Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Unlikely Pilgrim

Spent ten days on mainland Alaska doing some driving. The only new place we visited was Valdez and with due apologies to Valdesians I was underwhelmed. The last 40 miles or so of the drive was impressive - going over Thompson Pass and then down through Keystone Canyon. But, Valdez itself - it reminded me of a big RV campground surrounding a small boat harbor. There were the huge oil tanks on the shore and not too much else. The bakery we hoped to try out was closed. The B&B we hoped to stay at was badly in need of maintenance. So our stay was cut short. To be fair, had we stayed longer Valdez may have had time to impress me. Of course, the weather was not the greatest either. On a sunny day it all might have looked different. The first half of our vacation was overcast with rain most of the time. The last few days were less so. So, there was time for some reading.

Appropriately, on our road trip, I was reading about a pilgrimage . The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the name of the book. For Harold, who had just retired, the past 20 years have been lost to grief. A son had died by suicide, a marriage had died, too, although Harold and his wife were still together. They slept in separate rooms and had very little to say to each other. She blamed him for their son's death. Now, his career was over, as well. It had been a job working as a brewery salesman. Harold, the teetotaler, did not like it. So, Harold is home contemplating a life full of regrets. He regrets the way his parents never showed him any love. He regrets the relationship he never had with his son. He feels like he missed out on chances to show him love. He regrets the lack of love in his marriage. He regrets never saying thank you and good bye to a trusted colleague. Queensie took the blame for something he did and was fired and he never saw her again. His life is one big regret.

Then one day, out of the blue, he gets a letter from Queensie informing him that she is dying of cancer in a hospice run by some nuns 500 miles to the north on the coast of Great Britain. She wrote to say, good bye and to thank him for his friendship. Harold is devastated and quite out of character writes her a note. When he goes out to mail it - he just keeps on going. Walking to Queensie. He gets this idea from a store clerk he meets when he stops for snacks that his walking to her will keep her alive. It will give her faith to live. He is not fit, has only the clothes on his back and shoes on his feet, and is, all in all, quite unprepared for this journey.

But then it is a journey of life. One we all take. He meets all sorts of people and finds out most of them are struggling on a journey, too. For the first time in a long time he feels like he is doing something that matters. He goes through times of doubt and discomfort almost giving up. When he is near that point someone is there to comfort and encourage him. He even becomes a media caricature - the pilgrim on a journey to help out a cancer patient. His cause is taken up by many others and he attracts followers - who try to change his journey into theirs and end up criticizing him.

Meanwhile his wife, Maureen, is going on her own journey of change of which Harold is oblivious. She has many regrets too. Most of them have to do with Harold. While he is gone she rethinks her life, marriage, and sees Harold in a new light. Looking over picture books she sees the reality is not the way she had pictured it. She needs to set out and find him and tell him of her changes.

When Harold's journey is over he is a spent man. He has sacrificed his health to reach Queensie. His meeting with her is anticlimactic. She is too far gone to know who he is. His wife, Maureen, shows up just in time for Queensie's memorial mass and she can sense a note of joy in the mass, a message of hope.

Before Harold's walk they had no faith in their lives. No hope. No joy. Harold found it on the journey. Maureen found out she needed it. Together as they hold hands, they laugh thinking of an old memory, and begin a new journey of faith, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Harold, the pilgrim ( a name given to him by others), came to life on the journey to do something for someone else. He learned to strip down to the essentials of living, to live off the road, and the generosity of others. As he asked people for help he discovered the blessedness of receiving from others. He had to trust those he met on the way even as he found some were not trustworthy. Some, in fact, took advantage of him; they were needier than he was. Harold circles around the idea of faith in Someone greater than he is. But, the only self proclaiming Christian in the story is a leech and betrays Harold's trust. When Harold's journey is over it does not end the way he envisioned it would. Yet, it ends better than he could have hoped for. Harold (and Maureen) have found Grace, and finally something to believe in. Together.