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Entries in Pilgrimage (4)


Pilgrimage and Spring

“Spring fever” is too anemic a description altogether—especially compared with Chaucer who says that it is now, when Aprille with hise shoures soote is engendering such flowers...and the yonge sonne has run half his course through Aries,

…exactly now that longen folk to goon on pilgrimages and palmeres seek out straunge strondes and distant shrines in sondry londes.
But read—or better yet, hear—Chaucer’s lines yourself below.

And then if you need to parse a phrase or two, you can go here.  In the left hand column, under “Edition,” select “Enface ME-MO.” Under “Pagination,” check the circle for “30.” Hit “Go.” A side-by-side translation of Chaucer’s middle English into modern English will appear—and you can look at whichever lines or phrases that you'd like.


Cézanne and Mont Sainte-Victoire

Sometimes the world opens and takes you into secrets where it seems only you are meant to go.

But if we really notice—and if we really prepare ourselves, saying no to everything that has become irrelevant, and yes to the path that is ours and ours alone—then we find this opening happening more than we would have realized.

How many excuses we tell ourselves to avoid committing to who we really are—and to where the world would take us if we just had the courage to say yes enough.

A year ago we were in Aix-en-Provence,

…which means that during most of the daylight hours we were outside of it,

 …sur le motif,

  …walking in the footsteps
…where Cézanne had walked and painted.
We didn’t write about this then. And we almost didn’t write about it now.  It means too much to us. And our words will fall short of how we really feel.

Another difficulty is with these images on your screen right now. They aren’t the paintings themselves, of course. So you can’t get the colors right. Or the genius of the touches of his brush upon the canvas.

Or the exact relationships among the colors and touches and empty spaces.
And yet if you click on these images, you begin to get a sense of them. (Click here, for example, and move around awhile. Then backspace to return.)

What a thing it is to enter such a world again.

Now we only have what he had—our vision and our imagining.

And we aren’t meant to live in a surrogate world either.

It is the actuality of where we really are—together with our imagining—that creates anything real at all. And imagining, of course, isn’t the faculty of inventing something out of thin air, as if that were even possible.
It isn’t avoidance or dissipation.
It is the faculty of really seeing—in which our own true self emerges.
But you can’t say much about this, or you will frighten her away.
“Yes, that’s what I like to paint, the absent man, but totally integrated into the landscape,” Cézanne said.
It’s like that. You can’t see the absent man anywhere. And yet there isn’t anywhere he hasn’t been.
Cézanne spent most of his life in Aix. He was born and died there.

And so his life moved around the mountain, too.

 And within the conformations of his native land, each small movement, each difference in the rhythm of where he walked and worked, taught him to see differently. And so it can teach us, too.

Later in his life, Cézanne rented this cabanon at Bibémus, where he could store canvases and materials, and sometimes take an afternoon nap, in between working sur le motif there.

Bibémus was an abandoned quarry

…and afforded Cézanne mysterious angular man-made shapes in yellow ochre within the wildness that reclaimed the place.

He also later rented a room at the Chateau Noir along the Petit Rue du Tholonet.

As at Bibémus, Cézanne kept painting materials in the room to save himself the time and effort of transporting them to the places where he worked.

He wanted to buy the Chateau Noir, but his offer was refused. It would’ve brought him closer to the mountain, and he loved the wildness of the forest and grottoes there.

But sometimes the best thing that can happen is for our own plans to fall through.

And so instead Cézanne built an atelier part way up the hill of Les Lauves, outside of Aix.

It must have been while the studio was still being built that Cézanne walked further up the hill of Les Lauves

  …and came upon this vista of the mountain.
In his last two years, he would paint Le Mont Sainte-Victoire vu des Lauves many times, moving his easel a few feet one way or another.

The mountain always changes.
The mountain is always the same.
But you can see that in these late paintings there isn’t a way to the mountain any more.

