London with the Girls

To walk the sidewalks with two fifteen year old girls, my daughter and her friend, is to see a London I hadn’t experienced: endlessly interesting in its outdoor life, spread out, shimmering hot, bustling and attractive, a city through sunglasses, an endlessly sunny asphalt summer of tube stops and clothes-shopping, gelato and south Asian hawkers selling tee-shirts saying “keep calm and carry on and mind the zombies”.  The girls look older than they are. They fit in well, even better than I thought they would. “I could live here,” says my daughter, looking around as if appraising an apartment. “It would be easy”. I realize I’m taking what she says seriously.


London has become cosmopolitan. With their blond hair and leggings the two girls could be British Poles out after work, or French shoppers, or the North American tourists we are. Famished, we stop at a restaurant in Soho. I’m feeling poor and was thinking something simple and therefore cheap. Once we’re seated I have a good view of the two chefs behind the counter of the open kitchen, joking with their sous-chefs as they hack at lobsters or lay out oysters, their casual chic and the line-up that gathers on the sidewalk both guarantees the bill won’t be what I had hoped. “How about fish and chips?” I ask the girls. The waiter, a dark-eyed, powerfully-chested Brazilian in fitted white dress shirt and black pants, is hanging by our table, chatting them up while I peruse the menu. I have a brother who moved to Calgary, he tells them. Your country is paradise. He kept phoning to tell me in the first few months to tell me that. Then winter arrived, he came home to Brazil. Canadians are wonderful, the waiter concludes, spreading his arms wide as if welcoming us in. The weather, not so much. There is a warm glow surrounding the girls that extends somehow to me. Londoners think they are sisters, perhaps fraternal twins. I catch passers-by smiling at me, the dad, hovering behind or more often forging ahead, wrinkled brow, studying the map on a streetcorner, finding our way through the city where there are no parallel ways and the names change by whim.


We go to St Paul’s Cathedral. On entering the narthex I feel myself relax; I’m on familiar ground. But after a few minutes admiring Christopher Wren’s dome, I’m already annoyed at the awkward theology and evangelicalism of the Dean’s comments on the iPhone guide we’ve been provided. He sounds like a tour guide who’s being surreptitious in trying to get a few words in about faith. A full flow of tourists shuffle by as I listen and look. I’m poked in the back. The girls, sitting behind me, have negotiated the full menu of the device and are ready to go. I realise I’d prefer to see the living congregation. Maybe Quebec has made me more Catholic; I miss the banks of candles and the side altars of Notre Dame Paris, and look in vain on the edges of the huge space for a black-albed sexton or a deacon or anyone churchy with whom to identify. The girls fidget. We join the crowds again, and finally, in the sparkling gold and blue mosaics of birds, high above the quire, I feel something of whatever it was I was looking for.


Then, in the crypt, there is another bonus: a memorial to William Blake. I wonder what fantastical images he might have produced, looking at us now, with our cameras, lined up at the gift shop, calling out to each other in every language under the sun. Making sacred the commonplace is a mystic’s art, but all it takes is a lack of attention, it seems, to make the sacred commonplace.


We exit the church into more of the brilliant sunlight the Londoners are calling “a summer to remember”.  A man in a shirt and tie, jacket in hand, slows slightly to step off the sidewalk around us. He catches my eye and smiles. “Brilliant isn’t it?” he says and I don’t know if he’s talking about the day or being a dad walking the streets with two such teenage girls.Image


