An Evangelical Pilgrimage
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Something Craggy

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Portland, OR :: I mentioned in an earlier post that I was strangely afraid to set off on this journey with only four or five books in my luggage. Today, reading Helen Waddell’s introduction to St. Jerome’s “The Life of St. Paul the First Hermit,” I found precedence.

St. Jerome spent five years as a hermit in the desert and had a miserable time of it, which was maybe the point. He told one of his pupils, the girl Eustocium, about how he would sit full of bitterness in his desert cell, reminiscing about happier times.

I learned today that Jerome took his books with him into the desert. “For many a year had I cut myself off from home and parents and sister and kin and what is harder than these, the habit of exquisite dining…,” Jerome later wrote. “But the library I had built up with such ardour and pains in Rome, I could not bring myself to do without.”

Helen Waddell writes that the desert drove Jerome not to silence, as it had the Desert Fathers and Mothers, but to the mastering of another language. “He must have something craggy to break his mind upon: and he found it in Hebrew.”

It can easily be argued that Jerome carrying his books to the desert was the best thing for civilization – Jerome’s language skills resulted in his Vulgate translation of the Hebrew scriptures. But was it best for Jerome’s season in the desert? I can’t help comparing Jerome’s story to that of the desert monk Serapion who sold his copy of the Gospels and gave the money to those who were hungry, saying: “I have sold the book which told me to sell all that I had and give it to the poor.” Granted, the desert monks themselves would not have made such a comparison, committed as they were to non-judgment. And maybe it was enough that Jerome knew his limitations.

As for my own limitations: I don’t expect our journey to be as harsh as Jerome’s desert, but I’m concerned about being away from home without my books. I would feel…unmoored. On the other hand, maybe unmoored is the whole point. I have a tendency to retreat into books from the mundanity and volatility of real life. I rely too much on the words of others. I choose bookwork over field work, the library over the street, and prose over poetry.

I read today that when Kathleen Norris was attempting to unravel the tale of her religious heritage in “The Cloister Walk” and “Amazing Grace,” she felt like her mentor Elizabeth Kray, the longtime executive director of the Academy of American Poets, was looking over her shoulder, “listening closely to make sure that my language remained alive, and did not grow stale with preachiness.”

Norris scribbled on an index card some advice Kray had given her when Norris was working on her first essay about the influence of religion in her life. She installed the index card near her writing desk. It read: “You are in danger of making proper little genuflections to scholarship, when what you need is the poet’s voice.”

Norris elaborates: “A poem, after all, renders an experience that is more than mere opinion, idea, or doctrine. And it is as experience that a poem stands or falls, inviting the reader not to debate or argue but to respond with both heart and mind.”

And so here I will make my first rule: I can’t bring on this trip any scholarly books on American evangelicalism. I have until the end of February to read Mark Noll, Christian Smith, Doug Sweeney, David Bebbington, Alan Wolfe, and the other academics on my to-read list. I can read them as context for the pilgrimage; but not on the pilgrimage. I also can’t bring with me any work of narrative nonfiction which claims to take the reader on a journey through modern American evangelicalism. This means you, Jeffrey Sheler, Lauren Sandler, Randall Balmer, John Marks, Jeff Sharlet, and Andrew Beaujon.

In other words, once we leave the safety of the west coast (more on that tomorrow) I have to rely on primary sources – contemporary accounts, conversations, observations. But as a concession to my weakness – I too need a new language, something craggy to break my mind upon – I will replace the academic tomes with volumes of poetry. There is no Latin Vulgate in my future, but perhaps our journey will become a kind of poem.

September 7, 2009   5 Comments