You will have to integrate the experience differently now. You will have to compose it, too.
Aix has changed a lot since then.
Cézanne had shaken his walking stick in rage when electric street lamps first arrived in Aix.
So what would he think now?
And so in a world of such development, we hadn’t expected to be able to find the mountain any more. Of course, we knew that the geological formation would still be there—but certainly the solitude and presence would have fled.
Cézanne had said, “To see is to conserve—and to conserve is to compose.”
That simple-sounding sentence can ring so many ways.
Perhaps he wouldn’t have intended the sentence in an ecological sense per se.
But he saved the mountain anyway.
He didn’t move from art into political activism the way John Muir did.
Instead, he saved the mountain by seeing it.
Every place must have its poet, Wallace Stegner wrote.
That is, they must find each other. 
And for that to happen, there must be a place—and within us, too—that can still be found
…and in which we can be found, too.



The God-trodden mountain – Sinai

Some places feel like dreams now,

…both faintly written, as day turns into day,

…but also with a haunting vividness should one have the courage to summon up the images again.

Perhaps that’s one reason for our reluctance to glance backwards

…because there are beauties and questions that linger on, and which at any moment can break your heart again,

…and who is so eager to open that Pandora’s box?

But, of course, dream-images are also gifts.

(You didn’t know that Debi was thinking of becoming a nun, did you?)

She’s just not quite certain to which order she’ll belong.

As long as she has been writing icons,

…in fact, perhaps as long as she’s known what an icon really is,

…she has wanted to come here,

…to St. Catherine’s Monastery

…at the foot of the God-trodden mountain,

…Mount Sinai.

It is the oldest continuously existing Christian monastery in the world,

…built upon the site of the Burning Bush.

It is also the only Christian monastery in the world to have a mosque within its walls.

God might not be descending quite so dramatically right now.

Still, you might want to take your sandals off. Isn’t everywhere holy ground?

Sometimes it must sound like only rhetoric – the way we speak to you in the second person

…as if you’ve been on this journey all along.

Except…hasn’t this been true?

This is Judy Delany. She and Debi have known each other for forty years -- and in addition to her friendship with both of us and emails brimming with energy and support, she makes comments here as "Schweetiecakes."

Notice her "Red Egg" necklace.

Since our last blog, many of you have sent generous notes and new ideas.

Sometimes your ideas seem like they’re arising at the same time as our own, and sometimes, like with Peggy, it seems you’re half a step ahead of us.

Here is Peggy O'Farrell two years ago in the Philippines.

Dennis Gobets has been keeping the home-fires burning – and doing his own gallivanting, too.

He's been helping keep an eye on Rocky Creek and

...inviting us to go with him to the southwest when we return.

So while we’ve been at our crossroads, he’s been contemplating his own descent into a canyon.

Steve Tryon has been with us from the beginning, every step along the way. Without him, the Red Egg website and these words and images wouldn’t be appearing – or not the way they do.

He writes, “I think you are in the perfect position…”

…and offers to help even more what he calls the beginning of “a yours-become-ours journey through mind, matter, and connectedness.”

Shall we say that again?

It has become a new mantra for us.

Or better yet, can we keep saying it to one another – because we are saying it to you just as so many of you have been saying that to us.

This is Debi’s neo-Coptic icon teacher Stephane Rene and his wife Monica – when we were with them in London.

We had assumed that crossroads meant: that either we’d come home earlier than we had thought, or we’d travel on awhile more.

But what if you’ve been teaching us

…that somehow it’s possible to do both things at once?

But enough of that for now. We still have a mountain to ascend.

Our Bedouin guide Nasr understood at once and had chosen the least-traveled path to the mountain.

In fact, sometimes it appeared to be no way at all.

But hasn't that been the point all along?

This has never been a tourist-trip

…even if sometimes it might appear that way.

After a few hours, Nasr led us up a draw where he knew rainwater would be pooled.

We gathered brushwood for a fire there.

OK. Two of us did.

Debi and I have backpacked and hiked a lot -- but we have never had a hiking-lunch like this.

