On the road

Anti-blogging may well be light through the summer, as I am trying to reorganize myself in the shade of my most recent petty disasters, and will sometimes be straying to locations where this laptop does not shine. And sometimes, having gone nowhere, I just leave it there unconsulted, for there are other things to do.

Among the innumerable paradoxes of contemporary life, is that technology has anchored us, tied us down, done just the opposite of set us free. We are tethered to these “devices,” which themselves become a place. That is hardly a novel observation, yet I don’t think the full implications are conjured with, thanks in part to the epidemic of “skipjack” literal-mindedness that is another feature of Internet addiction; and let me add, the associated Comment Revolution — “interactivity” and the horrible unchastity it abets. Freedom in this world has been redefined, not as independence but as mobility. Because we now have extremely portable devices, we are trapped, but not at home, or in the factory or office, the way we used to be. Instead we are secured to the devices, so perfectly that a moment of freedom from them fills us with morbid anxiety and dread.

In a friend’s unpublished novel, that I have been reading, there is the image of aeroplanes passing overhead. The narrator imagines them with the aircraft stripped away: pictures pilots and passengers sitting in the sky, moving at great speed through nowhere to nowhere, in the illusion of some purpose. They are ridiculous.

“Pilgrimage” will be my word for today. It is something quite different from mobility, although the literal-minded might associate it with wandering. Well yes, it is associated with wandering: to a shrine, as making a pilgrimage. It is a consciously religious act, as we might make a Confession. It is not synonymous with travelling, however, just as attending the Mass does not reduce to “making a trip across town.” That is in turn a small pilgrimage, of the kind almost anyone could make, almost any day, on foot, or by car, bus, or trolley.

I have the sweetest memories of being young, of being “on the road,” usually over the ground, and often to an undetermined destination; of being a spectator, a witness, in my passing; and in myself, at the crossroads of many divergent paths. Of being, truly, alone on the road, or thrown in with total strangers, not of my own language, culture, or background. The sweetest memories even of the danger of being on the road, far from help or rescue in some remote place. It was exhilarating — to live in that animal alertness, and the sparrow joy in that alertness.

But what I did was not a pilgrimage, though it felt often as if it might be so, and in mornings setting out I often thought of e.g. Chaucer’s pilgrims, the more because I was writing a long rambling novel or sequence of interrelated stories, provisionally entitled Travellers, and meant as a XXth century Canterbury Tales. (The manuscript in my satchel became excessively heavy, and was ultimately consigned to the Mekong River, a little below Vientiane.) I was writing the parody of a pilgrimage — of e.g. foolish young dope-smoking hippies on the road to Kathmandu. But in reflection, the pilgrimage for me was God, Whom I did not then recognize, wishing to show me a few things; and requiring nothing from me, at that time, except my full attention.

Real, material dangers are part of the attraction through the great ages of pilgrimage: my beloved “Middle Ages.” One imagines the need sometimes to travel in convoy against highwaymen, for instance; to be well-armed and prepared for some despicable Robin Hood. One imagines much greater exposure to perils of weather, disease, even wild animals; nights in real darkness, shivering under the stars; the practical possibility of starvation. Ah, the lost joys. Yet also the moments of sanctuary, of a kind that cannot be appreciated today: the first sighting of a town and its towers from a distant hill; first hearing the tinkle of its distant steeple bells, carried on the breeze; the high walls and proud towers, and within them, safety. Life was more vivid then, and the more vivid it becomes, the more clearly God may be discerned in the pattern: a Lord who cannot be casually avoided, ignored then forgotten, as He is in our city life today; who must be personally welcomed, or rejected. And by rejection, I mean rejection: not casual cussing, and our modern pissing in the wind, but real blasphemy. Men were once capable of that.

Tethered: for wherever we travel today we may call home and stay in touch with everything; and all of our wanderings are circular. No one steps aboard a ship, thinking he will never see his homeland again, for he is sailing too far away. How wretchedly pointless is a holiday in the sun, airport to airport and then back again. How do people live, that they could feel the need of such (aptly termed) “vacations” — which prove, in almost every case, to be a vacating of the pilgrimage itself? Or going, as they boast, to an “unspoilt” place, some little earthly paradise they have located, to get away from it all. But if so, only going there to spoil it.


To be a pilgrim, it is not necessary to go anywhere at all.

We are on our pilgrimage through space and time; and even in stillness, we are moving through time. Let me dwell upon this very simple notion, perhaps too simple to be readily understood. The otherworldly moments, in which it seems we have stood out of time, are themselves locatable along time’s arrow. I don’t think people take this universe seriously enough. We disconnect ourselves abstractly, when we imagine ourselves the authors of some “progress” that is, in the reality, completely beyond our control. Our participation is itself fully real. We are entirely here, and not elsewhere; we have been put here, and not by ourselves. We are subjects, tightly bound within “laws” that are unalterable and unfailing, and we are answerable finally not to ourselves. We were summoned to this pilgrimage, to “the freedom of the open road.” But if I may shift from sublime to ridiculous: we did not build that road. Nor was it built by human hands. Nor is our travel optional; nor the conditions of travel; nor the duties to our God and to our neighbour that are the rules of this road. My friend Joe Hanna describes the lives of great masses of people today, as “one seamless sin of omission.” Think on that.

Think on this universe, which mimics infinity, but had a beginning and will have an end. (For centuries upon centuries Christians tried to explain to scientists those outrageous words, “In the beginning,” and were repeatedly laughed out of their court. It is less than a century since the scientists “progressed” so far that they began to realize, to their consternation, that the Christians were right. Yes, the universe had a beginning, a very literal beginning, a beginning of time, and the end follows from the beginning. The materialists may dispense with their smugness now.)

The Christian must be aware that he is moving towards a destination; and that the destination is not in this world. He must maintain a certain detachment from the things of this world; a chaste detachment; for where he is going cannot be here. Spectator and witness, perhaps actor in his turn, in some role for which he is or isn’t suited; bearing responsibilities to others in every single case. His suffering may be of more value than any achievement to which he may claim. He cannot vest his hopes in earthly things, knowing they will vanish. His finest possessions are not of this world, but from another: the phenomena of reciprocated love; of truth, goodness, and beauty apprehended, preciously kept in the purse of memory; of “news from a foreign country” received. This is all he will hold at the end of his journey, when his road through space and time lies behind him, and everything he once carried on his back has been used up, thrown or taken away, and even the old bag of his flesh is discarded.

To be sure, we all know this, but it is also true that we don’t know what we know.