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


At Norwegian Customs

When it’s my turn at the customs booth the uniformed official in the booth asks why I’m visiting Norway. “The Saint-Olaf trail,” I say. Then, when her face registers nothing, I add: “I’m going to walk on the St-Olaf way from Dovre to Trondheim.” I’m careful to pronounce the “h” in Trondheim as a “y”, the way I’ve heard it done. “So you’ll be coming back to Oslo?” she asks. She’s not looking at me, making a point of it, flipping through the pages, checking where I’ve been on this passport. “No, flying out from Trondheim.” I get to say that “y” twice, a secret pleasure. “When do you leave the country?” This still looking at my passport as if it contains some secret unknown to me but that she has to discover.
She’s about my age, I realize, or only very slightly older, in her mid 50s, maybe. I think I see in her face the same kind of lines I know from my childhood among the Scandinavian settlers in the Canadian west where I grew up. But maybe that’s the romantic part of me, stretching to make some connection in this land whose people and language seems so foreign to me, even though half my genes come from this soil. “In 13 days” I answer. I wonder if there’s a problem. Then, because my default is always to try to make contact, even when I shouldn’t, I add: “I hope, at least. Depends on how it goes on the Way.” She reaches for her stamp without any indication that she’s even heard what I’ve said. Then, as she pushes the official imprint of Norway down onto the paper, she looks up and, almost unbelievably, smiles, a big broad smile. “So you’re a pilgrim?” she asks. Despite my attempts to introduce just that subject, I’m caught off guard. “I guess so,” I answer awkwardly. “Enjoy your time in Norway. Have a good trip.” She hands me back the passport, the words “Canada” on the top, facing me. Then when she looks up at me, I hesitate in place, wondering if there’s more of this conversation to come, until I realize she’s actually looking through me to the person behind me. “Next,” she calls out.


Dreaming of Pilgrims

It’s wonderful to know artists. Some time ago I woke up after a dream in which I had watched a woman in a medieval scriptorum ‘break open’ a Celtic Gospel manuscript and draw medieval figures leaving the manuscript even as modern pilgrims came in to explore. As we were preparing for our Pilgrimage Conference at Concordia (May 3-4) I told two artist friends: Janice Poltrick Donato and Cindy Walker. Janice drew my dream! And I wrote a poem to the escapees. What a fun way to prepare for an academic conference! (Janice and Cindy will be unveiling the full artistic creation and working on it at the conference in reaction to the academic papers – we’re calling the process peregraffiti)

To the escapees from the Lindisfarne manuscript:

When you stepped through the wall it must have surprised you
to see…..
Well, to see nothing at first,
just space,
blank front and behind, if blankness has direction.
Your eyes scratching for purchase,
here no richly knotted, woven gold, no winding serpents swallowing tails,
no clever labyrinths of animal overlaying cross,
no tight little fecund world,
Just horizon.

It must have been a shock.
After all, most escapes automatically come with dreams:
I don’t know,
rich tapestries lining a foreign street, a feast heavy with laughter,
kisses stolen,
a light-dappled meadow honeyed by bird-calls.
Something, at least.

Poor you. You got nothing.

Or rather, you got space –
line-free, free-lining, free-wheeling space,
the pilgrim’s only promise: space to walk:
stories unfurling like steps
stretching ahead.

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Yard Art Love – a sort of Advent Story (Maisonneuve Magazine 2005)

Christmas in Verdun

There I was, butt-up, head-down, outside at midnight in my dressing gown. Smack-dab in the middle of lining up my plastic snails, someone at Hydro threw the city’s breaker. The darkness was just so – you know – total, with no big fat moon sitting like a pumpkin just over the neighbor’s clothes-line, that I lost the snails for a moment. It kind of makes you think you could be anywhere. Or anyone. It’s like when we were St-Henri girls pulling down the shade pretending to be camping dans les bois even though we could still hear the humming of the fridge downstairs and the adults talking, voices rising and falling with the rye and coke, the shuffling of cards, the arguments, the calling through the screen door for fresh packs of du Mauriers.
It wasn’t easy making it all the way back to the porch in that kind of blackness. Every footstep’s a decision. I closed my eyes – for concentration – and figured my place in relation to the big cement angel fountain in the centre of the yard. Saint-Gabriel help me see my hand in front of my face, I said, and then I just went. Stepped right around the flock of pink flamingoes, each with their one foot up, waiting. Inched my feet around the frog, knowing the little rascal was there, even without the sound of water shooting out of his mouth. Pictured the glass fairy globes on their poles so clearly I could touch them, passing. Waited till I could hear the lazy clack-clack-clack of the windvane duck, so I wouldn’t bump it off its tethered flight.
I heard geese that night. I swear I did. It was a remarkable Passover. Their calling out in the high darkness to each other made me look up. Oh my God yes. If it’s true what they say, that in this world there are ghosts wanting bodies, then they could have had mine. Perhaps they did.
The night drifted, with the streetlights out. I don’t know, I really don’t – what happened, exactly. Stars trespassed the city, came up my street, crossed my eyes. I fell right over the yard butts (a family of four in descending girth, thick white legs like sausages from their slacks), still looking up. Don’t know how long I sat there. Like eating candy at the drive-in. A good long while, I guess.
What we long for, we live in fear of finding, open and waiting, wanting nothing more than to fall into our laps like fruit off the trees, forever luscious. I’m not saying it was the stars, exactly. But two things happened that night: my troll disappeared, the one sent to me by my mother’s cousin’s sister (somewhere in Norway, I’ve forgotten where). That nasty short fellow with his long nose never did fit with the leprechaun. Better he’s gone now.
And best: I sit on the porch, growing fatter and closer to term with my precious little baby each passing week. A real-estate agent came by today, a nice man in a fancy car, sweating in his spring suit as he hung over the fence trying not to look at either my big belly or the manger scene (I decided to leave it up at Christmas). He said “Ms. Elizabeth, I could sell your house for a lot of money.” I told him about the ultrasound the doctor ordered, about the bulb in the streetlight over my yard that keeps burning out now, the city crews that come back every few weeks to repair it. I showed him how my ankles have swollen with the edema. I asked him about my collection – what would happen to it if I sold? But he didn’t really answer. Eventually he left, my leprechaun making rude faces after him.



