Spooky Pilgrimage Day One: The Sacramental Ghosts of Cooperstown

Christ's Church Graveyard, Cooperstown, New York
Christ’s Church Graveyard, Cooperstown, New York

I woke up at a New York state rest area with a crick in my neck and a mild sinus headache as the rain beat down on the roof of my car. The deluge spawned by the remnants of Hurricane Nate had floated my Honda Civic for the entire eight hour drive north. I arrived too tired to even walk to the bathroom, about twenty five yards from my car.

My pilgrimage started after talking to the teens and parents of my parish about about stress and the parents needed to see that their worship of money, power and success can lead to sacrificing their kids on the altar of Moloch. Okay, I didn’t say it exactly like that, but I came pretty close. After I finished,  I felt drained, tired and beating myself up for the things I forgot to say, a pretty common occurrence since my time as a Presbyterian minister.

Needless to say, I didn’t wake up in a pilgrim state of mind. All I wanted was coffee and something to eat. Looking at Google maps, the best I could I do was either Tim Horton’s or Dunkin’ Donuts. This will probably out me as an American traitor, but I would eat Tim Horton’s donuts and drink their coffee over Dunkin Donuts any day. I realized this when I spent ten days in Canada with Chief Marvin Yellowbird . He always got Tim Horton’s coffee in the morning and I learned to like it, well, at least, realize Timmy Ho’s is the best cheap option available. When it comes to fast food coffee, I’ll always stand and sing “O Canada.”

None of this sounds very spiritual. I didn’t pray. I grumped and sighed. I knew I probably shouldn’t be having a donut for breakfast, remaining myself I’m a forty three year old man whose metabolism is turning against him.  And the more I tried to pressure myself to “feel like a pilgrim,” the less I felt it. Finally, I just gave up, turned on Tom Petty and sand my guts out as I drove to Cooperstown, New York.

As the rain didn’t show any sign of letting up, I called the campground where I planned to stay. Sure enough, they told me that while I could probably camp there, I might need Noah’s ark to do it. I saw the planned spirituality of my first night as a pilgrim vanish. No crackling camp fire. No lit candles on my portable shrine and no quiet, pipe smoking contemplation in the dark. Sighing, I called a cheap motel I’d saw when I came into town and made a reservation, realizing I would indeed be praying that night; praying I would not think about using a black light to examine the sheets.

With these disordered thoughts, I made my way to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s one of the most obvious of writer cliches; to talk about the deeper meaning of the game and “what it all means.”  Writer after writer have tried to explain their deep connection to baseball. And, no, it’s not just the dudes. Doris Kearns Goodwin, famous historian, has written about her love of baseball, consulted on Ken Burns excellent documentary,  and based her memoir around the love of the game.  Thus, I won’t apologize for continuing to write about the glorious mystery of baseball. Indeed, the only two consistent threads throughout my entire life are my Catholicism and my love of the St. Louis Cardinals. They are both sacramental to me for different reasons.

I’ve dreamed of going to the Baseball Hall of Fame since my grandfather, who owned a baseball card store, told me about it. When I first approached the museum, I was struck by how understated and subtle it is, tucked into downtown Cooperstown. Contrast this with the Football Hall of Fame which is an eye sore that gouges the air right before you enter Canton, Ohio. Actually, if you thought hard about it, you can almost see the two structures at war for the American soul: football is loud, brash, annoying and damages your brain while the other is, hopeful, life giving, subtle, a cup of coffee you share with your neighbor on a Fall Saturday morning.

My skin prickled through the entire museum as I saw the jersey of Jackie Robinson, or the exhibit dedicated to Babe Ruth.  A baseball fan could spend a whole day in there, reading, reflecting and being in awe, drawing closer to a Mystery. Instead, I focused on my team, the St. Louis Cardinals, and all of the “sacramentals” the museum possessed. My two favorites were a jersey from Dizzy Dean who played on the famous Gashouse Gang teams from the 1930’s and their 1934 World Series run is a back drop in my coming YA novel. And,  the famous David Freese jersey from this moment in the 2011 World Series, the greatest baseball game I’ve ever watched. Confession: I still get goose bumps when I watch it. But, as you watch it, note the jersey being torn from his body.












I just got back from a ghost tour, given by a guy who was not only a Catholic but who also works at the Baseball Hall of Fame. We talked about how the founding of baseball by Abner Doubleday was just a legend, and how the truth of baseball was revealed over hundreds of years as it developed into the modern game. And, I realized why my Catholicism and my love of baseball are interwoven in my mind.  Both find discover the truth on a daily basis, both are somewhat of a mystery, both are big on “sacramentals,” and both are grounded very much in the ordinary mystery punctuated by moments of such high exaltation that is very difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced them.

The two of us walked through town, visiting a graveyard, three haunted houses and an ancient glacial lake that contained more stories than we could tell in one night.  Our talks jumped from ghosts to exorcism and  finally to our mutual faith. We spoke the same language of Mystery.  And, it’s at that moment, I felt like a pilgrim again, reconnecting with the reasons I took this Spooky Pilgrimage in the first place.

As I sit on my cheap hotel bed , I decided to use the Jesuit practice of looking back on my day for the graces that God gave me. Tim Horton’s. Baseball. Bourbon. Fudge. Ghost walk. A beautiful natural lake and the beginning of a historic river. The joy I took from these things showed me how exhausted and stressed I had been. The past few weeks, I’d been working twelve hour days and then weekends with my kids. On top of all that, I’d been doing stuff for Sick Pilgrim, writing, and managing a crisis in my personal life. Even planning this pilgrimage took its toll on me. I’d strove to find some sort of spiritual meaning instead of surrendering to whatever lesson God wanted to teach me.

Today, He taught me to stop. Rest. Breathe. And above all, to give thanks for the small things in front of me, something I barely notice in my everyday life.

You can Pre-order Strange Journey Now from Loyola Press. 


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