The Successful Pilgrim


as preached May 22, 2022 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston

So, I brought Basho with me. Matsuo Basho, do you know him? The great seventeenth century Japanese poet, author of the famous haiku:

Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water
A deep resonance.

Last week, in New Mexico, I went backpacking with two Episcopalian priests in Gila National Wilderness, along the West and Middle Forks of the Gila River.

I was invited by one of my oldest friends, the Rev. Noah Evans, Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He was the recipient of a grant from the Lily Foundation to organize a group of clergy to go hiking for a week. He asked me to come along.

And so, in addition to the sleeping bag, sleeping pad, light weight one-person tent, five days worth of dehydrated food, change of clothes (and change of socks), and all my other backpacking gear, I brought Basho with me.

His text, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, has long been one of my favorites.

It was with awe
That I beheld
Fresh leaves, green leaves,
Bright in the sun.

He wrote it as a record, a reflection, of a six-month walking journey that he took into Northern Japan. It is considered by many scholars, poets, and religious practitioners to be among the greatest travel sketches and pilgrimage narratives.

Its title is deceptive. The narrow road that Basho travels is meant to have double meaning. It signifies not only the poet’s excursion into the remote parts of his country but also his inward meditative pursuit for insight and enlightenment.

In the text an encounter with “pines… of the freshest green… their branches … curved in exquisite lines, bent by the wind…” becomes an opportunity to reflect on the poet’s human limits. “My pen strove in vain to equal this superb creation of divine artifice,” he writes.

I brought the text with me because I thought I might turn my hike with Noah and his friend into a small act of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is one of the oldest of spiritual practices. It is found in many traditions and practiced in a variety of different ways. Some times pilgrims embark in the direction of a particular sacred site–I once walked a portion of the Camino de Santiago and trod for a week along a route in Northern Spain leading to the supposed resting place of James, son of Zebedee and Salome, and apostle of Jesus. Other times, pilgrims simply set off on a journey, hoping to find something within themselves along the way.

Basho’s journey was like that. Margaret Fuller, whose text Summer on the Lakes we also read from this morning, was similar. And so was my hike along the Gila. Have you ever taken such a journey? Where you set off to nowhere in particular in the hopes of learning a little bit more about yourself, getting away from the daily distractions, glimpsing something of the dark night sky–the stars are luminous outside of the city–and maybe, just maybe, experiencing a deeper sense of connection with the beauty and mystery of the world?

It is a well established spiritual practice within the Unitarian Universalist tradition. Transcendentalists like Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson engaged in it regularly. Fuller, whose name might be less familiar to some of you than Emerson’s, grew up in an early nineteenth-century Unitarian household in Massachussets and went on to be one of the first professional travel writers.

Summer on the Lakes chronicles her sojourn through the part of the country we now call the Rust Belt. In the 1840s, much it was, for people of European descent, largely unknown. The colonial process was really just getting underway. Much of the land remained under indigenous sovereignty and White settlers from the East, with support from the federal government, threatened nations such as the Chippewa and the Ottowa with genocide.

Like many of her fellow Transcendentalists, Fuller was disturbed by and opposed to the genocidal practices of the federal government and White settlers. She traveled for several months chronicling the natural beauty of the region. In her writings she strove to portray the indigenous peoples of places like Michigan in ways that they were rarely described by other White writers of her generation. As opposed to others who depicted them as “either … a Demigod or … a beast” she tried to portray them as simply what they were, human.

Fuller’s text, like Basho’s, is worth reading. Alongside her reflections on the humanity of peoples often then being cast by other White writers as less than human, she celebrated the sublimity she found during her wanderings. On the cusp of the Niagara Falls, amid praire flowers, on the shores of vast lakes, she wrote of how encounters with “all the beauties of this region” offered her as essential experience of being. Caught up in the “presence” of “a vast and gently-swelling pasture of the brightest green grass, stretching away from… on every side, behind, toward these hills… in all other directions, to generous soil” she realized, simply, that she had come to understand, in such moments when confronted with the floral magnificence of “various colors, white, blue and purple” that “It is good to be here.”

It is good to be here… I often had that simple thought as we walked 26 miles in four days. Up the West Fork of the Gila, over one side of the Lily Mountain, back down the other side to the canyon carved out by the Middle Fork of the Gila, and then along the trail past the Jordan Hot Springs–where we stopped for a delicious hour’s soak–up to the point where the Little Bear Canyon intersects with the Middle Fork, crossing the river some fifty times, and then out to the visitor’s center, passing another hot spring, this one too sulphur laden to submerge ourselves in, for the completion of the hike.

We talked as we tramped along–about ministry, the differences between our traditions, our families and, look, there’s a wild boar, no it’s a javelina, a squat piglike peccary with salt and pepper bristles, it travels in herds and, there, three of them are scrambling up the rocks.