Nasr kneaded and rolled wheat-flour and water on the stone

…and built the fire.

The bread went right into it – because in the Sinai, if you’ve gotten the sand hot enough

…it will not stick to even bread.

He roasted eggplant for the baba ganoush – and cut peppers and tomatoes and lemons,

…while Debi helped with the garlic.

Nasr always brings black tea with him,

…but he also gathers herbs to add to it.

His tobacco is from the desert, too. He knows all of Sinai’s plants

...and Sinai is the most bio-diverse place in Egypt.

Nasr gathered more plants after lunch

…and made our soap as well.

“Food always tastes better in the mountains,” I said afterwards.

“Everything is better in the mountains,” Nasr says.

We did pass a few other pilgrims along the way, it is true,

…but they were all occupied more or less as we were.

Two days later I went up the mountain on my own. It wanted to take the Sikket Saydna Musa, the steepest route, the one tradition says Moses had taken himself when he climbed alone to meet the one who had told him here, I AM.

Byzantine monks laid down the stones of this path fourteen hundred years ago.

Why have stones been so prominent all along our way?

Stones and sin. Gathering them sometimes

…and at other times casting them away.

Remember Iona then?

The Sikket Saydna Musa is also sometimes called the “Stairway of Repentance,” or the “Stairway of Forgiveness.”

There is a repentance gate as well that you must pass through,

…and both before and after this gate, pilgrims have built cairns everywhere.

So I built my own as well.

How can you not be mindful passing through a repentance gate, especially since beyond it Elijah stayed, and that beyond even that, Moses still climbed?

(Please excuse the photographs in this little stretch. They’re the best I could muster on my own.)

The real photographer was occupied otherwise at the time. She and Nasr had gone to visit Bedouin families.

Impossible to choose who had picked the better route, isn’t it?

But I was hurrying on then. I wanted to make the sunset from where Moses stood.

And sometimes you’re just in places that take the photographs for you anyway.

And each of us – Debi and I – ended up where we were meant to be that day.

Do you believe that -- that each of us is always where we’re meant to be?

There are no photographs for my descent at night. Actually, I got lost for a little while. But a Bedouin saw me and put me on the right path again.

Up by the summit, there are Bedouin huts that offer pilgrims tea and coffee by day. Most of those were closed up by now, but from within a few, firelight spilled out across the path, and soft voices rose in prayer and conversations.

And, oh, the stars.

I wish we could pour those stars into one another’s open hands right now.

Certainly, if there is any solitary journey, it must be this one, the Sikket Saydna Musa, where Moses walked alone to meet his God. The mountain had been cordoned off for Moses’ journey, and it had been decreed that anyone else who touched the mountain then must be killed.

What could be a more solitary way than this?

We had asked Nasr, “How many nights a month are you out in the mountains away from your family?”

He thought awhile.

“Most nights,” he said.

But even this solitude is a kind of illusion, too,

…because actually Nasr rarely goes out into the mountains alone.

“Bedouin like to talk,” he says.

After climbing the mountain, we told Nasr we wanted to go even deeper into the desert. We presumed we’d have to be driven from one place to another and make day-hikes from where we stayed.

“Why don’t we just walk the whole way instead?” he asked.

“But what about our travel-bags?”

“Schnapps can carry them,” Nasr said.

But that’s a story for another day.

Let’s go back to Moses’ journey one more time -- when the mountain was cordoned off to everyone but him.

Isn’t even this journey, which seems so absolute in its solitude, only a thread in a story bigger than any single life can ever be?

How big a story is Exodus after all?

And how many people, for how many centuries, have seen their own lives writ large in it?

Like this man.

“I have been to the mountaintop,” he said. “And I’ve seen the Promised Land.”

“I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people

“…will get to the promised land.”

Because even this repentance-and-forgiveness path,

…this whole pilgrimage, in fact,

…even for the stretches we experience as a stony, narrow path,

…even then,

…it is not really a journey we are making on our own.


