Gardeners and Pilgrims

Reviving place in the Christian imagination.

October 4 th 2018

Everyone has heard Gertrude Stein’s famous line about the city of Oakland, California—that there is no “there” there. In fact, it has become the chief thing many people think they know about Oakland. It’s not at all clear that it is an apt characterization, since unlike so much of California, Oakland is a real city, and not an endless and amorphous suburban sprawl. But Stein’s saying has not been good for the city’s image in an age of public relations, and it was inevitable that someone would try to do something about that.

In 1988 the government of the city of Oakland struck back and installed a public sculpture by the artist Roslyn Mazzilli called—what else?—“There.” To me, it looks a bit like a pile of multicolored pick-up sticks—I am perhaps showing philistine cluelessness in the presence of great profundity here—but in any event, there it was. It was the city’s way of calming and consoling its populace. Of saying to it, “There there, now.”

In our human frailty, we need visible and tangible things to anchor our memories.

But that did not put an end to the matter. In 2005, Oakland’s better-off neighbour Berkeley created a gently witty piece of public art in response called “Herethere.” It stands in South Berkeley at the border of the two cities, with the word “Here” on the Berkeley side and the word “There” on the Oakland side. As you might expect, Oaklanders don’t much like it. There has even been a T-party rebellion, in which an intrepid army of knitters covered up the “T” on the Oakland side with a huge and elaborate tea-cozy. This is how they conduct cultural warfare in the Bay Area, where some people clearly have too much time on their hands.

Yet the irony of it all is that when Stein penned those famous words in her autobiography, they were not meant as a snappy put-down. She was thinking of something entirely different.

Oakland had been extremely important to her when she lived there as a child, as a rare stable place in an unsettled and peripatetic early life. It was a place of the heart, a place of memories, a still point in a relentlessly moving world. But when she discovered later in life that her childhood home there had been torn down, leaving her with nothing familiar to return to, Oakland lost its principle of organization for her. The blooming buzzing confusion of the city no longer had a nucleus around which she could orient it. Saying that there was no “there” there was a poignant way to express this personal disorientation—a disorientation felt by many of us in the modern world, particularly when the pace of change causes us to lose our grip on the places that matter most to us.

In our human frailty, we need visible and tangible things to anchor our memories. These things do not have to be grand or distinctive. They often are entirely ordinary, even commonplace. But when one of those anchors disappears or changes, as it did for Stein, we are left feeling alone, deserted, burdened by uprooted and disconnected memories that can no longer be linked to any visible or tangible place of reference in the world outside our heads or in the life of our community. These now-homeless memories flit about like fireflies of a summer dusk, eventually going dark and being absorbed into the night. The more general sense of place also erodes along with them, like abandoned farmland that is gradually being reclaimed by the wild, and is little by little losing all traces of the human hands that had once lovingly imparted order and gracefulness to it.

Space Is Not Place

Although “place” is the most general of words, the things to which it points are very specific. “Place” as a concept is highly abstract, but places are concrete, tangible, intimately meaningful. Each of them is different. Each of us comes from just such a particular somewhere, and considers some place (or places) our “home.”

Each of us knows, too, that “a sense of place” is as much an achievement as a given condition. Although in one sense every “place” is merely a point on some coordinate system, place is better understood as something we experience, a form of participant knowledge. It is the experience of a physical setting as possessing an unusual degree of coherence and personality, and of the qualities that affirm and nourish the play of human consciousness, and the sense of belonging and connection. Which explains why not all places are equal, and some places are more fully “places” than others. In a frenetically mobile and ever more porous and inexorably globalizing world, we stand especially powerfully in need of such stable and coherent places in our lives—to ground us and orient us, and mark off a finite arena, rich with memory, for our activity as parents and children, as friends and neighbours, and as free and productive members of our communities and polities.

And we know that the sense of place is very fragile and easily lost. Stein’s famous line about Oakland is testimony to that. So too was a haunting little column that Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote several years ago for the New York Times, about the closing of a Korean market in his neighbourhood. As he showed, the sense of place applies especially powerfully to the most commonplace and unremarkable things:

When the market closed, I found myself thinking, “Now what do I do with this?”

“This” was my mental map of the place. I know just where the seltzer is in a store that no longer exists. I can walk straight to the dried pineapple, but only in the past. Some part of me had quietly made an inventory of the necessities—the analgesics and toothbrushes and small shampoos—that had migrated to the front counter, which was a drugstore in itself. There are other places to buy all these things, and not far away. But there is still a perfectly good Korean market in my head.

