Norwegian Prairie Reunion

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One of the pleasures of this North West Mounted Police Patrol trail walk was that I had the chance to do the last section of it in the company of some of the same folks who walked the St Olaf trail in Norway with me in 2013. Pictured are Allen Jorgenson, Kathryn Scott, and Gwenanne Jorgenson. The Jorgensons and I caught up (Gwenanne was a little less camera shy) and Kathryn and I got to sing and walk to our heart’s content. And Allen and I shared poetry. Mostly, the walking and lack of paper led to Haiku. Here’s one:

Listen! the trail says,         While you pilgrims toss and dream     Night’s creatures walk on.

fencepost on the Frenchman

Eating like a Horse

stag watching us

It’s raining lightly, tonight, at the Brost ranch. While there was still light, we headed past the ranch-house beside us, and down a grassy path to an old monument half-hidden about a half-kilometre away in the trees. It’s a small, mostly-forgotten concrete marker that says “North West Mounted Police post Cottonwood Coulee, 1878-1885”. The rancher told us it was there. Hugh knew there was such a marker, from the Everett Baker slides, taken in the 1950s and 60s. No one knows when the marker dates from. As we stood on the site of the old fort, over the hill, the sun was setting in brilliant golds and reds. Do you see that? asked Madonna, pointing. From the top of the coulee, a stag is watching us, framed against a sky like a painting.

Tonight’s dinner was a good example of communitas. Each of us brought something to the table – the Jorgensons brought pasta and pesto, Rick his hamburgers and onions, Madonna a lentil casserole, and I had my rations. we made a feast of it, laughing and teasing each other. Two days left in the walk, and I am disturbed that my mind is already starting to turn away from blisters and feet and the history of these hills to scheduling back in Montreal. Food tastes so good when you’ve waked so far for it, I think.

Speaking of eating, on our way back from the monument, the yard is full of horses, together with some cattle and a donkey. One of the horses is so interested in my camera that s/he looks like they want to eat it. We get back, only to hear from Gwenanne that one of the horses was nibbling at our tents. The ranchers tell a story of a local hunter who left his new truck in the field only to come back and find it scratched and all the plastic eaten off. Apparently, the horses like to nibble. As I write this, it’s dark, and there are horse sounds all around. I will move the van somewhere closer to the tent, and hope for the best.The group head off to sleep. There’s a neighing sound, somewhere close by. “I’d better check,” Madonna laughs nervously. “They might be eating my tent by now”.

communitas dinner

The birthing of a pilgrimage

Allen ponderingThis hostel is accredited, begins the promotional blurb for Meso Gård , and recommended by the National Pilgrim Centre. It has met the same requirements, and holds the same standard, as the pilgrim accommodation along Camino de Santiago. But a Spanish pilgrim who comes to Norway will find themselves, not in a bunk room in barren and dusty Castrojeriz, but in a typical sod-roofed, log-cabin style Norwegian hostel in the Rennesbund district along the St-Olaf’s Way, where a river rushes by, birds are singing, mountain flowers bloom around you and everything is green. Meso is a world away from a Spanish albergue. And the differences aren’t just in the lack of Rioja and dust (the first to better deal with the second).

Those who planned the St-Olav Weg have tried to make it familiar. The elements are as standardized as the boarding procedure at airports. There is a passport, obtained from an official pilgrim centre and sized appropriately for tucking into a backpack, local business stamps validating one’s walk along the trail, trail markers along paths and roads and paint slashes on rocks to guide the way, ‘pilgrim meals’ offered at some local restaurants, and several revitalized ancient routes (traceable on a smart-phone app) toward a cathedral city celebrating a medieval saint.

Yet the similarities between the two pilgrimage routes are overshadowed by differences as high as Norway’s mountains. The mountains, in fact, may be the most obvious initial difference, at least from the Camino Frances part of the Spanish trail. It’s been less than two weeks since I walked with five other Canadians from Dovre, in the Dovrefjell district of Norway, 250 or so kilometres to Trondheim. As far as I know, we were the first group of Canadians ever to walk this way as pilgrims. Unlike my experiences on the crowded Camino Frances, there were very few others we met. Those we did echoed our experience of a satisfying but extremely tough walk through conditions more like the high Rockies than the Meseta. In part because of an unusually late, cold and wet spring, we forded swollen mountain streams, jumped from hillock to hillock through kilometres of bog, and in sections of the trail found ourselves going days without seeing other human beings, much less a store to purchase supplies. We fell down, we froze, we saw incredible beauty, one of our group broke her ankle among the endless tree roots. It may be ancient, but it was not an urban walk. Café con leche? Forget it, unless you have a thermos, some farm experience and can catch one of the abundant sheep or goats.

