“God mend thine ev’ry flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy Liberty in law.” Katherine Lee Bates
Georgia O’Keefe would look from her window to the Cerro Padernal. She once jokingly said it was her mountain and if she painted it enough, God would give it to her. Far too many had made the thing no joke. Spurred on by a “theology” of Exceptionalism and disdaining the likes of Boston and New York, they would have the mountains, fields and canyons as their own.
In Europe, the faithful would trek the well-worn paths of stories made long ago. They would see crucifixes on forest paths and relics in the cathedrals. The journeys were nothing but civilized or at least mostly so. In America there would be those who trekked as well. They traveled distances that would shame the pilgrim paths of Europe as they went out not to recall stories, but make them.
The stories are familiar ones today. They are an admixture of shame and pride to those with ancestors who made the great treks and who were pilgrims in a strange land. The stories became the basis of an American mythology. A Latter Day Saint did not need to see the relics of the saints of old for they had new Saints and those adhering to the rather Calvinist inspired idea of Manifest Destiny could rewrite the Hebrew Canon replacing Nile, Mt. Sinai and Canaan with the names of American rivers, mountains, and states.
As Americans we largely ignore the mythology today and when we see the places of the mythology, we have no reason for the laborious beating a path as air travel and the automobile are more practical ways to cover the distances required to see these mythic sites. We pull over in our rental cars and see the brown and white signs proclaiming “site of…..Mormon Trail, Donner Party, Transcontinental Railroad, and Pony Express.” We are no longer pilgrim trekkers, but tourists and this with the unwillingness to look at history means that we fail to do the thing pilgrims often do and utter a penitential cry.
It is time to be pilgrims again and this time follow an ancient model of being one that is at once doing penance while recognizing a gift.
From 14,000 feet, the top of Pike’s Peak, Katherine Bates had a pilgrim moment. The “purple mountain majesty” became her Sinai and Nebo, for just as Moses had been given the law on one and allowed to see the Holy Land on the other, Bates had been given the revelation that America was a blessed place, but one in need of the constraint on this Colorado 14er. That is the way pilgrimage is, at once a recognition of God’s good gift and God’s law.
On the pilgrim route you walk together with your brothers and sisters. Trails are long so you share food and mountaintops are cold so you keep each other warm. It may be you have wronged your brother or sister even as you know that in time a peculiar good may come from these wrongs, though the wrongs necessitate forgiveness and require penance. This is certainly true of America, where democracy and freedom is built atop the geography of native peoples who are now brothers and sisters to the sons and daughters of European settlers.
The American pilgrim travels with joy over his or her home. S/he looks from the western highlands and sees the “fruited plains” of the Midwest and knows this is a gift. S/he travels too with remorse making penance by sharing the bounty of those previously horded plains. Wherever we go this year, be it another town, the expanse of our proud land, a European path, or something even further afield….we must be pilgrims in the truest sense.
So fellow American pilgrims….. pack your staff and carry your trail mix. Walk amazed by everything you touch and see, but also stop and pray for those people and places you love and even the people and places you find hard to love. I will think of you when you are out there as I hope you think of me. I hope your feet ache but not blister. I hope the tread on your tires thin but not become bare. I hope the mountains you cross are purple and the plains fruited. I hope you hold fast to those who journey with you and listen to the stories of those you meet. And I hope you feel the liberty given to you by your Creator knowing that He is the author of all good things and that you also let His law draw you into the invitation that through penance and prayer you may share these good gifts with all the world.
Image: Pike’s Peak, courtesy Wikipedia