1. The title of this blog-post is stolen from the title of a beautiful article/reminiscence written by our friend, the Dingle peninsula artist Maria Simonds-Gooding (cf our March 21, 2009 blog-post) -- "On the God-Trodden Mountain" -- based on her own experiences at St. Catherine's.

2. And for a beautiful account of people finding their own stories within the frame of Exodus, you can listen here…

3. Our blog doesn’t discuss political and economic realities for Bedouin people. But we recommend an excellent story on the subject that was appearing in the March issue of National Geographic just when we were in the Sinai ourselves.


Writing your own saga – in Ísland

Several of you have commented on the beauty of the Arctic light.

And it is certainly true of the peopled and unpeopled land of Ísland (Iceland)…

…where even in the capital of Reykjavik the mountains are near at hand…

…and rivers freeze midstream – apparently in the very act of seeing them.

Where lava pours from the volcano through snowfields to the sea…

…and then snowmelt returns the favor…

…in a landscape fire and glacier-carved…

…where the hardiest beings run free and wild.

And the rest of us stop to admire them.

I remember years ago one spring flying over Ísland. The island was a blue-green pearl far below trilling with snowmelt and running waters.

But this time we had the chance to land.

We stayed awhile in the fishing village of Stykkishólmur on the Snaefellsnes peninsula…

…where wonders…

…were right at hand.

This is Vatnasafn – “The Library of Water” – in Stykkishólmur. In Vatnasafn are 24 glass columns containing water collected from glaciers formed millennia ago.

In “The Library of Water” we can hold the glaciers – and their decline -- in mind again.

Outside of town, the road could seem like an open question.

Though there were moments when the question seemed like it could close again – in snowdrifts and icy crosswinds.

But we had found and rented a familiar friend with good snowtires, who could take us over those roads that hadn’t been closed by winter yet.

We’ve come to love this in-between season in which we’re traveling, this not-yet-winter in the north.

Not the idyll of a springtime.

But neither is the landscape unpeopled at other times. Fantastical shapes are all around you.

And at dusk – or any time the world is thin – you might catch those ijjigait once again, those fleeting glances out of the corner of your eye.

And you might find your own basalt and conglomerate world suddenly as peopled as any saga.

Perhaps by Nordic wanderers.

Or by fishermen who built their stone huts…

…between the volcano and the sea.

Or near at hand at Öndver∂arnes, it would’ve been Celtic monks who washed ashore in their curraich – their wicker-and-hide coracles – from across the sea. St. Brendan the Navigator had gone as far as Vineland in one of these.

At Öndver∂arnes, the Celtic monks built their stone huts as well and a cloister wall out of lava stone.

At the foot of the small mount of Helgafell is the grave of Gu∂rún Ósvifursdóttir from the Laxdaela saga. The mountain was sacred to the people of the age of the sagas, and many hoped to be buried here.

The story is that if you begin at the grave of Gu∂rún Ósvifursdóttir and walk up to the remains of the monastic chapel that was once on top of the mount, and if you don’t look back or speak a single word, you will be granted three wishes.

However, the three wishes must be pure-hearted, and you must not speak them to another soul.

You’ve already seen a view from the top of Helgafell – when the world was thin.

Or perhaps in crossing the lavafield – Beruvikurhraun…

…you’ll feel the glacier at your back -- Snæfellsjökull.

In Jules Vernes’ Journey to the Center of the Earth, Professor Lidenbrock discovers this runic manuscript in a 12c Icelandic book. When his nephew Axel deciphers it, they read that there is a passage into the center of the earth by means of the crater of Snæfellsjökull.

And so if you’re walking along that same shore yourself…

…you might happen upon a labyrinth in the tundra of a little swale.

And discover that you can enter the center of your own life, too.

And people the landscape on your own.

(In order, the two paintings we’ve included are by Icelandic artists Louisa Matthiasdóttir and Johannes Kjarval.)