One foot followed by the other for 26 miles. Mostly we moved in silence. Stopping, sometimes, for water or shade, or to… do you see the way that cactus has grown up in the stone crevice, the one, right there, with a bunch of bristling spheres and a red flower on top, I think it’s called a peppercorn.

Walking, walking, crossing the river this way, then back over that way, a pool of fist sized fat tadpoles, the speckled flash of trout, all rocks are slippery and… walking…

The journey’s quiet, Basho as companion:

In the utter silence
Of a temple,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks.

There are certain practices that are useful on any pilgrimage. I want to share with you four that have helped my own journeys be successful. And by successful… The journey is as much inward as it is outward. For me, any pilgrimage can be judged as successful if it gifts me with a deeper sense of connection to the beauty of the Earth and my own inner spark. For you… well, you have to figure out what makes a journey successful for yourself. That’s part of the process of discovery.

The first practice of pilgrimage is to travel with a tradition. Traditions offer us guideposts, instructions, information, about what might be encountered along the way. We live in a pluralistic society, we are surrounded by numerous traditions, and you have something of an option as to which tradition, or traditions, you will engage with on your journey.

One of my travelling companions was quite aware of this. He had started out life as an evangelical Christian before encountering Episcopalianism in seminary. He chose that tradition only to be caught up in the schismatic conflict between the Episcopalian Church and the emerging, politically reactionary, Anglican Church in North America. He made his choice and stuck with the Episcopalians.

The choice he made was a stark reminder for me that in our society, overrun as we are different information, tradition is always partially a matter of personal decision. Many of you have taken on a commitment to Unitarian Universalism as a chosen faith–one you came into as an adult. Others in our society have different choices and, as the events of the recent shooting in Buffalo horrifically reminded us, those decisions can have consequences. The shooter in Buffalo chose to engage with a white supremacist tradition and that choice had deadly consequences. We can choose differently and one of the purposes of our religious communion, I believe, is to encourage each other, and society at large, to make a choice towards anti-racism–which might be understood as a pilgrimage in its own right–and away from the lethal legacy of white supremacy.

On the trail, I brought with me my Unitarian Universalist connections with Transcendentalism, the charge attend to “all the beauties of this region” and remember “it is good to be here.” My longtime literary predilection for Japanese Buddhist poetry also came along.

I felt quite at home,
As if it were mine,
Sleeping lazily
In this house of fresh air.

Which traditions do you walk with? I hope that if you have come here this morning, or joined with us online, one of the traditions you have chosen to walk with is Unitarian Universalism. As someone like Fuller should hopefully remind us, it offers depths that can inspire us, in her words, to open ourselves to “the grandeur–somewhat eternal, if not infinite” which surrounds us.

My companions walked with their Episcopalian Christian faith. This caused us to see the landscape somewhat differently. Those columns of rocks there, wind carved pillars some hundred feet tall, their colors shift with the light–moving from red to orange even to white and almost grey–as the sun peaks and then fades. For me it is like something Georgia O’Keefe painted or a poem, out of season but apt, by Basho:

Whiter far
Than the white rocks
Of the Rock Temple
The autumn wind blows.

For my companions it is a reminder of Simeon the Stylite, the fifth century Syrian Christian mystic who spent more than thirty years living atop a narrow stone pillar. He climbed up there in an effort to devote himself to the spiritual life, to the pursuit of union with his God, and stayed so committed to his striving toward the divine that he died atop the rock column.

Christians like to speak of sacrifice when they describe the religious life, a framework that I am suspicious of for reasons that extend far beyond the limits of this sermon. Nonetheless, the presence of my Christian friends brings me to a second important practice to be found in pilgrimage–do not travel alone.

Basho and Fuller both went on sojourns with companions. Basho walked the road to the North with his neighbor Sora who wanted, like the great poet, to “enjoy the views… share… the hardships of the wandering life” and find something of religious enlightenment.

Fuller travelled with her friend Caroline Sturgis Tappan, another poet and Transcendentalist to whom she dedicated her book writing, “When weary hours a brief refreshment crave? / I give you what I can, not what I would.”

“I give you what I can, not what I would,” it seems a good motto for travelers together on the pilgrim road. In both literary cases, the writer’s companion shares with them the challenges of travel but there is always a limit to the companionship. Each traveler lightens the other’s load but in the end each takes their own steps alone. Sora carries some of the things Basho needs for his travels. Basho carries something of what Sora needs for his. Fuller and Tappan bless each other with company but both have their separate experiences–made richer by the other’s presence but still, ultimately, their own.

For my part, I walked with my Episcopalian friends. The advantages of hiking with others are many. You can spread the load–I carried much food, Noah had the stove and cook set, our other travelling companion brought with him other essentials–and you can quicken the camp work. I can purify water while you set-up the tents. You can make dinner while I find logs for us to sit on.

