The Way of a Pilgrim

The Way of a Pilgrim February 28, 2013

When it comes to music, I am a lover of routine. My iTunes playlists are at least 2 years old, I haven’t bought a new album in months, and if you looked at the number of plays my Neko Case “Live at Austin City Limits” album has, you’d see that I’ve listened to it hundreds of times.

But it’s not only music that bears my signature love of repetition. Most days, I would rather read a cookbook than pick up a new novel. I return to the same poems, the same pages of Gilead, and the same Neko Case record; and if my husband wants to watch something other than another episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, I’ll quickly get on Facebook and let him watch alone.

My father once told me that I was his “cautious” daughter: that I made sure of things before I tried them out, that I was the only child of his who actually looked both ways before crossing the street. That surety came before chance.

But I’m also famous for not checking the facts, for taking leaps, for blind trust. I moved to Michigan with less than $600 and no job; I accepted a marriage proposal from a man who then moved fifteen hundred miles away for a whole year.

I don’t necessarily think either tendency is a virtue. I’ve made huge mistakes because I’ve been too hesitant and too gung-ho. Ask my boss, who has spent the past five months trying to figure out how a woman with a writing degree can send out reports with typos and missing numbers.

It would be very easy to say that both tendencies are reactionary—I grew up in a house where adults’ moods were predictably terrifying, so it makes sense that I, the oldest daughter, fell in love with recipes for things like homemade laundry that had order and form.

And it also makes sense that I jump into decisions, details ignored, because those decisions gave me freedom, moved me from Chicago’s dingy south suburbs to Wyoming’s sweeping mountains. Moved me into a life I didn’t think I could hope for.

But I also think there’s another impulse that skirts the edges of my decisions and reactions. Something that reveals more about the condition of my soul than the movements of my psyche.

In college, I discovered The Way of the Pilgrim at a bookstore, and immediately bought it. I never read it all, nor did I understand what the book was about.

I just knew that I had felt like a pilgrim my whole life, and that the image of travel, of moving along a path with a purpose, was something that spoke to me. Something that made sense of what I had been through.

And this is still true—when I think about the signposts that led me to my conversion, they resemble some sort of road, something that pointed me to God through the events of my life. The old Baptist Bible salesman who left us illustrated children’s Bibles, without charge, when I was a toddler; the quiet, desperate prayers that kept me up at night while my mother and her boyfriend screamed at each other inside our trailer, my door a flimsy shield to their violence.

Something was pulling me through, or lighting up a path for me to travel by, and it came through the very things that still pull me: a simple prayer in the nighttime, an opportunity that seems both frightening and absolutely right.

Theologians have criticized The Way of the Pilgrim because its protagonist—a spiritual seeker traveling Russia in search of a spiritual father—seems to acquire an earnest, fulfilling life of prayer in a very short amount of time. It takes a lifetime, they have said, to make any progress towards God. What this fictional pilgrim experiences is in no way comparable to the lives of the saints, to our own fumbling grasping toward holiness.

If we are pilgrims, we do so in stops and starts; we return to the same prayers, the same pews and songs in order to embolden ourselves to keep going, to seek and to discover the love that calls us in the first place.

When I became Orthodox last summer, I imagined that it would be the culmination of all my life’s spiritual longings. That I’d finally be settled, no more questions, all things answered. That the pilgrimage was over, so to speak.

Of course, that was foolish. What being Orthodox has done is to show me how much my pilgrimage has begun, and how far I have to go. It has given me is a lifetime of routine, more prayers to mouth in the nighttime. More chances to consider the words that Scott Cairns heard from a monk at Mount Athos: “Don’t be anxious. I’ll be praying. See what’s coming.”

What comes for me now is riddled with anxiety: my first child due this July, the continued development of my memoir, the possibilities of further grad school for both myself and my husband, whose own questions about seminary keep us wondering.

What consistencies will mark this part of our path? What songs will be repeated, what words reread, as this next part of our life shows itself?

I’m unsure what comforts we’ll find on this part of the journey, or how much I will fumble. But I can pray to trust the path set before us, to see the light being shed upon it, to follow the way of the pilgrim.

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