The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends (St. Louis, MO: En Route Books and Media, 2018) by Francis Etheredge
Reviewed by Christine Sunderland
The Family on Pilgrimage is a many-layered collection of poetry and prose with its own family of contributors, enriching the reader’s pilgrimage through these pages. Indeed, this book is a pilgrimage into pilgrimages, and while it is said that in a pilgrimage one prays with one’s feet, I prayed with my mind, heart, and soul, as images followed one after the other, signposts along the way.
In this sense we travel with the author to many places – Francis Etheredge’s own suffering past, his redemptive present, and by inference his glorious future:
“Indeed, that the whole of humanity is on a vast passage through the vortex of time to eternity; and, if it is possible, I hope that passing from this life involves passing through the utter reaches of the universe to marvel, once more, at the magnificent splendour of creation before, finally, meeting the Creator.” (17)
Francis Etheredge welcomes us into his family, to pray alongside, our feet stepping in time. Thus, the book is a family of pilgrimages, each with its own tenor and tone. This is not to say that there are no real accounts of the Etheredge family on pilgrimage – to Milan, Cracow, Loreto – as well as accounts from his children – Grace, Teresa, and Peter. In these journeys, we experience the challenges of this family of ten, as they trust God for their needs.
Indeed, we trust God to meet our needs along the way too. We ask Him to meet us where we are, and this prayer focuses us on Him. And so, as “God Leads Through Dead Ends,” He transforms the apparent dead ends into living ends that glorify our Creator and fill us with joy. As we seek God, searching for answers and healing, we see that each day is a pilgrimage from dawn to dusk, listening for His voice in His Word. We see more clearly friends and relations and hear their voices. We are drawn into creation, into life, to breathe in and out the Holy Spirit in our own time.
And yet as Christians our starting point goes back to the Old Testament and, “taking a new beginning in Jesus Christ, continues into the present.” (9) We seek big answers to large questions: the who, what, and why of life. What are my talents? What is my vocation, my purpose? What is the meaning of life, my life? We “journey into the mystery of God and His Word” (18), “into the Lord’s presence,” “breaking and sharing the Word and the Word of the Eucharist.” (19)
I have often reflected that in the parish church, we journey from Baptism at the entry font to Confirmation and Eucharist at the altar. At the end of our journey in time, we cross into Eternity, our coffin carried from outside to inside, up the aisle to the Real Presence of Christ in the tabernacle. In this pilgrim requiem, the earthly pilgrimage ends and the heavenly one begins.
Such a pilgrimage reflects the love of God, for “we are part of a great exodus: a passing of people from slavery to freedom: from being estranged from others to being fit for friendship: from an unwillingness to live forgiveness to love’s possibility of the gift of eternal life.” (25)
Thus God recreates us, using the experiences in our pilgrimage on earth in time. Francis Etheredge describes how he searched for his vocation, his marriage and family, but he is not “lamenting what did not happen but, rather… reflecting on what does happen: what the Lord in His wisdom is even now permitting to be possible.” (26) Without these decades of searching he would have been a different person and writer.
The Family on Pilgrimage sanctifies the ordinary with the extra-ordinary, our lives with sanctity. We see this in marriage:
“The reality of conversion is not magic… and moves in a mysterious way amidst the warp and weave of actual lives… there is no doubt that the constant help of word, liturgy and community throw light on the ‘everyday’ nature of the Christian Faith and its being lived; and… exposes the truth that Christ is present in marriage in a way that can only be described as constantly turning water into wine.” (cf. Jn 2:5-1) (163)
In this sense our Christian path becomes an ongoing miracle of turning the water of our lives into the wine of sanctity. We are blind but now we see, for Christ tells us, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:5) What do we see? The truth of our sin, of our need to change course with His help: “God finds us where we are and takes where we cannot go.”
We are embodied words of God, a part of the history of salvation, from the Creation to the end of time. This is the great mystery of being human, a human being, the mystery of being open to life and thus to marriage and children. We are a part of this history, its past, present, and future, the family of God.
And yet radical reformation is sometimes needed. Like the Prodigal Son, extreme measures wake the sinner to his sin and recreate him, giving him hope in this Creator God who recreates from nothing. For God is ever-patient, ever-returning, and just when we are “beneath the waves and time… suddenly His help is understood…” (63) and we learn we are “sinner[s] in need of a saviour.” (86)
Etheredge speaks of pilgrimages as a time when God commands our full attention, for we are away from the day-to-day distractions of life. I have found this to be true, not only in trips that remove me from my daily life but on a Sunday morning, going to Mass with a pilgrim’s heart, waiting to hear the Word from Him, through the Scripture, through the sermon, through the singing and chants, to hear with my heart what He desires of me, and with this, a further glimpse of who I am meant to be. Just so, a pilgrim may set an hour apart in the evening to pray and listen to God’s voice. It is in the setting apart, the use of our time and attention, that we become pilgrims.
And so in our pilgrimage through life God uses our challenges to complete and recreate each one of us, to become our true selves. It is as if our sufferings are ingredients recreated in glory. We are pilgrims, being drawn through time to eternity, recreated with each step. Every beginning and ending can become bookends for a pilgrim’s prayer, an ongoing invitation to God to be present, to enlighten, to partake in our lives.
Such enlightenment is part of the “vocation of the writer” to speak to today’s culture. As Christ multiplied loaves to feed thousands, He gives writers words to feed thousands, words multiplying when shared. May Etheredge’s words multiply and enlighten our dark, for today our greatest sin is that we are “radically incapable of recognizing the quality of all human beings in the gift of human personhood…”, the right of unborn persons to live.
Pilgrim writers embody words. Just as every life is a growing creation from the moment of conception, with many parts forming the whole, Etheredge cautions that to see ourselves as the potter and not the clay may be a tempting illusion: “What looks to us as a mess and a – wandering all over the place may, in reality, be the indications that our life is being shaped rather more than we are the shaper.” (234) Writers embark on their own pilgrimage, looking to reflect the Maker in their creations, sculpting yet being sculpted.
Yet, Francis Etheredge adds, God gives everyone this creativity through the work they are called to do, and thus writers must ground the truths of God in reality, in the activities of men and women on earth. In this way the family expands into the family of God, the human family in the present day as we step through our lives from conception to death on this earth, and each of us provide the “constant opportunity for God to act in whatever way will bring the good we need.” (243)
And what about the words we choose to use, in writing, in speech? What kind of language will lead us to the true Word? Francis Etheredge closes with this prescient poem:
Bruised or Well-used Words? When the heart spikes and the tongue spits words through the bashing impact of pain, bruised words which disfigure the still discolouring wound, – bearing the blunt hurt they bludgeon understanding and aggravate grief. Left for a while, these prayed, aggravated insights evict the venom within, becoming middling words, like an arrow pulled from the wound, too fresh to be anything but singularly painful; and yet, the point pulled, they start drawing the unforgiving infection: the rebellion; the protest; and the vengeful bite. Fiction or fact, there is “within and between” the truth told in different ways, an exploration, now in human history, now in an account that goes to places where the heart, perhaps too painfully pierced, is visited more easily by a stranger to the original experience. But well used words, softly saying what hurts but helps, alight like butterflies, almost too gently to be noticed, trailing evidence of passing into thought the word which opens the heart to the Word within the word, which knows the words we need to hear the truth that heals. (245-6)
Christine Sunderland is author of seven award-winning literary novels about faith, family, and freedom. Her most recent novel is Angel Mountain (Wipf and Stock, 2020) about a Christian hermit living in sandstone caves east of San Francisco.