We carry with us these footprints of vanished places: apartments we moved out of years ago, dry cleaners that went out of business, restaurants that stopped serving, neighborhoods where only the street names remain the same. This is the long-gone geography of New York. I look up at the buildings and try to imagine all the lives that have passed through them.

Stein’s and Klinkenborg’s accounts share two things. First is their description of what it feels like when memories lose their physical anchor and are forced to float free. Second, though, is their depiction of the translation of place into space—the transformation of a setting that has been charged with human meaning, a place, into one from which the meaning has departed, a mere space.

We all have experienced this, some of us many times. Think of the strange emotion you feel when you are moving, and you finish clearing all your belongings out of the apartment or the house or the dormitory room you have inhabited—and you look back at it one last time, to see a space that used to be the centre of your world, a space now stripped of all particular identifiers, reduced to nothing but bare walls and bare floors. You know that your memories of that time in your life will always be connected to the place that once occupied that space, the work you did there, the people you knew there, the social matrix in which your life there was embedded. But the place itself is already gone. There will always be that perfectly good apartment in your head, but it will no longer exist anyplace else.

Collapsing Time and Space

Of course, such changes and transitions, however jarring they may sometimes be, are a necessary part of a healthy and dynamic human existence. What is different about the present day is not that such things happen, but that they have become so common, so pervasive, even emblematic, reflecting a social and psychological fluidity that seems to mark our times. As we have become ever more mobile and more connected and absorbed in a panoply of things that are not immediately present to us, our actual and tangible places seem less and less important to us, more and more transient or provisional or even disposable. Sometimes it almost seems as if we are moving toward a nomadic existence as plants without definable roots, perpetually forgetful beings who draw our daily sustenance from what is far rather than what is near. We rely on the ubiquitous satellites that encircle us and the resultant computer clouds that feed and absorb our energies. We do this rather than drawing sustenance from the actual people before our eyes, and the specific ground beneath our feet, and the stories and memories that form our lives in community. We forget the things that make our places distinctive, and concentrate on the things that make them interchangeable.

In a frenetically mobile and ever more porous and inexorably globalizing world, we stand especially powerfully in need of such stable and coherent places in our lives.

It has not always been thus, of course; and we forget how recently things were almost entirely different, and we forget that they had been thus from the beginning of recorded time. We are very good at forgetting. But it was not much more than a century ago that the lives of most North Americans were confined within a narrow local radius, in what historian Robert Wiebe revealingly called “island communities.” The ability of these island communities, and the individuals who inhabited them, to communicate across large distances was limited by the vast seas of space and time—by the distances that separated them, and the immense time it took to traverse those distances. The term “real time,” to the extent it would have had any meaning at all, would have referred exclusively to strictly local time, utterly place-bound, measured by reference to the sun’s reaching its zenith at that particular location.

Far from being a puzzle or an enigma, one’s “place in the world” was a given for most men and women. With rare exceptions, the person that one became and the life that one lived were inextricably linked to the geographical location where one was born and raised. Such factors remained in place even if one moved, as restless North Americans always have, since one’s origins lingered on as a structural mould of one’s worldly existence, nearly as hard and fast as one’s biological makeup. One could only move so far, and so fast.

But a cascading array of technological and social innovations has, with astonishing speed, rendered those considerations obsolete. Rapid telecommunications and inexpensive travel have eliminated the isolation of provincial life everywhere in the world, and resulted in the unprecedented mobility of both individuals and entire populations, the blurring of national identities and porousness of boundaries, and the relentless global flow of labour, capital, and goods. All these forces erase distances and erode barriers that had formerly been considered an inescapable part of the human condition. And the term “real time” now refers, not to local time, but to its opposite—the possibility of near-universal simultaneity, so that I can have a lively conversation in “real time” with anyone on any part of the planet.

This revolution shouldn’t be a surprise to us, since it has been coming steadily ever since at least the invention of the telegraph. And make no mistake, there is much to celebrate in these developments. They give crucial support to one of the most powerful and fundamental, and universally appealing, of all Western ideas: the idea of freedom. We embrace freedom because we believe fervently in the fullest breadth of individual human possibility, and share a deep conviction that no one’s horizons in life should be dictated by the conditions of his or her birth.

But interestingly, the word “place” rarely plays any role in this freedom narrative, and in fact, what role it plays tends to be negative. One’s conditions of origin, including one’s family and one’s social class, are seen as little more than impediments, things to be overcome. “Place” may even point toward notions of social hierarchy that moderns find anathema. Some of us are old enough to remember when the expression “knowing your place” was favoured by advocates of racial segregation or the subordination of women.