I am not going to claim that companions are strictly necessary for a pilgrimage–we encountered more than one person on the trail for a solo hike–but they certainly help. Basho never travelled alone. To emphasize the enlightening gifts he found in his companions, he even included their words in his text:

A poem for a pair of faithful osprey nesting on a rock:

What divine instinct
Has taught these birds
No wave swell so high
As to swamp their home?

Written by Sora,

one portion of the Narrow Road to the Deep North reads.

Earlier in his book Basho also reminds us of another important practice of pilgrimage, it is easier if you bring the right gear. In his opening passages he provides a list of all that he carried on his “bony shoulders” which “were sore because of the load” before remarking “there were always certain things I could not throw away for either practical or sentimental reasons.”

When you hike, you have to carry with you whatever you are going to have for your time on trail. You have to ask yourself, what is essential? What do I truly need? And you have to think about what is extraneous. Each item you take will go upon your “bony shoulders,” and weigh down each of your steps. Do I need three pairs of socks when I can wash a set in the stream and let them dry every night? Is rain gear essential? We are in the desert and there’s no forecast of rain. How many water bottles do we need? Should we bring a set of cards to play at night?

In the end what you pack reflects the wisdom you have gleaned from previous times on the trail and your anxiety. I can get by with only two pairs of underwear because we can wash each night. It seems important to pack something possible for every kind of ailment known to human or beast just in case. That snake bite kit probably is not all that effective but… it makes us feel better.

In the end, though, there are some things that you have to bring with you if you want to have a pleasant time on the trail. Good boots are a must. A sleeping roll, a pad, and decent tent seem like requirements. You have to have food–especially in the desert where someone like me, capable of foraging in the Northeast is uncertain about that we will find this or that plant. You should bring with you… Well, that question becomes part of the opportunity for spiritual reflection. What is it you need? What is it that you merely want? What are you willing to carry? Why?

A fourth practice of pilgrimage is two-fold and deceptively simple. You have to know your route and you need to be aware that it contains many decision points. With us we had a map of the Gila National Wilderness–one of those pieces of gear that we deemed essential. It told us where the trail began, where it ended, where it split, and what we might find along the way. Looking at the map, we always knew approximately where we were and what more we could find along the way. This helped with pacing–we had to walk so many miles each day–and it helped with picking places to camp–if we keep going past this bend it looks there will be a good place to pitch our tents for the night.

As we moved along our route we were constantly making choices. Do we stop here or go on? Should we put our packs down and explore? Is it too early to stop for lunch? Do we have enough water or should we purify some more? Is this a good spot to rest and try to catch some trout?

Each decision we made shaped how we moved along our hike. It altered what we saw and how we saw it. Exploring Little Bear Canyon, which splits off the main route, mid-afternoon meant entering a twilight space when a full sun shone behind us. If we had come earlier, chosen to hurry past another part of trail, we would have been caught in a different kind of light–the trees, the walls, this flower and that, would have all cast other colors.

Sometimes we were only aware that we had made a decision in retrospect. We thought about stopping for the night to camp by the Jordan Hot Springs, perfect as they were for casting off the trail’s dust, but pressed on because we wanted to see Little Bear that same day. When we woke up and set out the next day it soon became clear that the last good place to camp was where we had stopped the night before. And so, we ended up finishing the trail a day early.

Have you ever had a similar experience? Where you realize, afterwards, that you made some kind of important decision–for finishing the trail a day early was important for our pilgrimage–only when you look back? I certainly have and not just on the trail. Sometimes, the smallest decisions we make can turn out to be the most important. You decide to go out to this party rather than that one and meet someone who alters your life’s course. You sign-up for this class rather than that, on a whim, they both seem interesting and you pretty much flipped a coin, and discover what becomes your career. You… Well, I suspect that the experience is familiar.

Walking along a route with a tradition, companions, and the gear you carry, these are four practices that I find within pilgrimage. Basho opens his text with the insight that to live is to under take a journey, “Days and months are travelers of eternity. So are the years that pass by.” He invited his readers into a conversation centered on how we can learn about life’s journey as we engage in the intentional practice of travel.

The pilgrimage practices I have named–tradition, companions, what you place upon your bony shoulders, and walking a route–each offer lessons for our ordinary lives.

I anticipate that you know that already. I imagine that you are here with us today because you are seeking or you have found something within the Unitarian Universalist tradition that helps you find meaning in the world. You are probably also here because you are looking for, or you have found, good companions and some insight on to what you might carry on your shoulders. And I expect you know that as you are moving through the journey of life you are constantly beset with decision points–come to the service this morning, listen online, or go for a rainy morning hike.

Tradition, companions, the loads we carry, the paths we select… these are some of what is to be learned as when we walk along a pilgrimage and what is to be found as we, like Basho and Margaret Fuller, find ourselves as travelers upon the road to eternity. May we, like both of them, find ourselves blessed with a good tradition, companions, and all that we need to move through life ever more aware of what is to be found on our journeys.

Amen and Blessed Be.

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