The Rhythms of the Road, Or, How to Enjoy the Ride and Find Your Way Home

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     Most Americans love their summer road trips, and I am one of them. I fondly remember the trips with Mom and Dad when they packed six noisy, squirming kids into the back of the old 1956 Ford Fairlane station wagon and headed out to another “Einstein” vacation (it’s all relative—with aunts, uncles, and cousins aplenty). Perhaps because I was born on old Route 66, the rhythms of the road have always been a tonic to my spirits.

            The travel bug is embedded in our species and in other species too. Birds, butterflies, and bison move around a lot, and so do humans. There’s something mysteriously powerful in the journey. For millennia, believers have found spiritual meaning in road trips. In Scripture, God’s people—Abraham, the Israelites, Jesus, and Paul—always seem to be “on the road.”

            The stunning revival of religious pilgrimages in our day attests to the enduring relevance of the journey. Who would have supposed a generation ago that more than 300,000 people would annually make the journey through Spain along the Camino de Santiago, the “way of St. James,” to the traditional burial site of St. James the Apostle? Several of my friends have made this journey—none of them Catholic. Why does the journey appeal to all types? I think there’s something innately spiritual at work.

            Whether it’s a holy pilgrimage or an ordinary, “secular” road trip, I believe there is nourishment and spiritual meaning for any traveler willing to leave behind the ordinary and the day to day in order to search for something new and fulfilling. Indeed, the journey can remind us that life itself is a pilgrimage, and you don’t have to change your latitude or longitude to make the trip: “Blessed are those . . . who have set their hearts on pilgrimage,” declares the Psalmist (84:5, NIV).  “Seek and ye shall find,” said Jesus. It’s not hard to discern spiritual themes in almost any kind of journey. Here are a few that come to mind.

            Rule 1: Unplug. You can’t drive safely when the cell phone is ringing and text messages are flashing. To remain tethered to work and daily routines, whether through our tech devices or in other ways, upends the very purpose of the trip, which is to savor the delicious gift of freedom from the manic, driven life. Anne Lamott is right: “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” Until you lock up the computer and turn off the phone, you’re not really on the road.

            Rule 2: Read the signs. A road trip does something extraordinary. It prompts travelers to notice things in a fresh way—to look up, out, and about. There are the road signs, of course, to keep you on track and to help you arrive at your destination in a safe and timely way. But there are other important “sacramental” signs awaiting your notice: the spectacular vistas of forest, field, mountain, sky, and seashore. And there are the people in your life as well—the family members you’ve neglected and the new people waiting to meet along the way. All of these can awaken you to the divine, the true, and the eternal in the things and the people about you.

            The road trip is especially good if it reminds you of what you have been overlooking at home. The cloud formations in the sky above your house are just as spectacular as those above the seashore or just beyond the castle across the sea, but you’ve missed this obvious point because at home you’ve been too busy doing “important” work. In her poem “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver intently studies a grasshopper in a field near her home, then says:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

The trick is to pay attention, to stroll, to kneel, to be idle. This kind of close attention is a kind of prayer.

         Emily Dickinson once wrote that the only commandment she never broke was Jesus’ directive to “Consider the lilies of the field.” Frederick Buechner observed: “[Dickinson] could have done a lot worse. Consider the lilies is the sine qua non of art and religion both.” Let the journey prompt you to “Consider the lilies of the field.”

            Rule 3: Slow down! This principle is corollary to Rule 2 because it’s really hard to pay attention when you’re racing down the highway. Speed kills. You know this. The breakneck velocity of our lives is, well, breaking our necks and a whole lot more. It’s fraying precious relationships and crushing our souls. Driving in the slow lane on the state highway is a deliciously subversive act. Try it. It’s even more radical to travel slowly on the highway of life. I dare you.

            Rule 4: Love the desert. We have been taught to fear and dread the dry and wasted places in our lives, the places that feel silent, isolated, or empty. Yet the desert is often exactly where God finds and renews us. “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it,” writes Simone Weil. Reconsider the desert spaces in your life. Might your time in the wilderness serve as spring cleaning so that there’s room again for Him to enter in to the closet of your heart? Taste and see that God is in the empty spaces too.

            Rule 5: Recalculate often. Wrong turns can be scary, but sometimes they can be delightful. You may discover a lovely part of the country when you take the road not intended. When the wrong turn proves to be a dead end, all is not lost. Just recalculate. Scripture and history are replete with stories of people (Moses, Jonah, Peter, and Saul of Tarsus, to name a few) who take wrong turns, but who end up at the right destinatioin because they recalculate. Wise pilgrims are not afraid to execute a u-turn (it’s known as repentance). A journey involving many recalculations is the path to wholeness, even sainthood.

            Rule 6: Don’t fear the fog. Seasoned travelers know what it’s like to drive with poor visibility. Sometimes they have to trust their innate sense of direction, their instinct or their gut, and they are not afraid to rely on their companions for guidance. Even then, as Thomas Merton wisely understood, sometimes you still can’t know for sure you’re on the right path. He prayed:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Merton seems to be saying, “We drive by faith, not by sight.” Paragraph

          Rule 7: Trust grace as you go. Faithfulness does not mean knowing the right path with certainty and executing it with perfection. Rather, faithfulness means unplugging from distractions, slowing down, paying attention, recalculating often, moving forward even in the dark, and trusting. True pilgrims trust in Grace, the ultimate GPS (God’s Positioning System):

Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares,

I have already come;

‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,

And grace will lead me home.

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