Choosing Which Way to Turn

September 5, 2019
Stephanie Paulsell
HDS Professor and Interim Pusey Minister Stephanie Pausell. Photo: Jeffrey Blackwell, Memorial Church

Stephanie Paulsell, Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies and Interim Pusey Minister at Memorial Church, delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on September 5, 2019.


Happy are those whose strength is in you,
In whose heart are the highways to Zion.

(Psalm 84:5)

A few years ago, my sister and I decided to make a pilgrimage from the ruined abbey of Melrose in the Scottish borderlands to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England. It would take us through hills and fields, over Roman roads, and also across an ancient pilgrim path, crossable only at low tide, over the sands that separate the Holy Island from the rest of England. We wanted to put our feet in the same salty mud in which earlier pilgrims had walked.

Our pilgrim route was dedicated to St. Cuthbert, a seventh-century holy man, known for his pastoral care, his love of solitude, and his deep affinity with the world around him. After standing all night to pray, waist-deep in the North Sea, one story goes, the otters followed him out of the water and breathed their warm breath on his cold feet.

Cuthbert loved his island monastery, but he also loved to wander beyond it, crossing the sands when the tide was out, going from village to village, preaching and offering pastoral care. Even when he was at home on Lindisfarne, he would sometimes make his pastoral care part of his worship, praying and singing psalms as he walked around the island, pausing to ask people how they were getting along. Even after he died, and the Vikings destroyed his abbey, his broken-hearted monks carried his body around Britain for nearly a decade.  Cuthbert was a saint on the move, in life and in death.

And so at the end of May in 2017, my sister and I met at Melrose Abbey to follow him. Our pilgrimage took us up and over the hills where Cuthbert watched over sheep as a boy and into woods so still and quiet that it was easy to imagine him falling in love with silence there. Some days the only living creatures with whom we shared the path were sheep and cows. Other days, we experienced the sweetness of what anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner called “communitas”—the intimacy that can arise among strangers on the road, when we are all freed from the social hierarchies that structure our lives at home. But mostly, it was just my sister and me, walking side by side or single-file, talking or silent, spending more time together than we had since we were children growing up in the same house. Our pilgrimage was not only a journey into Cuthbert’s life, but into our own:  a journey into childhood, as old memories awakened, and a journey into each other’s present lives as, gradually, the things dearest to us worked their way up into our conversation.

My sister has spent her life working with and for refugees, particularly the children who make it to our southern border unaccompanied, and she brought their concerns along with her. Imagine, she would say as we struggled up a hill, if we had to walk 20 miles today instead of 10. Imagine if there weren’t a bed waiting for us at the end of the day. Imagine if there were predators along our route. Imagine if we didn’t know how our journey would end. Her pilgrimage was a prayer, every step, and I tried to follow in the path she made.

St. Cuthbert’s Way is very well marked, but my sister and I did occasionally get lost. We’d get to talking and miss a sign and have to stop and figure out where we were. Sometimes we got lost, and flashes of our childhood selves would appear:  the little sister who wanted the big one to slow down until we could figure out where we were; the older one who was convinced she knew what she was doing, even when she didn’t. We had a map of the trail and a book that described the route, and we often needed both of them to reorient ourselves, as well as consultation with other pilgrims on the road and, once, an assist from St. Cuthbert himself. My sister would unfold the map and try to locate where we might be. I would read from the descriptions in the book, and we’d compare them until something clicked—until we realized we had walked through the wrong gate or skirted around a stand of trees that we should have entered.

This is how we’re going to have to navigate from now on, my sister said to me one day, as one of us spread out the map and the other one read out loud from the book in an attempt to figure out where we were. I thought she meant that she was tired of me trying to feel my way along when we got lost. She was tired of that, but that’s not what she meant. She meant that this is how we’re going to have to navigate the life of our country, our life as citizens. We’re going to have to stop and consult each other frequently along the way, she said. We’re going to need our maps and our books—our scriptures and histories, our hymns and prayers, the wisdom of our communities, a vision of where we should be heading, and a plan of how to get there. We can’t just hope for the best, she said. Our choices about which way to turn are really going to matter.

On the seventh day of our pilgrimage, we reached the sea and saw the Holy Island across the water, with dunes at one end and the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory at the other. Tall poles marked out the ancient pilgrim’s path through the ocean and two refuges on stilts waited for any pilgrims who might get stuck out there at high tide.  As we waited for the tide to withdraw, a fog rolled in, obscuring the poles and the island, covering the sands with a thick mist. But we’d seen where we were going, and it filled our minds. We looked behind us hopefully. We could see some figures coming along in the distance, and we hoped they’d want to walk out onto the sands with us. We took off our shoes, and we waited.