But very little of that is relevant anymore. We now have a new set of problems, born of the pathologies engendered precisely by our achievements. Something is now seriously out of balance in the way we live. All the technological wizardry and individual empowerment have unsettled all facets of life, and given rise to profound feelings of disquiet and insecurity in many minds and hearts. No one can yet reckon the human costs of such radical changes, but they may turn out to be far higher than we have imagined.

Accompanying this disquiet is a gnawing sense that something important in our fundamental human nature is being lost, abandoned, or sacrificed in this headlong rush, and that this “something” remains just as vital to our full flourishing as human beings as it was in the times when we had far fewer choices on offer.

On the Road to Home

Thinking about these matters as a Christian does not make them any easier to grasp because the Christian faith has an ambivalent relationship to the world. It leads us into the world, but it also leads us out of the world. It promises to bind us more closely and lovingly to the particulars of our material existence. But it also promises to give us liberation from the confining hold of precisely those particulars. There is a tension here, and it is one central to the Christian faith. We are meant to live it rather than resolve it.

It has been said that Christianity is the most world-affirming of the world’s great religions, and there is a strong basis for the claim. Ours is an incarnational faith, which celebrates the goodness of the created order, an order in which God became man, in which the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, in which the promised vision of the end of time is not a placeless seance of disembodied spirits, but of the flesh, resurrected and perfected, and of life eternal in a city called the new Jerusalem.

And yet, think how often, and how darkly, Jesus warned us about the world, and pointedly insisted that his kingdom is not of this world. Are we not called, in part, to overcome the world, just as he did? Doesn’t Christianity in fact relentlessly and triumphantly reverse all the world’s priorities, making the last first and the first last, the rejected stone into the cornerstone, the weak into the strong, and the wise into the foolish? What could be more radical than our affirming, in our baptism, that following Christ into death is the path to life? Or than the insistence that one must be born again of the spirit, and must be willing to walk away from father and mother and sister and brother, all the dearest things, the very conditions of our natality—or as Luther’s signature hymn expresses it,

Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;

The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,

His kingdom is forever.”

We cannot resolve this antinomy in our understanding of this world. As with the central affirmation of our faith, that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man, so with the question of the status we accord to the things of this world, including the places that we make and inhabit: we must affirm that both sides of the antinomy are true. We find ourselves in the realm of mystery and paradox here: the things of this world are infinitely precious, and yet they can be deeply dangerous, deceiving, idols unworthy of our highest desires and loyalties, which are themselves deeply unreliable. We are formed by the first things of our natality, and yet find our ultimate meaning in our overcoming of them, our independence from their controlling influence—in being given a new name. The Christian solution to identity politics is therefore simple: our identity is in Christ, and all else is immaterial (if I may put it that way). But what then of that famous world-affirming side of our faith? How is one to formulate that?

Our actual and tangible places seem less and less important to us, more and more transient or provisional or even disposable.

I am not sure how one can formulate it. But let me try out a typological distinction that can at least help us to talk about the different aspects of the matter. I have put forward in my title a distinction between gardeners and pilgrims as ideal types of the Christian approach to place. Let me explain what I’m trying to accomplish with that.

The image of a garden is of course at the very foundation of the Christian account of human origins. It is the place we began, the place we were made to inhabit, but which we despoiled and abused through our disobedience, and in exile from which we are constrained to live our lives, bearing the lingering weight of that loss. And yet, just as the created world retains many of the marks of its original goodness and perfection, so we are called on to be stewards and cultivators of that goodness. Nature is not entirely lost. In Tolkien’s words,

Although now long estranged,

Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.

Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,

and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned.

We plant, tend, and nourish gardens, gather and prune them, negotiating and harmonizing the resultants of nature’s forces. We honour our Maker by making the most of the givenness of the world as we find it, and groom it, revere it, preserve it. To be gardeners, we must settle, make a place, put down roots in the same earth that sustains our flowers and plants, must resolve to be “here” and not “there” or anyplace else. We embrace the finiteness of our place and moment, and do what we can to flourish where we are planted—in the particular families, marriages, communities, and nation in which we have been placed.

But the pilgrim as a type is very different from the gardener. The pilgrim is a traveller, who sacrifices settledness in order to journey to faraway lands in search of the particular benefits conferred by a distant holy place. The Christian pilgrim’s motto is encapsulated in Hebrews 13:14 (NIV): “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” As a consequence, all earthly attachments are partial, conditional, limited, provisional, circumscribed, attenuated, subject to supersession. The pilgrim is always travelling, and he or she travels light. The needs of the soul trump all this-worldly bonds.

