A Heart Set on Pilgrimage

Even the sparrow has found a home, the swallow a nest to place its young: your altars, Yahweh Sabaoth, my King and my God.
How blessed are those who live in your house; they shall praise you continually.
Blessed those who find their strength in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
Better one day in your courts than a thousand at my own devices, to stand on the threshold of God’s house than to live in the tents of the wicked.
~ Psalm 84:3-5,10

After two weeks of unrelenting blogorrhea, I took four days off, slammed into silence and thinking there might not be another word left to say. This morning, two readers actually said they missed me, and asked me to come back. Each suggested a very different topic. Frank Weathers, whose petition protesting the HHS mandate has just reached the critical mass of 25,000 signatures required to get official notice and (at least pro forma) response from the White House, invited me to share some of the deep background that continues to plague me about this issue–specifically, the assumptions behind the 2011 Institute of Medicine recommendations on which the HHS mandate is based. My friend The Hermit of Little Portion, on the other hand, knowing how battered this week of responding to the culture wars has left me, encouraged me to talk about the pull I continue to experience toward the solitude and single-heartedness of the eremetical life.

These two seeming extremes–the public and the prayerful–are maybe not so unrelated, and not just because dipping my toes into the troubled waters where Catholic punditry meets liberal politics leaves me wanting to run for the nearest desert. The push-me-pull-you tension between living faith in the world and leaving the world for love is not just a byproduct of my return journey to Catholicism: it’s constitutive of it. And I don’t think it’s only me. If we are serious about anything–about our politics, our religion or refusal of it, our relationships with those we love, the work we do–it seems to me that we are always looking to find the balance between speaking what we passionately believe to be true and just and right, and listening to those who just as passionately believe we have our heads up our posteriors. Who just might, by the way, be God.

I spent this morning trying to do the first thing, in the Facebook comment thread of a post by a friend. The friend, and everyone else commenting, had no problem letting me know that I was (illogically and unaccountably, to those who know me) defending the superstitions, prejudices, and taboos of an archaic and woman-hating institution whose sole purpose is depriving Americans of their inalienable right never to be pregnant or father a child. “But wait!” I kept trying to say. “Put the religion part aside. Do you really believe–you who are good, caring, compassionate people, mothers and fathers and grandparents who delight in the children in your lives–that pregnancy is better off prevented in almost every case, for the health of the woman, any other children she may have had (planned or not), and the country as a whole? Do you really think only wealthy white women should have children? Do you really think that unplanned and unwanted are synonymous in every case when it comes to pregnancy, or that a pregnancy that begins as a challenge can’t end with a blessing? Do you really think asking women–and men–to make responsible, conscious choices about engaging in sexual activity is unAmerican, if not impossible? That the only way people are truly free is when they are free of children? And if you do believe all of these things, how far are you from endorsing the government’s right to tell you when and how often you may procreate, if at all?”

Because those are the fundamental assumptions, all of them and more, behind Clinical Preventive Services for Women: Closing the Gap, the 2011 Institute of Medicine report upon which the HHS mandate is based. The report comes from the NIH body charged with guiding US public health policy. The IOM is not a politically partisan entity, so voting Mr Obama out of office will have little if any effect upon its recommendations and their implementation. The report, however, like the premises upon which it is based, is partisan in one key way: over and over, it relies for its most damning data “proving” the harmful effects and high social costs of pregnancy on studies by one man, Dr James Trussell–a senior fellow at the Alan Guttmacher Institute, founded by and named for Planned Parenthood’s greatest advocate, and PP’s house research source. If the situation were reversed, and a government mandate was directed principally by research funded by the Vatican and conducted by one Catholic moral theologian, I think my friends would have questions for me.

Whether we would listen to one another, though, is doubtful. Friday night, catching Bill Moyers & Company on PBS, I had my eyes opened as to why this debate is really no debate at all, why we can’t converse, why asking questions outside your assigned sociopolitical box gets you (me) in so much trouble. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explained that we are so segregated by lifestyle and shared prejudices that we never encounter, let alone talk with or listen to, people of other viewpoints. It’s as though, Haidt says, the “sides” each live in their own version of the invented reality of The Matrix. Not only can we not understand the other side’s points–we literally can’t hear them. And because it’s so vital to maintaining our side’s shared artificial reality that we not question any of it, we can’t even hear ourselves. That explains the paradoxical behavior Mark Shea calls “bayoneting our own”–Catholics savaging other Catholics who agree with them on the wrongness of the HHS mandate, but don’t necessarily think that means Democrats should be excommunicated and Obama is the antichrist.

When the sounds of invincible ignorance–the deliberate refusal to listen–grow so loud, the call of solitude is irresistible. Sometimes it’s not even a call we’re drawn to on our own, but an imperative from outside us. Of Gomer, the wife of the prophet Hosea whose sexual infidelities embody Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant, the Lord says, “So I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart” (Hosea 2:16). Even Jesus, before walking into the hideous clamor of his public ministry, was “at once” driven out into the desert by the Spirit (Mark 1:12), and returned often to the internal fortress of solitude and the external empty spaces to pray and regroup.

I don’t think, most days, that I have a full-time call to the hermit’s life, any more than I have a call to the prophet’s. But I do believe that witness and prayer, talk and listening, action and silence, community and solitude are equally necessary components of the journey of faith. They are the twin engines that drive being a believer in the world. Maybe that’s why the archetype of the pilgrimage appeals to me so much. It combines both action and prayer, movement in the world and movement beyond it. The pilgrim takes a solitary vow but fulfills it in company. Both the going out and the coming home are significant. Pilgrims may travel by choice, or be placed under obligation to do so. On the journey, the pilgrim changes and is changed by those she encounters. And pilgrimage has lots of evocative substitutes for those who can’t actually hit the road: the revelatory maze that is the Chartres labyrinth, the devotional Way of the Cross that St Francis invented so we could walk with Christ to Calvary.

The words of today’s responsorial psalm, with which this post begins, come from one of the Songs of Ascent that pilgrims to the Temple in Jerusalem sang as they climbed Zion’s heights. Listening, I take these words as a reminder that my own devices are never sufficient, but that my strength will be renewed if I set my heart on pilgrimage. Come, walk with me. Let’s talk. Let’s listen. Let’s praise God continually as we go along. Maybe, in the tents of the folks our side calls wicked, we’ll be overheard.

Photo is the author’s own.

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