(This is the 6th installment in my story of my walking pilgrimage across the country from Feb. 11, 2011 to Aug. 21, 2012. I traversed 3,200 miles on foot)
There was still plenty of daylight left once I got settled, so I clambered back up, sans backpack, and explored the grounds, meandering towards the Church to find what time Mass would be the next day. At the far east of the grounds is the Ave Maria Grotto. That amazing park is adorned with acres of painstakingly recreated miniatures of Biblical and Christian sites throughout the world. They were all done by a Benedictine Monk, Br. Joseph Zoettl, nearly a century ago. He used old marble for the buildings and simple colored glass, costume jewelry and all sorts of discards to adorn them. It sounds kitschy, but is actually breathtaking and amazing. I had taken my children there frequently when I would visit family in Alabama and we all loved and marveled at it. But I did not go there this time. It was late in the day and there was an entry fee for that marvel, so I just wandered the rest of the grounds, which I had not toured before.
In the church I found a postulant, busily cleaning for Mass the next day. I interrupted him to ask what time Mass would be the next morning. We started chatting and I learned he would be ready to fully join the Benedictine within a year. As he learned what I was doing, he asked me to offer prayers on behalf of his vocation as I walked. One of the great benefits of my pilgrimage was that I was absolutely rich in the abundance of prayers I was able to offer for people: I literally spent my whole days walking and praying. Besides my Rosaries, I offered every footstep (which was a more powerful prayer than you might think, particularly when walking uphill with that 75-lb. lump of a pack on my back). I was also generous – a veritable philanthropist – in distributing these riches among friends, family, people I had long ago lost touch with and the people I met on my way. I, of course, eagerly agreed. I asked the postulant if he would check to see if the Prior of the Abbey was available. I would love to speak with him for a moment and receive his blessing to help me on my way. The postulant went to check while I waited. Soon he returned and escorted me back through a series of halls to a small, but comfortable office, adorned with shelves of classic books of the Church Fathers; Ignatius, Augustine, Justin Martyr, Athanasius, Aquinas and many more. He told me to wait and the Prior would be in shortly.
When left alone near a shelf of books, I am as leisurely meticulous as a cat inspecting a new room before being able to settle into a chair. After I had been at it for 10 or 15 minutes, the Prior came in, a large man in his early 70s who had some difficulty walking. He invited me to come into his study and sit down. After we sat, he eyed me awkwardly for a few moments and said, “We do get a few pilgrims come through here. Most are in their late teens or early 20s. You look…ahhh…a few years older than that,” he ventured delicately. I laughed and told him I was 55 – and had some neurological challenges to boot. He asked me if I really thought it was wise to launch such an ambitious, uncertain and physically demanding project at my age and under those circumstances. I chuckled and told him my confirmation name is Abraham – and that my namesake was a full 20 years older than me when he set out on an even more hazardous, uncertain and physically demanding journey, so I would take my chances.
My ready laugh and frank concession of the legitimacy of his concerns relaxed the Prior. He developed a bit of a mischievous twinkle in his eye as we continued to chat. He remarked teasingly that even the strapping young folks who came through rarely lasted more than a few weeks or a month before giving up a genuine walking pilgrimage. I told him I was not studly at all, but remarkably stubborn…that my age and average physicality was actually an advantage. I neither had nor was interested in proving any physical prowess, so I was happy to rest whenever I tired, even if it was after just a few minutes and walk when I could. But I would keep doing what little I could until I had finished my way. He remarked cannily that I was certainly the oldest pilgrim he had ever encountered, but with that attitude, also might be one of the very rare ones who made more of it than just an extended holiday. We chatted for a while on some of the Church Fathers, the state of the world, and Cullman – that island of Catholicism in the 97% Protestant Bible Belt. At the end, he prayed for me, blessed me, and laid his hands on my head, asking that I might, indeed, become a sign of hope for everyone I met on my way. As I started to leave, he expressed his hope that I was well hidden wherever I had made camp, for the security that patrolled the grounds was quite good. I slyly told him I was sure we would see each other at Mass the next day and I would be well-refreshed, for I was quite good in finding innocuous concealment. He laughed and we both went our way.
