like a William Turner watercolor, in which there is only a vague sense of what is coming into focus. Yet even if I stand still enough, I won't catch the Painter, the Musician, and the Creator at work. The Artist works stealthily, serenely, seemingly enjoying the game of cat and mouse with us creatures, planted upon this creation. The Artist is a blithe spirit.

Back to earth: I cannot take my eye, my mind, my imagination off the smooth gliding curve ahead, and the echo of shuffling leaves and tree limbs moving against each other. Nature is telling me something; someone is coming this way. The curve ahead is all mystery. The curve is a portal, a tunnel, in which all I can see are the coming headlights of the sun. As headlights reach ahead of the car, searching its future path, so the sun's bright rays reach me even before I can see the beaming, roaring sphere of hot gases and fire rising above the tree line. The sun is always coming around that certain bend in the road, yet always surprising me by never hitting the road itself, but glancing off of it like a flat pebble skimming the surface of a still lake. The sphere of fire and light and movement rises above me, hovering above and off the road, above the underbrush, over the trees, sloping over and around the hills, the mountains, of North Carolina. Soon the clouds are below the sun's mighty far-reaching splish-splash of yellow-orange daylight. It is all drama, this unpretentious presentation of the molten, churning, fire-spewing morning sun. It is no wonder that other civilizations have invented or invited sun gods to herald the beginning of the day, a beardless, young, white-robed Apollo to take the sun over the arc of sky, four muscular horses pulling the fiery chariot ablaze in splendorous light. In the Psalms, God is compared to the sun, and at the moment of his transfiguration Jesus' face shone like the sun.

The hymn "Immortal invisible God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes," jumps to mind, switching unconsciously to the verse "when we've been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun" of "Amazing Grace." Tunes and melodies I've learned in the past are sparked into consciousness, depending on circumstances. As a musician I am like a small juke box on the diner's table, with events as the quarter to get me to sing a tune.

As the sun gives the impression of rising as the earth gradually rotates along its seemingly predestined pathway — a pathway well-understood and mapped by Galileo — the curve of the road up ahead seems to beckon to me. It is short of being a clarion call. An adventure is before me. The road and the sun hold me in their strangely hypnotic gripping power. I am in a trance, caught up in wondering what is coming around that bend in the road. It is more than a car. Is there something or someone I don't know about coming around the bend? Perhaps I am the unexpected presence on the bend upon an otherwise straight and narrow road? I have an inkling that my future is out there, in the woods, around the bend, on the road.

The brightness of a new day's dawning, light dispelling darkness, creates and washes out shadows, clearing away the dark of night. The earth gently rolls over, end over end, without end, its poles keeping us steady as we go, ballast for the trip around the sun. The light of the morning sun saturates the darker, muted colors of the coming quiet rest of earth's slow autumnal growth in this hemisphere. Hibernation is soon to be on the menu for nature in this part of the world. Change is afoot. All is movement from and toward. Turning and churning. All is motion, out of our control. A cycle is commencing and yet continuing on. Even when standing still we move, are being moved, with or without a conscious awareness or a simple acknowledgement. We cannot stop this ceaseless rolling motion. To stay with the sun's bright ray on planet earth we would need to travel quite quickly, over land and sea.

Once, when flying from Sydney to Los Angeles in the daytime, I watched us fly toward the light of day with almost the absence of night. We were flying into a new day. But in staying right where we are on the Planet Earth Ride, are we not like children belted into a slow rolling Ferris wheel riding unconsciously on the planet's constant roll? Or are we on a slightly tilting, twirling planet, following a course that varies with each orbit and rotation, making our journey more like a roller coaster ride?

With fascination I watch shadows grow, widen, and fade away into light or complete darkness. In his book In Praise of Shadows Jun'ichiro Tanizaki calls me to observe with awe the shadows that move so gracefully in coordination of human and inanimate action. Tanizaki writes that shadows have that "glow of grime," providing for a "sheen of antiquity." Shadows are the only clear proof we have that we are moving, whether we like it, control it, or not. The earth's pilgrimage is peppered with shadows and sunlight, moonbeams and storms.

A Child's Love of the Journey

My focus on pilgrimage and journey was nurtured in me as a child. I incessantly questioned my parents as to how Mary Martin as Peter Pan could lose a shadow. On our black and white Zenith television set, one could see clearly the flirtatious and flitting shadow. In the evening, watching that musical, I looked over at my shadow. My shadow never left me. Where did Peter get such a flighty shadow? Is the shadow my soul? Peter Pan awoke the sleeping Darling children in their comfortable London beds in his hot pursuit of his independent-minded shadow. Can my shadow run away? Can I run away from my shadow? With needle and thread Wendy slowly sewed it back on for him. With the slightest movement possible, shadows move, change shape, lengthen, widen, to a point that all there is is the darkness of the shadow. All becomes shadow, and there is no light. The shadow disappears with the aid of the sun's withdrawal as darkness hastens on, only to return in another twelve hours or so. How fast is the speed of light? It is faster than the speed of sound. But how fast is that?