So, in the present moment, should we be gardeners? Or pilgrims? Hold the world tightly, or lightly? Make our place richly and firmly in the here and now, or see it all as shadow and prelude? I’m tempted to say yes to both, and leave it at that. Because we desperately need to do both, and both are required of us, however much they may seem to be in opposition. But I will venture this further thought. The disorientation that has come of the loss of the sense of place in “postmodernity”—a term that itself seems an illustration of the problem since it is not even a straightforward affirmation of anything in particular—seems to point us in a particular direction. It calls for a particular emphasis, for the time being, upon the recovery of place, as a way of reaffirming our creatureliness, our finitude, and our dependency on God, and our gratitude for what we have been given, for the preciousness of our attachments.

Back (and Forward) to the Garden

The so-called scandal of particularity, which offends so greatly against our notions of universality, is at the very centre of the Christian proclamation. Why this revelation, in this way, at this place, in this man, to these people—and not to others, and not to all times and places equally? How unfair. How discriminatory. How . . . scandalous. But as the late theologian Robert Jenson put it, in a particularly bracing formulation, “Any pattern of thought that in any way abstracts God ‘himself’ from this person [Jesus], from his death or his career or his birth or his family or his Jewishness or his maleness or his teaching or the particular intercession and rule he as risen now exercises, has, according to Nicaea, no place in the church.” This is the scandal of particularity to the nth degree.

If Jenson was right, and I think he was, the antinomy becomes not only necessary but also inescapable. But note well that Jenson’s claim is limited. He says that the abstraction from particularity has no place in the church. He is saying nothing about the world beyond the church. Which suggests that he is telling us that there is something very special about the church as a place, a holy place in which we are permitted to glimpse and taste a means by which the antinomies are reconciled.

Of course, the problem does not go away, especially if we think of the church universal as the body of Christ, rather than the marble or stone or brick temple in which we worship. But in the present day, with all its fluidity and placelessness, the problem of non-attachment is especially acute. We cannot flourish without rootedness, and we should not let the pilgrimage element in our faith become a pretext for relegating all our attachments to meaningless shadows, a world in which there is no there there, only a vague spiritual beyond.

And gardens should not be thought of as this-worldly alone. For Jesus at Gethsemane, or for Augustine in Milan, a garden was the place of maximum spiritual drama, of receiving revelation from on high. Gardens have been created to serve as sanctuaries, or sacred places. In the Middle Ages, the enclosed garden, the hortus conclusus, was one of the most powerful of all images and figures of the Virgin Mary, and of the mystical union of Christ and the church, drawn from the Song of Solomon 4:12: “A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse, a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up.” Many of the gardens thus dedicated became places of pilgrimage, destinations for spiritual seekers.

Such gardens, such horti-culture, serve the purpose not only of stewardship but also of pilgrimage; they lead into the world, and they lead out of the world. Their materiality is made to point to the immaterial, and back again, to offer us a foretaste of the perfected materiality that awaits us at the end of time. We all know about the enormous and radical gulf that St. Augustine posited between the City of Man and City of God; but Augustine also believed that the City of God can exist on earth, as manifested in the sacramental context of the church, where it can exist as a “shadow” of the heavenly city.

It is a happy coincidence, but perhaps more than that, that the best and least controversial of all American national holidays, the one called Thanksgiving, was started by the English Separatists that Americans sometimes call the Pilgrims. And yet it is a time preeminently of families and roots, an ingathering time of gratitude in which we celebrate and renew the kind of love that is grounded in our earthly natures, the very deep particularities of birth and rearing that we might otherwise be wanting to transcend.

On such occasions, we might even glimpse the way that the family is like an arrow in time, carrying us along into a trajectory far longer and greater than our own individual lives—the family itself as a kind of ongoing and multigenerational pilgrimage. But what such a holiday at its best can do for us is exactly what a sense of place does for us. It orients us, grounds us, and strengthens us, precisely in our finitude and creatureliness. It touches the mystic chords of memory. And it forms the perfect place to initiate or conclude a pilgrimage. In our beginning is our end.

 

Wilfred M. McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. He specializes in the intellectual and cultural history of the United States, and his book The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America won the Merle Curti Award of the Organization of American Historians for the best book in that field. He was educated at St. John's College (Annapolis) and the Johns Hopkins University, and has also taught at the University of Tennessee, Tulane University, Pepperdine University, the University of Rome, and Georgetown University.

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