Pilgrims in the ruins.
The image caught me, and years later I am still living with it. Simply said, it captured the challenge of living in a world where we stumble in the ruins, sinners that we are, sinned against that we are.
When I read Pilgrim in the Ruins, the biography of Walker Percy, I came to love him, strange as that can be for someone who is no longer alive. Having read his fiction and his essays, I “knew” him, but not like this, not the flesh-and-blood man whose days and years were drawn out in detail on the pages of the book. From his early great sorrows on through his years as one of America’s great contemporary novelists, all through his life he struggled with disappointment and depression, but kept at it, believing that “love in the ruins” is both possible and plausible. When I finished, musing over his last years and days, I cried, sorry for his death but also sorry for the loss of his companionship. Not that we were the same people or had had the same life, but that he was a pilgrim in the ruins…. because I am too.
We are pilgrims, every one of us. Sometimes flourishing, sometimes not… sometimes progressing, sometimes not. But the image is us at our best and worst, seeing through a glass darkly, choosing our way into life, stumbling along, longing for grace as we are and do.
This week has been one of thinking about all of that again. On Monday I taught the Capitol Fellows, whose reading for the week was the book, Visions of Vocation. While I have gotten over the pedagogical difficulty of assigning my work to students, coming to understand that they want to learn from me— at least at their best —I always feel a bit awkward about it, knowing that they now know me in ways that they could not have imagined. What will they do with that? What will I do with that?
As they began to see, the book grew out of a question, one born of my own wrestling with life over the years of my life. Can we know the world, and still love the world? I know of no question that is more difficult, no question that is harder to answer, no question that is more important. And for me it has never been theoretical, an ivory-tower question for an ivory-tower life. Everything about God, everything about me, everything about the world, pivots on our answer to this question. Asking about Africa matters, and asking about Washington DC does too, but asking whether my wife can know me and still love makes this very real, very personal— and there is nothing abstract about it.
So we teased that out for the hours of class, thinking about its reality and complexity as it forms how we understand the meaning of human vocation, listening to each other reflect on what we had learned as we read.
And then on Tuesday I went to the Hudson River Valley, about an hour north of New York City, where I entered into the Praxis Labs one more time. A vision whose work I greatly respect, born of visionaries whom I greatly respect, I joined them for the first of this year’s for-profit learning community, a group of 12 from all over America who will learn with and from each other over the next year. While its pedagogy is very person-centered, so master-and-apprentice in shape and direction, there are a few teaching moments that come from someone speaking to the group.
I was asked to address again the central thesis of the book, The Fabric of Faithfulness, a work that has been taken with seriousness by the Praxis leadership in their framing of a vision for sustaining vocation over time. A worldview, a mentor, a community… woven together into a fabric that gives coherence to life over the course of life. And then, as the various mentors left, returning to their homes near and far, they were given the Visions of Vocation, in hope that their own “visions of vocation” will deepen through their involvement with Praxis. In a wonderful and surprising way, my work has been written into the meaning of the work of the Praxis Labs.
All good so far— except it cannot possibly be. As intriguing as it is to see people think with me about what I have written, it is never neat-and-clean. The hard part is that we are pilgrims in the ruins, always and everywhere. So even our best hopes are frail, our deepest longings are misdirected; again, this is never abstract. For every one of us the hurts of history, and the hurts of our hearts, insist that we pay attention to the way the world is and isn’t, and that is always messy.
All day long the world is a mess, and we are too. Right in the middle of the week I was drawn into the heartache of hopes that seem to have crashed onto the shoals of this broken world, broken ones that we are. It is its own story, and not one we need to know here, but my heart was full for these dear people, faraway from where I was, but so very near to my heart. For the days of the week I went to bed with them in my throat, and I woke in the morning with their cares and concerns necessarily mine.
Why did it matter that much? Simply said, we are pilgrims together, in the ruins together, trying to find our way in and through the longings and loves that make us human, played out amidst the wounds of this world.
And the questions remain, insisting their way into my heart. Can we honestly know this world, and still love what we know? Can we form faithful lives, ones where our deepest commitments about life and the world become the way we live in the world? These have been the questions of my life for the years of my life, and their weight has brought forth the books I have written that find their way into the conversations of my life, week after week, wherever I go, whatever I do. Sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, they are questions for all of us… pilgrims in the ruins that we are.