They say we’re our own worst critics. I suppose in one sense that’s true. But it’s also a strange and not very comfortable feeling to stand in the semi-darkness at the back of a crowd of people while they’re watching a documentary you’ve been putting your heart into for months, waiting for what they think.

Monday last, on November 19, I had the Concordia University premiere of “Something Grand”. Tons of people showed up; estimates were just shy of 200. We filled the place. Those of us who’d organized the evening – thanks Adan! – kept pinching ourselves as more and more came through the doors. To our amazement the floor chairs were soon full and we were putting viewers into the balconies. Many of the faces were familiar, but not all. Certainly I’d pulled in all the friends and family I could. But there were many, many more as well – students, professors, Camino walkers who’d heard about the film on the radio, others who knew of it through contacts or posters. Three of the pilgrims I’d interviewed in Spain came to Montreal for the premiere. M, from Georgian Bay ON, came with her husband. And the delightful (and fabulous) S and J put on their premiere outfits and diamonds and looked like they could have been walking down a Hollywood runway. They’d come all the way from Florida just to be there with us and acted every inch the “celebrities”.

Luke, the musician we’d hired to play spanish guitar, was excellent. The speeches were….well, they were speeches…but some managed to point quite well to what pilgrimage really is, and the importance of studying this exceptional social and spiritual revival. When the lights finally dimmed, there was a buzz of excitement in the room. Or maybe that was the butterflies in my stomach.

We spend so much of our lives learning to avoid being vulnerable. In elevators and on the street we keep our eyes to ourselves. If we allow ourselves to cry at funerals or films it’s discreetly; we hide our tears. The word “sensitive” isn’t a compliment. But then we try our hand at something “creative” or “artistic”. And surprise, surprise: we then discover that in order to make something good, or true or beautiful we HAVE to open ourselves up to others. We have to FEEL with them. And we have to make ourselves vulnerable too – and show our dreams, ambitions and flaws. Which is to say: we have to risk.

The premiere was a smashing success. Now I want more people to see the documentary. Its strength is clearly not its technical aspects (despite some miracles of editing by M, Z and P). It’s in the relationship I had with the people I interviewed. The author Jonathan Lear, in his book Radical Hope, says that we human beings are “born into the world longingly”. One of the things we long for is real, genuine contact. Both the documentary and the premiere offered a glimpse of that. And that is worth all the vulnerable risk in the world.


