Sunday, July 25, 2010

At the Crossroads

I've been thinking a lot about the concept of pilgrimage lately.  It has been one of those themes that starts coming to me from several different directions at once until I find myself viewing it from a number of interesting angles. 

During the writers' conference that I participated in a couple of weeks ago, I had a major epiphany about my relationship with the San Francisco de Asis church.  From my very first post about it, I used the word "pilgrimage" to describe what I was doing in walking over there.  I said it was like taking a little daily pilgrimage, but what I've now realized is it's not a series of small pilgrimages, but only one, a long and profound one.  It's not a long journey in terms of physical distance but of time and moving through layers to an essential core.  

And today on Claire's blog, her post is titled "Pilgrimage as Inner Journey," and astoundingly connects with my own experience and thoughts.  She starts the post with a pilgrim's prayer, and one of the phrases that really jumped out at me was the plea for "a guide at the crossroads."  Because a crossroads is exactly where I am.

Ever since the writers' conference I have been dealing with the sense of moving to a deeper level with my relationship to the St. Francis church and the book I'm writing about it.  The piece I submitted for the conference workshop was woven together from various blog posts about the church, and the thematic thread I used was that of nakedness.  Some of you may remember my post last fall called "Naked in the Town Square."  I drew out the theme from that post to encompass the whole piece, and found it developing in my heart and mind as I did so.  Today in Claire's post, she talks about inner pilgrimage as a process in which she hands over to God all her life, both inner and outer, a process which feels like "stripping bare."

I am naked at the crossroads right now, because the conference made me realize that this book I'm writing is no longer hypothetical - I'm really doing it, and that process means getting more deeply involved with the church.  It occurred to me that it's time to talk to the priests and let them know what I'm doing, that it's only respectful to do so.  And also that one of my desires is to weave journalistic writing in with my memoir-ish stuff, and in order to do that I must connect with actual members of the church, get to know them, interview them.  It's time to move beyond the courtyard and enter the building, the body.  And this frightens me, for a number of reasons:  Fear of approaching people I don't know, doubt of myself having the "right" to be writing this book, boldness to claim that I'm doing so, putting myself and my writing out there to be scrutinized by people who have been members of the church all their lives.  Naked, naked, naked, in the stark light of day.  It would be so much easier to keep sitting in the courtyard with the hummingbird moths.

But honestly, the thing that frightens me most is in how I will be altered by deepening my relationship with this church.  I fear that I will be swept away, lose myself to it.  I have been flirting with the church, and now I'm confronted with the choice to make a commitment that I have no idea where it will lead.

Claire speaks of pilgrimage as a time of testing and says, "There is always a moment when it gets too much."  And to continue beyond this point requires surrender.  This is the crossroads where I now find myself.  Will I, as Claire puts it, allow the path I'm walking to "walk me?"  Even as I write this though, I realize it already is, even though I still have strong resistance.

Just now the church bells began ringing, calling the people to worship.  Today is the feast day of Santiago, and the annual Taos fiestas honoring this saint are in full swing downtown.  Hearing the bells, I feel an aching longing to be at the mass, but fear holds me back.  I'm not Catholic and I don't know how to do things like enter the pew and even if I did I would feel like a fake going through those movements.  I don't know the words spoken and sung during mass that Catholics know by heart, many of which are in Spanish, which I don't speak.  I don't know if they have childcare for Eliana or if I'm supposed to keep her with me, and I'm too afraid to ask.  And so I don't go.  I sit here and write about it instead.

Interestingly, the specific pilgrimage Claire refers to is the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and she writes of currently being elsewhere in the world, missing that place, knowing that today there is a huge celebration of the saint for which it's named. 

An amazing thing that came to me through the conference was in a discussion I had with one of the other participants who said she sensed that my deepest connecting point with the church is through St. Clare, not only in terms of the statue in the courtyard that I love, but also her story, that this woman perceived wants to be told and lived through me.  So today I am thankful to both my Cla(i)res for being my guides at the crossroads, and the awesomeness of this interlacing is not lost on me.

