An Undelivered Sermon for My Sister
After mocking Jesus, the soldiers stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross.
On the 7th of January, 2012, Kathy Jo Lewis embarked on a pilgrimage. Now there are those who would say that applying the rather lofty word pilgrimage to what probably appears to many people to be nothing more than a road trip would be a bit over the top; and I cannot deny that I have, on occasion, given into hyperbole. But make no mistake about it: the roaming of the 7th of January, 2012 was no simple road trip. If a pilgrimage is seen as a journey to a place of deep meaning in which the journey itself becomes both a way to and a mirror of that deep meaning then it was, indeed, a pilgrimage. There is, in my mind, no other way to see it.
It began, as so many good journeys do, at a diner. Over inky black coffee and Diet Sierra Mist brought by a waitress who smiled and addressed everyone as “Honey,” the road was mapped out. Our journey would see us meandering along the Great River Road, in and around the towns that laze by the sides of the Illinois and the Mississippi like forgotten but hopeful lovers. There's something about a river town, my Dad always says, and we could see that – we could feel that – as we meandered in and around those places of a thousand stories. In Alton we held the hand of the statue of that town's gentle giant, feeling small and safe as when we were children. Just outside Grafton we scanned the skies as majestic birds soared and glided. (Were they eagles? In the end it didn't matter if they were eagles or the buzzards they probably were. There, looking up at them imagining what they could be: that was what was important to us, as their shadowed wings seemed to grant us a benediction.) Every good pilgrimage includes some element of food, and it was in Grafton itself we stopped for what Kathy rightfully called the best fudge EVER, the excitement of it so visible on her face that Sarah just had to record it in a photograph, me and Maurizio and Kathy peering excitedly into a box, Kathy's big brown eyes even bigger as she mugged for the camera. It was also in Grafton (How can one town have so much?) where we stopped for coffee at a combination café-barber-book shop, and where I saw a copy of The Wind in the Willows on the shelves, but didn't even need to open it up because its description of a river was both in my heart and in the Mississippi below: All was a-shake and a-shiver, glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble.
Then, as the sun slowly began to sink in the west, bathing the waters in pink and gold, we boarded a ferry in Kampsville. We said goodbye to our friend the River – we'll be back; we'll always be back – and headed east. We got lost – a prerequisite of a good pilgrimage – but soon found ourselves in a place where we couldn't say exactly where we were, but at the same time was so familiar as to be a part of us: the prairies. My sister loved the prairies, and so do I. As children we were awed by the Rocky Mountains; as adults we were blessed to explore the wonders of Chicago and Rome and Budapest together; we've dipped our toes in scenic oceans and bays. But nothing ever quite touched us like the prairies, nothing ever seems quite so beautiful. I'm not sure why that is. For me, maybe it's because they, too, make me feel small and safe. But for Kathy? Well, if I had to guess, I'd say it's because the prairies are evocative of her very heart itself: expansive, beautiful, seemingly without limits.
And so across the prairies we headed to what we would discover was the real destination of our pilgrimage (because sometimes you only discover these things once you've started): the old abandoned power plant at Standard City. Our stories accompanied us on the journey: stories of youthful indiscretions and small town gossip; stories of love and betrayal: stories of joy and loss. As the prairies hummed their song of all things possible, we passed through towns which had seen better days, which we remembered as places which bred good boys and girls, outstanding citizens, hard workers, church-goers, the best that the Midwest had to offer, but were now sad, dishevelled. We passed houses which had once been someone's dream, now with peeling paint and sagging porches. In yards which were once laden with flowers rested rusty cars on blocks, weeds surrounding them like the gaudy necklace of a prom queen. We waited at train tracks, bright yellow engines pulling cars loaded with freight which would have one time been weighed down by the coal which rested underneath us like a sleeping giant. The story's the thing, my Gramps used to say, and we journeyed to the destination of our pilgrimage positively surroundedby our stories, felt the cool breath of the dead adding their take, their insight, their poetry.
It was nearly dark when we arrived at Standard City itself, and the dusk made it more difficult to find our destination. Neither Kathy nor I had been there in years and years, and the stories – though living and vibrant in our minds – did not seem to help us find our destination. The story, though, is the thing, and each bend in the road (“Is that it? Is it there?”) brought us closer somehow, as our memories and the voices of the dead made us feel the abandoned power plant before we could see it. Finally, in the darkness, we saw a lane. “It's there!” Kathy exclaimed, “I know it's there!” and we turned into the lane and snaked through trees which, in the darkness, now seemed ominous. We got out of the car in front of the lake which had provided water for the old power plant. The clouds parted, causing a streak of light to rest on the waters which were as still as death itself. Our eyes looked across the lake.
The power plant was no longer there. Where once its hulking shape and broken windows provided the countless stories we told to frighten ourselves, now there was only an empty space, grass matted down by trucks of the farm boys who drank beer and boasted where the great building once stood.