I have discovered another way to gauge the speed of our revolving planet. Friends tell me that on a cloudless, star-strewn night, if you lie down on a blanket in an open meadow and remain as still as possible, looking straight up into the canopy of sky, galaxy, universe, overhead, you get the slightest sensation of actually moving ever so slowly. I am out in the backyard, stretched out on my back, toes pointing up in the air, arms spread out. One friend admitted that she found herself rolling over on her stomach, pressing down harder and harder on the earth's grassy haircut, clutching rocks and digging in her toes, flesh touching soil of mother earth, trying desperately to cling to the rolling ball and not fall up. Watching shadows move, grow larger, more ominous, we see in what ways our life on this planet is ever moving, marching onward, or slouching along, whether we choose to move with the syncopation of it or not.

As inhabitants of this planet, this rolling, changing, evolving spheroid in the spinning galaxy known as the Milky Way, Buckminster Fuller called us space travelers moving through the cosmos on the spaceship earth. But by naming the earth as a spaceship in a way makes this world no longer the creation of the Creator's own fertile and radical imagination. Claiming it as our spaceship brings it to human dimensions, our creation, fashioned from our human ingenuity, know-how, and sometimes destructive tendencies. "If you put your mind to it, you can solve anything" was the motto for my generation, and our hope as we face seemingly irreversible changes upon this planet we call home. We are a generation fed on the hope born of the Enlightenment and the power of the individual and one's mind. But the Saturn rockets of the Apollo and space shuttle missions and the Sputnik satellites of my youth don't look like earth. They pale in comparison. Look at the spindly legs of Sputnik, or the spidery apparatus of the moon landing module. How odd they all are in comparison to this planet's large spherical shape, which looks like a large blue-green-white marble from the moon's crusty, dusty, rocky surface.

I was told once that Europeans understood pilgrimage as travel among a people, often conquering them along the way, like the Crusades. Early settlers in what we now call America perceived pilgrimage as a journey over land, going from east to west. We are only just now acknowledging our connection to those who are north and south of us. In the last century, our American pilgrimage has taken us up into space, to go places where "no one has gone before," says the captain of the starship Enterprise. I am a child of the television series Star Trek and the Star Wars movies, and I understand and dream that the pilgrimage is now to places where no one has gone before. I am the son of John Glenn and brother to Sally Ride. Perhaps Christians — Protestant or Catholic, it matters not — should consider that we are pilgrims over land, among people, through space, and over the tick-tock of time.

Hints of journey, of pilgrimage, are scattered throughout my earlier life in the Christian tradition. Consider the hymns in our hymnals: the church's song book is loaded with songs for the journey ahead. In elementary grades in Sunday school we learn the simple lyrics "Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home." My father would sing in the shower or driving the old Buick "We are climbing Jacob's ladder" or "Onward, Christian Soldiers," in full operatic voice. I knew he was contented when he sang that song. When I attend worship at a small "radical" United Methodist church in Chicago, for our Benediction we sang — in Spanish — and marched to "We are marching to the light of Christ, we are marching to the light of Christ." The traffic of palm branches on Palm Sunday always makes a happy day for children given permission to let loose and let it all "hang out" in the sometimes uptight Protestant and Catholic worship. Adults are envious at such celebrations.

Whether in our most alert, waking moments, in comfort under night's blanket, playing with children on our knees, caught up in the solitude of prayer, or clutching one another in an amorous embrace — regardless of our actions, our moves, our desires, we are involuntarily part of earth's ceaseless journey around the magnetic embrace of the sun. It is as if the earth were like a child attached to the parent's apron strings; we careen around in an orbit, ensnared by the sun's hypnotic pull. It makes us all travelers in space, pilgrims of the universe, riding upon a blue and green and brown and white and red and black marble.

Growing Up a Pilgrim; Seeing Life as Pilgrimage

I have come to see, to hear, to bear witness, to tell and write of my dawning awareness, born and bred of experience, that our life is a journey upon this God-created, soil-encrusted, heavily-watered, grassy-meadowed, desert-spotted, tree-festooned, people-crowded swampy sphere. Whether we are willing riders or not, we are travelers — a traveling circus sideshow — or utterly strange bedfellows who are thrown together by the sheer coincidence that we are co-pilgrims on a journey through time and space and people and events both in and beyond our control. On more pleasant days, I consider us to be more or less like Geoffrey Chaucer's merry and not-so-merry band of pilgrims, who were thrown together because of their seeming devotion to going to the shrine of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury's cathedral. While seeing my life as a mish-mash of the monk's tale and the tale of the wife of Bath, I am caught up in living life amid many who are still in search of a story to give them some alternatives to live their life by.

Excerpted from FOLLOW ME by Brett Webb-Mitchell. Copyright © 2006 Brett Webb-Mitchell. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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