It was still light when I got back down in the canyon. I had found a cleverly positioned set of bushes that completely concealed me. I used the remaining light to read from one of the books I had brought in my pack, then settled down for the night. It was another chilly night, but not near as cold as the night before. I slept well and comfortably. Throughout the rest of my journey, whenever I could reasonably make camp near a running creek, I did. The sound of the water was a soothing narcotic throughout the night.
The next morning, I gasped as I washed my face from the creek. I have never been fond of cold showers. It was mid-February. The gentle babbling of the creek belied the icy cold of the water. I wanted to be somewhat presentable for Mass. Since I had no warm water I was briskly presentable. After I had broken camp and packed up, there was still over an hour before Mass, so I walked up to see some of the sights.
Now more people were around. I saw a group of people, perhaps in their 30s or 40s, contemplating a statue and plaque. Curiously I asked where they were from. They were from all over, there for some sort of retreat, apparently. Most of them ignored me, some looked at my pack with a certain distaste. Trying to underline my harmlessness, I asked what the object of their retreat was. A 30-something woman told me with patronizing condescension, “It involves some difficult theological concepts. You have to be very advanced to understand.” A flame of scorching anger leapt up my throat, intent on melting the woman’s frosty, dismissive smile. Fortunately, I caught it before it got to my mouth. I briefly considered quietly asking a few questions (Note: if you should ever have me quietly quizzing you, I am either innocently curious – in which you are okay – or coldly furious and have already begun to carve up your intellectual pretensions like a barrio turkey.) I caught myself again. On this pilgrimage I wanted to see people as they are and to simply try to be a sign of hope. I was not worried about trying to hide from people who were kind to me and started a nice chat that I am a rather clever fellow – but the need this tacit, little insult sparked in me to display it seemed to me a vanity I needed to prune from my character rather than indulge. So I gathered myself, gently asked the woman to say a few prayers for me, and moved on.
At the Church, I had to figure out what to do with my pack. It was not just an oversized hikers pack; strapped to the back of it on the outside were my sleeping back and several small utility bags. It looked more like the equipment rack for an old one-man-band than a backpack. I could not reasonably set it in a pew beside me. I was always nervous about it for it, literally, was all I had in the world. I did not care to leave it unattended. But I figured in Church I would just have to set it aside in the back, as out of the way as I could and trust it would be there when I was done. I was not worried about some adult taking it so much as I was curious kids taking some little item off it. It was fine. But no matter how inobtrusive you try to be, people notice the ragged guy who comes in with the heavily laden pack on his back and sets it down by a wall before sitting down.
After Mass, I had several people come up to me to ask if I needed anything. I thanked them and briefly told them I was on pilgrimage. One diminutive Filipino man chatted enthusiastically, told me he had some snack packages in his old Ford Aerostar I could have and said he would love to take me a few miles on my way. He was charming in his enthusiasm. He had lived in Cullman for almost 30 years. He handmade little twine Rosaries, one of which he gave me. He drove me about 10 miles south on Rte. 69 out of Cullman and dropped me near a McDonald’s. He gave me a bunch of little snack cakes and bags of assorted chips – and then the centerpiece of his generosity: a hand-fashioned walking stick. Now along my way, I had to have at least 10 people give me walking sticks. I am always grateful for the spontaneous generosity of people reaching out to each other in kindness and solidarity. But I just can’t use walking sticks. I have loved hiking since I was a child, but I don’t quite get walking sticks. To me, they are just an unwieldy extra burden that makes it harder to keep your balance in difficult terrain. I know some serious hikers that won’t leave home without them, so I know they must be powerfully useful if you are made the right way, but they are not for me. I thanked him profusely as we chatted by the side of the road. When he left, I crossed the road and went into the McDonalds. I ordered some small thing, pulled my laptop out of my backpack and did a little online reading. When I left, I quietly left the walking stick sitting on a ledge inside, hoping that no kind soul would come rushing out to return it to me. No one did.