Just for a Moment I was Back at School


I talked about Spain at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts at St Bonaventure University Wednesday night. Normally, I do readings of my work. But last night I talked about the pilgrimage I walked with my twenty-one-year old son, and the places we saw, the chapels and mountains, the people we met. I’ve done this before in various venues, but never at my alma mater.

There was the exciting and predictable chance to be back home, and I didn’t miss the opportunity to point out how my own pilgrimage began in 1979 in Devereux Hall, just a few dozen feet from the auditorium. Some old friends showed up whom I haven’t seen since graduation, and some whom I’ve seen quite consistently since. But last night we realized just how many years have passed. We all are well along our journeys. 

There was some consistency. I saw Rula who traveled to Russia with me and other friends a few years ago. I saw the good friars at Mt. Irenaeus, including Fr Dan who has been an anchor for three dozen years. Renee and I ate at the Beef and Barrel, of course, as we did thirty five years ago before heading to Arizona. I saw Fr. Kevin, and went to dinner with Sean, a kindred spirit who understands how to listen and how to laugh. I saw Liz. Mikel. Bobby. And Rick—good friend and publisher, as well as excellent writer, who made the pilgrimage from West Virginia since he wasn’t far, comparatively speaking.

I can’t talk too much about what has changed. That students walk around with phones, so spontaneity seems rare; that there are endless fast food joints; that “sponsorship” signs are abundant; that there is a Starbucks on campus. I did notice, however, the view to “Merton’s Heart” is the same. At some point while having coffee with Sean, we noticed how empty campus was, even between classes, and I wondered if the students don’t hang out so much anymore, sitting under trees or throwing a football as was common years ago. It was, after all, an absolutely beautiful fall day. 

My journey since I was a student is nearly impossible to communicate. In fact I’ve written volumes about my life in books and articles yet haven’t scratched the surface of  what happened during the years since I lived here. When I think of my life back then, I remember innocence and hope, much like Michael’s and my innocence and hope while standing in Saint Jean at the start of the Camino. As the pilgrimage continued, new experiences contributed to the narrative, and the innocence slowly slipped away, but never the hope. The small village of Saint Jean became little more than a gorgeous village to begin from and which I look forward to seeing again, but it holds nothing on the deep satisfaction gained on the journey itself.

Yesterday I stood near the Center for the Arts about to talk to the audience surrounded by my son’s brilliant artwork, and I looked up at Devereux Hall where I lived when I was nineteen-years-old, and for a moment I glanced at a young man looking back at me. I swear I almost called out to him across the quad, across the ages, the innocence on his face so precious and frightening, to tell him I promise it is going to be okay. I immediately knew, however, he wouldn’t listen. And it’s just as well. We have to find our own way. And we will, so long as we keep hope. I still wanted to quickly warn him about the girl on the second floor of Francis Hall, but all lessons must be learned on our own. 

I walked around for a long time on roads and pathways so familiar in my youth. In that aspect nothing changed and I made my way across the bridge into the village of Allegany then back and well into Olean and was overwhelmed by the thought that  I’ve already done this; I’ve already walked this way. I wanted to find new roads but there weren’t any around here–not for me anyway; maybe for some newbie nineteen year old. I guess a few things the Camino taught me well is to keep going forward and only bring along what is necessary–like those people who made all of these journeys so worthwhile. My heart does not remain in the Enchanted Mountains; it is with people like Liz and Sean, Rula and Renee, and those who “see where you are, but they know where you’ve been.”

Harry Chapin had it right when I was doing coffeehouses thirty-five years ago, and it is still relevant today: All my life’s a circle. No straight lines make up my life–all my roads have bends. With no clear cut beginnings, but so far no dead ends.

Buen Camino.



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