I traveled to Iona, Scotland, and Lindisfarne, England, in hope of finding “thin places,” May 6-19, 2016.
The sun’s low rays strike the windows of Iona Abbey just before the evening worship begins. Two fellow pilgrims about to enter.
Three months later, I am finally ready to begin speaking about the impact of this trip. The first thing I did was organize my photos into an album in order to make a slide show.
I didn’t want to write a mere trip report. I’m finished with that kind of writing!
The words had to call me.
I couldn’t call them.
I especially have waited tor the answer to the question of how the Celtic Pilgrimage in May would relate to the fellowship I will begin in September when my study/writing topic will be Jubilación: Vocation in the Third Act of Life.
I knew it would, I just didn’t know how.
I still don’t, but I have a beginning.
The trip, the topic, the fellowship all started as little inner tugs that I literally feel — sparks –electrical charges.
I call this infusion of energy “this little light of mine,” and I consider it a gift from God.
I wait. I ask for help. Get a little jolt of electricity. Then wait some more. Then I try to remember to say thanks.
Do any of you relate to this pattern?
Today the words that came to me were from W. B. Yeats. I have always loved this poem. If you want to listen to a beautiful voice reading them, click on this link as you read below.
When You Are Old
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
When I taught this poem to English majors, we broke the New Critics rule about not assuming the speaker was the poet himself nor the poem about his life. That’s because the biography was so juicy and fit the poem exquisitely!
This was one of Yeats’ first poems, written when he was only 28 and the woman he loved, Maud Gonne, was 27. Maud Gonne rejected his ardor, refusing many proposals of marriage, but was happy to be his muse and his political ally.
The standard interpretation of the poem says that the “you” of the poem is Maud and the speaker and “Love” of the poem is Yeats. The poet is saying that when you are old you will finally realize that I alone loved your soul. And you will murmur sadly. The poem is about lost opportunity, especially Maud’s.
These lines that came back to me yesterday morning as I was meditatively observing the
When I returned to the poem, I had a new way of viewing it.
What if the speaker of the poem is the Creator and the woman in the poem is the reader? In other words, the woman in the poem is you (regardless of your gender) and the speaker is God.
Let’s go back to the poem and see what changes.
You can read more or less literally and assume the Bible, or other sacred book, is pulled down from the shelf. And the ending can be about our inability to understand a God on the mountains, hiding himself in the stars.
The reading can “work” because the words cohere into an image of loss, just not the same kind of loss of the romantic biographical interpretation.
My reading today, however, focuses on two places in the text and reads them spiritually rather than literally, finding two major themes:
1. What joy we can have in aging if we believe that God is our lover, hiding and seeking, playing, dancing, challenging, changing us throughout a lifetime.
2. Human accomplishments and even our friends and family, so precious to us, can bring us close to joy, but they fade and die, just as our former beauty dissipates. This is the glory and terror of aging. Only Love itself lasts.
The most powerful words of the poem: “one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, and loved the sorrows of your changing face” move us so much because they take us beyond the realm of human love and they redeem aging (the sorrows of your changing face) from something that makes us less worthy to something more worthy and more beautiful spiritually.
Reading the first two stanzas of the poem in this way leads to a more hopeful interpretation of the last one. All is not lost in the end. Why? The aged visage is just one more “sorrow of your changing face,” and we know that Love is still there and has not given up his claim on us as he paces on the mountains and hides himself in the heavens.
The joy under the pain is that the woman (reader) can find him by taking down a book and sitting by the fire to reflect. And he is never going to disappear. He knew her from the foundation of the earth and will know her again as she finally sees his hidden face “amid a crowd of stars.”
The poem will last forever because it is a thing of beauty.
Our lives will not last, but they can matter, they can be full of passion, right up to, and beyond, the end.
And that is why I travel.
There’s a “pilgrim soul” in me, planted by God, that loves this world and wants to embrace it before I die. There’s a restlessness in my heart that seeks to be at rest in God both in the familiar and the strange.
A final story from Iona.
A few minutes after the picture above was taken, our Celtic Pilgrimage group attended the evening service inside the Abbey. One of the hymns was one completely new to me.
Guess what happened when we sang it? Yes, I felt a shock of electric recognition: “Pay attention, pilgrim. This song, these words, are for you, now.”
I invite you to listen to this lovely children’s choir (in England this song is often sung by children).
The interesting thing to me about this song, is how relevant it is to all of life from youth to age.
One more step along the world I go,
one more step along the world I go;
from the old things to the new
keep me traveling along with you: Refrain:
And it’s from the old I travel to the new;
keep me traveling along with you.
Round the corner of the world I turn,
more and more about the world I learn;
all the new things that I see
you’ll be looking at along with me: Refrain
As I travel through the bad and good,
keep me traveling the way I should;
where I see no way to go
you’ll be telling me the way, I know: Refrain
Give me courage when the world is rough,
keep me loving though the world is tough;
leap and sing in all I do,
keep me traveling along with you: Refrain
You are older than the world can be,
you are younger than the life in me;
ever old and ever new,
keep me traveling along with you: Refrain
The “you” in this hymn, addressed so intimately and trustingly, is the Spirit, Creator, Love, God. Choose the name that speaks to your condition and experience.
“From the old things to the new” and “you are older than the world can be” and “you are younger than the life in me” — these are the phrases that sent the familiar hot chills through me. Age and travel are both metaphors for life itself. Some day both time and space will become “no more.” Until then, we press forward toward the mark.
Update: My next travel takes me to Myrtle Beach and to my beloved children and grandchildren. Soon thereafter, I travel to a visit with my Pilgrim Sisters in Illinois and then on to my new home for the semester in Collegeville, Minnesota. I plan to write regularly about the theme of Jubilación as I travel from the old into the new. I promise future posts will be much shorter!
Now about YOU. I’m eager to hear about your pilgrim soul. And by the way, I don’t think you have to make physical journeys to be a pilgrim. How do you hear the voice within as you take “one more step”?