Because it is still early in the redevelopment of the St-Olaf Way, one of the most fascinating parts of the walk, for me, was how we met those still trying to put their mark on how the trail will develop. I felt like we were there at the beginnings of something important. We met chapel builders who want to make sure there will be a spiritual component to the walk, officials who seek the ‘new spirituality’, walkers interested primarily in ecology and environment, and others who are developing their businesses in hopes of increasing numbers of high-tech backpackers showing up at their doorsteps.

All of which raises some interesting questions. What gives a particular pilgrimage its unique character? Is there such a thing as a more or less authentic pilgrimage? It seems to me that the inevitable conflict of values in this birthing of a European pilgrimage route is useful, because it helps bring about something that, however it borrows from the past, is new. As my friend Allen Jorgenson noted, the role of land, and of landscape, is more important than some of us have realized. Maybe we should be talking about pilgrimscapes, and how the outer journey influences the shape of the inner one.

Whatever the medieval St-Olaf route once was, there is now a struggle for its modern identity. It is definitely not the Camino. What it will be remains to be seen.
Alpine shelter

Peopled by the Book

Peopled by the Book

When I was at Wilfred Laurier University for our church’s 2012 Synod Assembly my friend Tim Hegedus handed me an article and said “you have to read this.” I’m so glad he did. It was by our mutual friend, Allen Jorgenson, who is assistant dean of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and a professor of systematic theology there. It turned out to be one of those pieces that are wonderful to spend time with….interesting, provocative, and thoughtful. Like a really good conversation that leaves you thinking and maybe even changed.

Allen believes that scripture is not just something that we can take or leave, assent to or feel guided by, but that the relationship is much more dynamic and – more to the point – much more guided from THAT side (the side of the scriptures) than by THIS side (the side of us readers). Thus his title: “peopled by the book.” As he says “Scripture…cannot be construed as a bill of goods that we accept – or not – rather, it is the communal means by which we are spoken into being by the God of life.”

He also speaks in the article about how we are all “predisposed to relate with those who think like we do”, so perhaps I should admit that some of the reason I liked the article so much is that many of these thoughts are similar (if better expressed) to thoughts I have been turning over and over for years. One of the chapters in my doctoral dissertation was on Ricoeur’s ideas about rhetoric “creating worlds”(based in turn on Gadamer, at least, as well as I understand him) and I tried to bring this view of the creative power of words to bear on Paul’s use of rhetoric in 1 Corinthians. As well, I’ve been especially aware of the specifically creative power of scripture since reading Hans Frei’s “The Eclipse of Biblical Theology,” which makes a similar point to Jorgenson’s article, again however, with much less elegance. Especially Frei-like (in thought, at least) was the phrase in his conclusion: “Not only is this a book that we read, but it is a book that writes us into the book of life by including us in its very plot. Scripture scripts us.” I will be reflecting on that quote for a long time.

There are tons of memorable, well-turned and descriptive phrases here. I love the idea that scripture equals “the visitation in the present of the church catholic” and that “empowerment is at the heart of the redemption that is reading scripture.” And the image of scripture being “rather like a lung” is a jarring and original idea that really helps explain the back and forth of the process he describes.

I was glad that Tim Hegedus (himself a professor of New Testament at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary) passed on this article, and very happy to have spent some time with its thoughts. There’s been some talk at Concordia’s Dept of Theological Studies where I lecture recently about how we have Biblical Studies and we have Theology, but we don’t talk much anymore about Biblical Theology. It seems to me that such an article is really very important for our understanding of Biblical Theology, which is after all, at least in my opinion, what Luther was all about. Perhaps that’s one of the gifts we Lutherans can offer the wider church and academic community both.

Allen G. Jorgenson. “Peopled by the Book,” Word & World. Vol 29, no 4, fall 2009: 325-333.