Our disappointment was palpable. We had been led there by the entrancing, shivering and shaking river, by the wonder of river towns, by the hand of a benevolent giant, by the majesty of maybe-eagles, by the sustenance of delectability, and by the stories – O, so many stories! – of who we were and who we hoped to be. And in the end we were unable to see it, we could not stand at the place of our pilgrimage's destination, could not point and say “Look, we have arrived!” with voices quivering with revelation. I looked into Kathy's eyes and saw what must have been mirrored in my own: sadness.
The drive back to Springfield was quieter than that which had preceded it. Questions about facts took over (When did they tear it down? Who oversaw its dismantling?) and facts are rarely – if ever – as compelling as a good story.
We got back to Kathy's house. The ever-present food and drink came out (Kathy was in her margarita phase) and, naturally, we began playing cards. As more bawdy tales were told, as laughter once again replaced disappointment, as the awareness of who we were to each other covered us in a wondrous ease, I had a moment of epiphany. It was nothing earth-shattering (as true epiphany often is not), and was brought about by the simplest of things (as true epiphany often is). I realised that it really didn't matter that they had torn down the old power plant, that we had not been able to see it. What had happened on the journey was so significant and powerful that we were changed, and, at the end of the day, that is the ultimate destination of any pilgrimage. In the wonder of the journey, in the blessing of the waters, in the glory of creation, in the food we shared, and in the stories – especially in the stories – we fellow pilgrims were so bonded and united in love that the most astonishing thing happened: our hearts were changed. And this changing of hearts in love would inspire us until one day – strengthened by the wonder of the journey, the blessing of the waters, the glory of creation, the food we share, and the stories we tell – we reach it, the final destination of our pilgrimage. And – goodness! – what comfort this journey can bring us, if we pay attention to it.
I am always struck by how little space is given in the Gospels to the Via Crucis, the journey Christ took from his final sentencing by Pontius Pilate to the scene of his execution. In cinematic treatments this sad walk takes a long time, and in church we who pray the Stations of the Cross can spend hours reflecting upon those laboured steps. But in the Gospels? Saint Mark describes it in just two short verses; Saint Matthew and Saint John in just one. Saint Luke devotes a little more time to it because he recounts Jesus stopping along the way to address the weeping daughters of Jerusalem, but even with the addition of this speech his version is only five verses long.
Why is this? Is the Way of the Cross so unimportant to the Gospel writers? Of course not. Just how much Our Lord suffered for us is worthy of our reflection, puts our very lives into context. But what we must remember is that the Gospels themselves are written for us, to guide us on our pilgrimage, and every step of Jesus' life, every word he uttered, and every person he loved with an incomprehensible lack of judgement: these things are left to us so that we may know how to proceed on our own pilgrimage. And death itself – which many saw as the sad, disappointing, and empty end of the journey – was a part of it, but not the end. No, the pilgrimage continued, and in the glory of the Holy Spirit the Church was born, and provided for us pilgrims a certainty that the wonder of the journey, the blessing of the waters, the glory of creation, the food we share, and the stories we tell would continue, for us and in us. And – goodness! – what comfort this journey can bring us, if we pay attention to it.
Kathy paid attention to the journey. It was not an easy journey – we all know that – and it was marked by more sadness, sickness, and struggle than any of us would have wanted. But she paid attention to it all, and that sadness and sickness and struggle were accompanied by an enormous love that I, personally, find breathtaking. Her passionate love for her family – especially Josh, Jen and Kip and most especially Kayla, Joey, Bryce, Cadynce, and Claire – was remarkable. We should pay attention to it. Her generosity of spirit to absolutely anyone who needed her was remarkable. We should pay attention to it. Her strength in facing so many trials was remarkable. We should pay attention to it. Her ability to nurture and love her friends was remarkable. We should pay attention to it. Her humour was remarkable. We should pay attention to it. Her sense of fun was remarkable. We should pay attention to it. Her loyalty was remarkable. We should pay attention to it. Her capacity for unbridled joy was remarkable. We should pay attention to it.
And so too – and I would personally say, given my profession, most importantly – we should pay attention to Kathy's faith. Presented to God into the waters of baptism, anointed by the Spirit at her confirmation, immersed in the sublime story of sinfulness and redemption, nurtured in the Eucharist: Kathy believed, and she knew that her death which was to come would not be the end of her pilgrimage. And though I am aware that not all have been given this gift of faith, and though I am most painfully and heartbreakingly aware that it does not temper the sheer savagery of the loss we are feeling, we strive to pay attention to it all because Kathy paid attention to it all.
And those of us who pray, pray. And those of us who do not, hope that in the wonder of the journey, in the blessing of the waters, in the glory of creation, in the food we share, and in the stories – especially in the stories – we fellow pilgrims can be so bonded and united in love that the most astonishing thing can happen: our hearts can be changed. And we hope that this changing of hearts in love will inspire us until one day – strengthened by the wonder of the journey, the blessing of the waters, the glory of creation, the food we share, and the stories we tell – we reach it, the final destination of our pilgrimage, where Kathy most certainly will greet us with the love, generosity, strength, nurturing, humour, sense of fun, loyalty and joy which marked her journey during her time with us. And – goodness! – what comfort this journey can bring us, if we pay attention to it.
Rest in peace, dear, dear one.