The Bluegrass Pilgrimage


This is my last post before I leave on my journey, from Northern New Jersey through the Appalachians to Kentucky, to reside a few days among the holy men of Gethsemani Abbey, once home to one of my spiritual mentors, Thomas Merton. And there may not be any posts while I’m away–depending on my mood or wi-fi availability. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to tell you everything about it!  I hope to lay out the tale of my all-American pilgrimage in installments throughout the rest of the month. And don’t prepare to be bored, because I intend to do a lot of other things on the way down and the way back that might be considered distinctly unspiritual—like some of those distillery tours, even though I’m more of a white-wine sort of girl. There is likely to be some sort of outdoor adventure, though I don’t know if I’m ready for a zipline ride down an Appalachian hillside. Being a history buff, there will likely be more of that then you’d care to know about.  And there will definitely be shopping, at some point, because I do love to hit the stores now and then. That, and my weakness for gossip and chatting, puts me in league, I believe, with the great saint of Avila, Teresa, who was not only a mystic and seeker of the spirit, but kind of a good ol’ gal herself, sometimes.  She  sums up my purpose succinctly with this, from her own writing:  “Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing more than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him whom we know loves us.”

So, just takin’ a ride with my old pal, God. Teresa will be riding shotgun. Hope they both like bluegrass—my main soundtrack for this trip.

I’ve recently developed a strong fondness for bluegrass music, surprising since my roots are unrelentingly Northeastern and urban. But I love how it draws you right in with that irresistible beat and melody, honest vocals and unrestrained emotion. I can hear the history in it, its ancestral roots in Irish and Scottish folk music, in songs that might have been sung during the time of the American Revolution. And I just love to listen to the lyrics, which always tell some kind of human story. They can be artlessly simple or surprisingly sophisticated, sometimes: On Easter morning, I heard a haunting ballad about Mary Magdalene. One of the bands I will be following is the Clare Lynch Band—Clare has such a lovely, pretty voice, an utter joy to listen to. I can only hope to hear some great live bluegrass at some point in my trip.

And other than preparing my songlists and highlighting my paper maps (don’t need no stinkin’ GPS), I don’t really know how else to prepare for this journey.  I have the West Virginia address of a long-lost friend I might pop in on (see my post, Coming of Age) I have some books on spirituality and some on Merton, but I probably won’t get to them. Packing presents a challenge: It’s one thing to pack for a Caribbean cruise, or a family camping trip, but what does a woman wear for a week at a Trappist monastery? Definitely not Spanx or the push-up bra. I picked out a few of my drabber ‘teacher’ dresses, plus jeans and Ts for hiking, and that’s about it. I actually dithered over what to do for nightwear, since I don’t really have any—or anything decent enough to sleep in on hallowed ground. So, I had to go out and buy a boringly modest nightie, reminding myself there is little chance any other person out there is going to actually see me in it, except maybe other female retreatants.  I can thank decades of prudish wrong-headed Catholic-school indoctrination for all that nonsense.

So, on Saturday, I will teach three sessions of English grammar, then throw my bags into the car, and head on out west. My bluegrass version of Eat Pray Love—Appalachian style! Complete with spoonbread and an extra dose of contemplative silence. Though I’m a relentless planner by nature, I’m trying not to anticipate too much, but just drive and think and let stuff happen. And we’ll see what does…

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