The name, Cla(i)re, of course, is related to clarity and light.  I have many photos of the statue of Clare in which she is framed by incredible clouds.  This is the metaphor I turn to today.  Recently I closely inspected an iron cross in the courtyard that I had never paid much attention to before.  I discovered that there is a Latin inscription on it, "Occurrent nubes," which Googling led me to learn means, "Clouds will intervene."  I love the mystery of this, I love that I can look at the clouds of my own doubt and fear and see how they interfere with my clear direction, but also in some way contribute to the overall pilgrimage.  A pilgrimage is not a straight walk from here to there.  Clouds refract light into variegated beauty.  They soften the harsh light that exposes nakedness.  They intervene on behalf of clarity if I only pay attention and keep walking the path, however haltingly. 


  1. This post brought to mind a movie I saw not long ago based on a true story——its bonus features include interviews with the people upon whom the characters are based——about the Catholic Church in Ireland called the Magdalene Sisters.

    It takes place in the 60's and concerns the relationship the church had with its "fallen" women. There's a scene of nakedness in it. I recommend it to you, but I can predict it will complicate, not simplify, your approach to the church.

  2. Thanks for a beautiful photo in an even more beautiful post. I understand your reluctance to go to mass, but I hope you do. The church and its community is calling to you for a reason. If I were there I would go with you!

  3. I suppose clouds will intervene on your clarity from time to time; a good pilgrimage and a reflection in the square will sort them out.

    Fascinating and somehow uplifting stuff, as always, Polly. It feels like I'm right there, trudging beside you on the dusty road to St. Francis.

  4. I don't know whether I should be telling you this, Polli, but as an ex-RCIA Coordinator, I can hear a call in your life and I find this profoundly moving.

    There is a taste of honey for you in that call to go and sit in a pew. I understand the fear to lose control...

    You are on a divine-filled pilgrimage, Polli. Everything about your post is proclaiming it.

    Ultreya... which means 'mas allá' in Spanish. Go further. Take one more step, one more kilometer... Ultreya is what pilgrims to Santiago say to each other to encourage one another.

    Ultreya, Polli. And blessings.

  5. I kind of know how you feel, I think: I'm currently supposed to be writing a book on the German philosopher Nietzsche. It's part translation (of ideas not language), part memoir, part fiction, part enquiry (or inquiry, not entirely sure of the difference), and recently I was told it looks like a self-help book. That has totally thrown me. I've stopped work on it because suddenly I felt I'd lost control and was being consumed by it. I know if I just push on I'll regain control in time but I need to fully convince myself it's worth the effort.

    My Nietzsche studies convince me that you may be swept away by your deeper involvement with this church, but a new, stronger, enlightened, self-knowing you will emerge.

  6. I am so happy for you, and for the church, too. This is great news.

    As for being naked at the crossroads, well, is there ever a time when any of us are fully clothed, is there ever a clearly marked path without the possibility of turning left or right? Where there's fear, there's power. Standing ovation for what's ahead!!

  7. Dan - the movie sounds interesting. What is it called?

    RSF - Thanks for the support, and I'm glad you liked the photo. It was hard to pick which one to post, as I have many that capture Clare with clouds around her.

    Postie - Thanks!

    Claire - I had a feeling you might say that. Right now I feel like I need to just follow the leadings with no preconceptions about the outcome.

    I love this word Ultreya. Thank you for sharing it.

    Eryl - Your book sounds really interesting. Maybe we could help each other out with feedback on our manuscripts.

    When I was in college, people often told me my ideas reminded them of Nietzsche, so I took a class on him. It was very disappointing, as all anyone did was spew back his ideas instead of expanding on them, so I ended up dropping it. But I did meet my future husband in that class!

    Jennifer - thank you for always walking so closely alongside me. It means a lot to me.

    Reya - Good point! I love that: "Where there's fear, there's power." Very quotable.

  8. Hi Polly

    you know that Robert Frost said at the cross roads that he took the path less travelled...and that made all the difference...

    But which road was it...and what difference did it make, and was the difference because it was lesser travelled and lesser known, or was it a more challenging route, and what were its can only know by travelling it...

    Happy exploring...

  9. The Magdalene Sisters is the name of the movie. Recommended viewing by Lonely Planet for people planning to travel to Ireland, as I am.



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