If one were to look very carefully at the sand in this image of the pathway to our peach and apple orchards, one would see three prints left behind by the pilgrims: my shoe prints, the paw prints of Kai-the-dog, and Kai’s leash dragging behind him. We had just been for a swim in the canal.
Kai-the-dog and I have come to a deserted place. The Greek word for a “wilderness” or “deserted place” or a “lonely place” in our scriptures is eremos. It means, not technically a dry desert of sand and cactus (though it is often that) but rather it means a place without other people. Often our scriptures tell of people going out to the eremos, the desert or a deserted place such as when John the Baptist is baptizing. But there is a river there.
And then there is the feeding of the five thousand in Mark’s gospel in “a deserted place” – an eremos. But that deserted place allowed the 25,000 people to “sit on the grass.” No desert there. Rather, a place which had (until the arrival of the 5,000 men and 20,000 women and children written out of the story) been a place deserted, lonely even if moist.
We get the work hermit from the Greek word eremos. A hermit is said to live in arid wilderness, as the “desert” mothers and fathers of the third and fourth centuries. But a hermit need not live in that kind of a “wilderness.” Rather they may choose any kind of “deserted place” lacking people as a place in which to sit and think. That is until the church attacked and killed or dispersed them. Hermits make some people nervous, insecure. They hear things. They say things. They write things.
The early hermits lived in “cells” – a word which we took and used for prisons to describe the place where a person was solitary and thinking about their life.
I suppose that, for this time in my life, I am a hermit. Appalled by what I saw in my 18 years as an parish priest, I fled to the desert – this New Mexican farm in the river valley of the Rio Grande. Daily I leave here and return here, behind a bolted gate without a street sign or address. In the middle of 20 acres of alfalfa, horses, dogs, grasses, peaches and apples I am alone. Intentionally. A time to sit and think about life. The only sounds around me are the roosters from neighboring farms and the horses harrumphing, galloping and whinnying. Kai and I sit and we walk in this “deserted place” and consider the various Bishops and various clergy who were so wonderful in our lives. And the others. Many others.
To be an eremos, a hermit, is to have time to walk and think. Kai-the-dog and I walk this farm, sometimes with a book of poetry, sometimes with a bit of scripture, sometimes with three fingers of scotch. My feet. His feet. And a loose leash dragging behind as a symbol of leading but also, dragging. It is,a symbol of freedom.
My spiritual director is, luckily for me, an expert in desert or “wilderness” spirituality. Her next book is on the subject. She called me what amounts to an eremos recently. Said I am here “to be free” like Kai whose leash drags along the sand (my hands too busy with peaches and a scotch.) Hawkes and Sandhill Cranes fly above. Horses pop their heads over gates to say hello as we walk. Sinjin, my horse – a gift from a friend, pounds a hoof for attention, anxious for a ride – for a gallop.
In the NIV version of our scriptures, Mark says that “Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.”
Jesus was not just in sandy deserts, but in deserted, lonely places. A prophet, marked for death, will want to get away from the stress of attack and ridicule from time to time as well as fro the press of good people begging for help. And such remains the case today for so many clergy attacked, maligned, manipulated, betrayed by the sandwich of above and below.
I am no Savior and no prophet but I am, I think an eremos; a person in a lonely place to think. A guy with a dog. And shoes.
A dog whose leash, like my own, has nobody on the other end. So it drags in the sand.
They say that a pilgrimage is simply a walk with an intention. If that is so, then Kai and I make many pilgrimages around this farm in the hot sun infusing me with vitamins and cleansing Kai’s beautiful, oily black coat. We walk. Me in my shoes and kai-the-dog in his humongous paws. But that line – the one made by a dropped leash – that is an essential part of the trail of marks left in the sand by a pilgrim’s progress.
It is, as they say, “a line drawn in the sand.”