The Faceless Messiah

The Faceless Messiah

A half-hour by car, north-west of Siena Italy, sits the lovely little hill-top town of Lornano. Meandering the twisty roads in Tuscany leads to all kinds of treasures, architectural, historical and culinary, and Lornano is no exception. If you escape the late afternoon sun to sit under the trees at the one restaurant in town, you may find that despite their delicious home-made pastas and the Chianti for which this region is famous, eventually you are distracted by the church sitting opposite the intersection.
The little sign outside says it was built in the ninth century, and the Romanesque architecture of the building – renovated in the 1770s – seems to confirm it. It’s a working parish, so there are devotional pamphlets and parish announcements stuck on bulletin boards at the back. The chairs sit haphazardly, perhaps from the last meeting or mass.
At the front, above the altar, is a work honouring John the Baptist. The minimal signage says that the fresco is the work of Giuseppe Nicola Nasini, dating from 1731, although there are other paintings in the small church which originate a hundred years earlier with Siennese artist Bernardino Baroni.
Nasini, lying on his back painting his pigments hurriedly into the wet mortar (the word fresco comes from this process of finishing the painting while the underlying stucco is still “fresh”) might have hoped that his work would survive the centuries, as it has. But presumably, he could not have imagined the oddity that has become his Christ: we see John clearly, sitting on a block of Tuscan marble and under a stand of Tuscan cypress, extending his arm to point to Jesus. Equally clear are the two figures on the other side – Peter and John? – who also observe the scene. The fresco is making reference to the passage from the Gospels where the Baptist is made to say: “Behold the Lamb of God!” To reinforce the point, the artist has placed a lamb to the right of the Baptist.
So far so good. But what Nasini could not have imagined is that, for some reason, the focal point of his fresco – the figure of Christ coming out of the water – is missing. Actually, the figure is not missing. There is a white space in the painting, in the clear outline of a human being, muscular, head turned to the side in an almost Roman pose. But it is only an outline. The details, including any face, are missing.
Whatever mysterious circumstances are responsible for deleting the details of the Christ from Nasini’s painting underline a deeper, theological and historical truth: Jesus, by being the man with no face, has become, over the centuries, the man of a thousand faces. Nasini, despite himself (one imagines) has captured this.
If ever there was an “every-person”, it must be Jesus. He was a Jew, born in what the Romans called Palestine, certainly of Semitic background. This much we know. One could, therefore, expect a certain look of this first-century Jew. Yet Jesus has been portrayed, without apology, as Korean, Nordic, African and North American, and dressed up as a peasant, a worker, a businessperson and a sailor. His eyes, depending on the artist, are blue, or black, or green, and his beard (usually he’s portrayed with a beard) has been just about every usual beard colour but red. Not usually an institution known for its openness and liberality, the church, from the beginning, seemed not only willing to see its messiah portrayed with such flexibility, but was the first to do so. Some of the earliest surviving representations of Jesus show him as a young, beardless male looking every inch a Greco-Roman Dionysus.
In the past century and a half, representations of Jesus have become even more varied, with Jesus showing up artistically as a tattooed gay male, a muscular prize-fighter, a tired soldier, a woman, and a laughing hippy.
The four canonical Gospels seem monumentally uninterested in describing Jesus with any of the kinds of details that now we find so interesting and revelatory. Instead, the Christian writings want to talk about some aspect of Jesus’ significance. What colour were his eyes? One can imagine the author of Mark answering: “what difference does it make? He is the Messiah!”
Paul, the earliest Jesus-follower to leave us much of a written record, is not only disinterested in what Jesus looked like, but comes right out and says that it’s not his concern and he doesn’t much care: “for once we knew Jesus from a human point of view,” he writes to his congregation in Corinth, in a phrase oft-quoted among Biblical scholars, “but we know him this way no longer.” Once you are the Messiah, the little details of your life don’t count. End of the subject.
A Jesus who can be “every man and woman” can appeal to every man and woman, and this surely must be one of the reasons why fact-laden Jesus biography was never big on the church’s list of priorities. The changeability of Jesus’ appearance turned out to be a big part of how to translate the message, not only linguistically, but also culturally, to new locations (note that Nasini’s John the Baptist is sitting on Tuscan marble below what appear to be a stand of Tuscan cypress trees). Every church, in every age, has translated the Bible into its cultural and geographical present….for which, to take Renaissance painting as an example, we are forever grateful. But we should remember that the church’s main reason for this flexibility was to aid the spreading of the Christian message. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed, at the last judgment, as sending all humanity off to either heaven or hell with the words: “whatsoever you did to one of the least of these – in whom you should have seen me – you have done to me.” Thus both the church’s apologetics and its social concerns are based, in part, in seeing Jesus somehow embodied in others. Add to these practical rationales for ambiguity the mysticism of Paul, who concentrated on the believer being somehow incorporated “in” Christ, and you have every reason for a “Jesus for all time and all peoples.”
The little church in Lornarno holds a minor piece of art that contains a major theological truth: Jesus is most Jesus-like when he looks like our neighbours. Where do we find Jesus? Not in the Holy Land, but perhaps even right there, across the intersection, on a hot summer’s day.


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.