Monday, October 29, 2007

The Pilgrim Pathway

I read most of Annie Dillard's brilliant and poetic work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, over the weekend. It's a dense read, beautifully detailed in her observations of nature and metaphysical in outlook. As I read it, carried on by the sublime language, I began to consider the title of the book. What is a pilgrim, and why would one go on a pilgrimage?

I looked up "pilgrim" in my three-volume unabridged Webster's and discovered that the word "pilgrim" is derived from the Middle English and Old French words for "foreigner," "abroad," and "far afield." "Pilgrim" can be defined in the following ways:

1. one who journeys, especially in alien lands; a traveler, wayfarer.
2. a person who passes through life as in exile from a heavenly homeland or in search of it or of some high goal (such as truth, etc.).
3. one who travels to visit a shrine or holy place as a devotee
4. one who is new or strange in a particular locality

Then from Wikipedia -- "pilgrim":
"A pilgrim is one who undertakes a religious pilgrimage, literally 'far afield.' Thi is traditionally to visit a place of some religious significance; often a considerable distance is traveled."

And also from Wikipedia -- "pilgrimage":
"In religion and spirituality, a pilgrimage is a long journey or search of great moral significance. Sometimes, it is a journey to a sacred place or shrine of importance to a person's beliefs and faith."

When I think of the words "pilgrim" and "pilgrimage," Chaucer's Canterbury Tales immediately came to mind. Chaucer died in the year 1400, leaving his masterwork far from finished, yet the idea of pilgrimage provides the frame for the various tales. The pilgrims, of all backgrounds and character, are traveling to Canterbury Cathedral where St. Thomas a'Becket was assassinated in 1170, on King Henry II's apparent orders. In the famous General Prologue to the tales, Chaucer informs us that when spring comes, "Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages." ("Pilgrimages" in Middle English is pronounced "pill-gri-mah-jez.")

Okay, back to Tinker Creek. Dillard spent over a year on the banks of the creek, living close to nature and observing insects and animals with a scientific eye and a poetic heart. She tells of sitting for hours, waiting for muskrats to appear so she could observe them. She spent most of her days out-of-doors, determined to live well and, to quote Thoreau, "suck all the marrow out of life" after a serious bout with pneumonia made her realize that she had not been living a life of meaning. She started keeping journals as she observed nature close-up, and when she accumulated over twenty journals, she began to transcribe the journal entries onto note cards. Over an eight-month period, she transformed the notecards into the 260-page book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek which won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction. Only 29 years old, Dillard was not happy with the fame that came with a successful and award-winning book and retreated from society for a while; she later returned to Connecticut and took up teaching.

The main theme in Tinker Creek is the search for God as deity is revealed in nature. Dillard asks the old question: "Can I trust a Being who created this nature that is both beautiful and cruel?" She ponders the question thoughfully, metaphysically, poetically, even transcendentally, through the details of the natural world she observes in her own backyard. I'll post some quotes in a separate post as it's getting quite late tonight, but I find her writing gorgeous, entrancing, and extremely thought-provoking and honest. It richly deserves the accolades given it -- especially when experiencing the work of a relatively young writer.

Dillard's work is rich in quotations from Van Gogh, Einstein, Thoreau, Emerson, Da Vinci, and many scientists -- she is an extremely well-educated person who draws on our uniquely American experience to enrich her writing and our reading of it. Her writing is also entwined with Scripture -- an allusion here, a story there, a quotation over there. Not only is she familiar with the Word of God, but she also is well-versed in theology, mystical Christian writers (she quotes Julian of Norwich, my personal favorite), liturgical elements, and true worship. At this point in her life, she had rejected her parents' Presbyterian faith which mainly consisted of social and business contacts rather than a real relationship with the Creator. In an article I read about her, Dillard refers to herself as "spiritually promiscuous" in her twenties, and this work is sprinkled with references to Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and even the spiritual practices of the Eskimos are referenced multiple times. In reading about Dillard, after much searching and asking the hard, honest questions of a seeker, a true pilgrim, she rediscovered Christian faith and taught for many years at Wesleyan University. Recently she converted to Catholicism, which I can absolutely understand after reading about her love for rich worship and ancient practice.

I feel as though we all are pilgrims in one way or another. We who are of the Christian faith are also pilgrims, for though we have discovered faith in Christ, now we must walk in it. And walking this path, this path that has been trod for two thousand years by prophets, saints, martyrs, and ordinary "Joes," with its road markings and danger signs, is an amazing journey that leads us closer and closer to the God of Creation and His Beloved Son, Christ Jesus our Lord.

I'll post more quotes from Tinker Creek when I have time -- in the next day or so. My remarks are so flat and trite compared to the sublimity of her language and poetic phrasings. Aaaaah, to be a poet, an essayist, a novelist, and a writer of non-fiction, memoirs, and theology! What can't this woman write and write well?????

(Please ignore any and all professional jealousy here, especially regarding receiving the Pulitzer at the tender age of 29....)

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