Dear Fellow Pilgrims,
I chose the image of pilgrimage when I began this blog 5 years ago last week (here was my first blog, on Letter Writing in a Digital Age). I come from a Christian tradition that has tended to lack the aesthetic and the tactile. Strong on doctrine, practicality, history, and friendship, it lacks a sensual connection to faith. In an effort to make all spaces sacred, it has meant that no one space is more sacred than another. As a result, the intentional movement of our bodies through creation has not been valued very highly. The lifting of hands to heaven, the sulfuric tang of a match to wick, the tannic surprise of wine to the tongue, the imprint of cobblestone upon the knee, the shuffle of feet upon the dusty path–these are not experiences that my first church could have shared with me.
Yet, even early on, I have had an instinct that whatever the eccentricities of our shared Christian heritage, pilgrimage was something I wanted to recover. After a year of training in biblical studies, I felt the text world of the Bible threaten to drift away from me. So I went there, traveling to those ancient-modern lands, visiting the holy and historical places I had learned about. Since then, neither the stories and poetry of the Bible nor the contemporary politics of identities at war can ever be simply words on a page. I had touched that soil, knelt at those altars, haggled in those same streets, and walked through the rubble paths.
Even now, I have these places that are sacred to me where I make pilgrimage from time to time. All Souls Chapel, the Hidden Acre, and Cymbria are three local ones. But there are more modern kinds of spaces, like campfires and libraries, that do what a pilgrimage does for me, integrating body and soul with Story.
A Pilgrim in Narnia is meant to be about the metaphorical journeys of life and letters, exploring the crossroads of faith, fantasy, and fiction using C.S. Lewis, J.R.R Tolkien, and others as guides for that way. The path of intelligent reflection on faith and story has grown over a little, but there is an eager generation of pilgrims who are seeking it. I am pleased to be one walking on the way.
We can find our way into C.S. Lewis’ life through his books and letters. Tolkien is a little harder, and we are indebted to his biographers and the curators of his unfinished corpus. I meant to think of exploring their ways like a kind of pilgrimage, so that reading and writing become the palmer’s habit. 5 years and 500 blogs later, I still think it is a helpful image, and I am loath to change the outdated header at the top of the page. It still resonates with me.
Still, there is a life of complexity on the other side of every screen. The temptation to move beyond the metaphor has taken me over once again. With my family beside me, we are making our own pilgrimage to the space that lives behind the stories we love. The Dickiesons are going to the UK!
As frequent readers will suspect, I will be doing some work at the Bodleian library on C.S. Lewis manuscripts. I am also presenting a paper at ISRLC in Glasgow in September, and working at my home campus in Chester. I have serious reasons for visiting the UK–or so I will tell you if you are offering grants!
Before I settle down into the hush of the reading room, however, our family will do some exploring. We will see the London of Dickens, Shakespeare, Sherlock, and Harry Potter. We will wander beneath the singing spires of Oxford, exploring the homeworld of Tolkien, Lewis, and our great University tradition. Castles, cathedrals, and Roman remains help define our time in Chester in the North and our visit into Wales. It is hard not to think of Arthur in those areas–even as those ancient spaces fill out with factories, suburban homes, and hipster cafes. And, of course, we will see the other places of many pilgrims: Bath, Stonehenge, Stratford, and Starbucks.
And if I see a wardrobe anywhere in England, you know I’m going to peek in.
We will also raise a glass, empty some plates, visit with dear friends, and work through the rubber on the souls of our shoes. In the midst of what has been a very difficult year, we are also hoping for that certain kind of rest that richness of the mind, body, and soul can bring. We are very much looking forward to our vacation.
Not everything is planned. I am a believer in pilgrim’s providence. Sometimes we must take the fork in the road in front of us rather than the one we thought was on the map. As pilgrims we set our face toward Canterbury, so to speak, but our spirits are open to the pilgrimage that happens along the way.
I will be blogging on my usual schedule throughout the month, with upcoming blogs on Terry Pratchett, Annie Dillard, Chris Armstrong, Thomas à Kempis, and the continuing conversation on the canon. I won’t be able to dialogue as I normally would, but I will read best wishes–and critiques!–as I always do. You can also follow travel tweets @BrentonDana, or see our daily updates on facebook (my full name is Brenton Dickieson–send a friend request).
Best wishes this month, and let me know if our paths will cross in the UK.
Oh how I envy you. Have a rewarding, renewing, and blessed time over there.
Let me know if one of those forks seems to be pointing you to crossing the North Sea in a Dutch direction – unless they’re working on the railway (which they tend to do when there are fewer commuters, notably including students) I can get to a lot of interesting places in an hour or two to meet up! (I don’t suppose I’ll be headed Britannia-ward, much as I enjoyed last October’s visit to Oxford.)
Stonehenge was disappointing as we could not get close enough for it to seem other than surprisingly small – I’m not sure if it’s usually still that way or not (but you will no doubt be doing your homework on this: the visitors’ centre is long since my time, and, while the Wikipedia article suggests there can be some access at the Autumnal Equinox (22 Sept. this year), perhaps one has to be (or pretend to be, not unlike Edward FitzGerald sneaking into Mecca) of ‘Another Faith’). Avebury and environs, by contrast, is/are almost inescapably delightful and impressive, given that Henge and village interlink, and (West) Kennet Avenue was (and, I think, still is) walkable, and can be seen from nearby in any case. (Apparently, it’s even accessible by public transport: the National Trust site says, “Frequent buses pass nearby”.)
I first went to England, Wales, Ireland, France, and the Netherlands during an intensely busy (but variously leisurely, too) summer vacation when I was 13, with my parents and great aunt, and it was wonderful – and I’m confident you’ll find it so, too, together!
May your research be fruitful, and the rest of your time be both fun and spiritually profitable.
As David notes above, perhaps Stonehenge is not the best place to visit; I gather there are quite a few other astronomically-based prehistoric rock circles in Britain. I clipped a travel article from the newspaper that mentions Dartmoor National Park in the southwest, Castlerigg in the Cumbrian Lake District, and Clava Cairns in Scotland. I bet you could find out from local folk, as you travel around, where the nearest such less-tourist-filled landmark would be.
I hope you get to the northeast of England. Durham, Northumbria, Lindisfarne – much richness of thin places, which I hope to experience someday, along with Iona and Mull.
Have a lovely time!
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