There is something about being in a place that our spiritual, historical or literary ancestors have once tread. Ones that walked, worked, wrote or traveled through a place or landscape. The practice of retracing their steps is an ancient human practice, we call pilgrimage. I didn’t go on foot, but between a lovely wedding in Chicago among family and an amazing Religion and Ecology conference in New Haven among friends, I was lucky enough through the grace of some old friends to visit several of these places over the last week. While in Madison, Wisconsin we travelled by car just north of Baraboo to a small shack on the western shore of the Wisconsin River. It was here that Aldo Leopold, Yale Alumnus and ecology saint wrote his famous A Sand County Almanac. The locale is no pristine wilderness, a sandy soiled pine forest that gives way to riparian grasses and shrubs at the river’s edge. But walking the numbered stations of the Leopold Foundation’s pamphlet, like an ecological stations of the cross, those typical trees took on the spirit of the Leopold family, who planted the trees in an act of ecological restoration. The shack as temple in a sacred grove. A temple, not of worship or divinity, but a tangible shrine to one of the early voices to suggest that humanity was not conqueror of Nature, but citizen. As we stood on the sandy river shore in silence, water lapping against the sandy ground, a flock of 15 sand hill cranes passed overhead on their way to their nightly roost. The water was deep blue and the air was chilly when the sun passed behind clouds. There was nothing otherworldly about the experience, but it certainly enriched my love for Leopold and his contribution to the ecology movement.
On foot, I seek an inconspicuous corner of 1st Street in East Village, Manhattan. The St. Joseph Catholic Worker House of Hospitality has been in continuous operation since Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day founded them in 1936. When I arrived, a small crew of volunteers that included two Mormon missionaries, were serving a simple soup, and a smiling woman made the rounds topping off coffee mugs. The guests sat mostly in silence, some in quiet conversation. I struck up a short conversation with a volunteer and he immediately offered to let me serve some coffee. We chatted about the project, the place, and Dorothy Day, the movement’s founder, who is currently being reviewed by the Vatican for Canonization. The Catholic Worker Movement is a lot like other homeless shelters, but more than that it was an early socialist attempt to live the Gospel by fulfilling Jesus’s command to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick. They espouse a simple philosophy of Christian pacifism, agrarianism and personalism. They serve daily meals and give free clothing away and house several dozen people on a temporary basis. A drop in the bucket in a city of 8 million, but just looking around I could feel of Dorothy’s spirit, silently fulfilling the most basic of Christian practices.
A young parish priest opened the Rectory door of Corpus Christi Church in Morningside Heights and asked “How can I help you?” I told him I was a reader of Thomas Merton, and asked if I could see the chapel. Without hesitation, he slipped into tour guide mode, opened the door and showed me to the room where Merton first met with Father George Barry Ford. A small hand painted portrait of Merton hung on the north wall. The Priest showed me into the church and guided me toward the back of the chapel to a small baptistery where Merton was baptized. The church was beautiful, built in 1936 in a Baroque Revival style. A little too ornate for my taste, and nothing like the Cathedrals I had visited throughout the day in Manhattan. But the place help a special presence as the place where Thomas Merton worked out his conversation and eventual decision to join the Trappists in Gethsemani Abbey, Kentucky. Merton went on to become one of the most influential Catholics of the 20th century, and his writing is widely read.
I am no expert on these writers, but they have all, Leopold, Day and Merton influenced by thinking, the way I live my life and the subject of my research. Being in the places where these wonderful human beings worked out their own questions, ideas and lives gave me a kind of strength and assurance that I was at least moving in the right direction.