Photographer, poet, pilgrim

setting off as a pilgrim on the Via Pulchritudinis

A wanderer, a poet, a pilgrim, a photographer. Photographer is the newest of the set, coming about more as a practical expression of a soul whose movements were shaped by the former three long before I ever picked up a camera. That isn’t to say I’m less of a photographer though; nor is it to say I’m much of a poet. At least, neither is true in the practical sense. I’d simply call photography something of a vocational tool, while poetry, though I do write, is more of an interior disposition than the crux of my work. In any case, photographer, poet, and pilgrim is an apt description. I’m really only wandering because, like most of us, I can’t ever really see more than a few steps ahead. Maybe that isn’t wandering.

It might be best to start with my most recent, and therefore most prominent stage of life; grad school and my work built on that time. I have been tremendously blessed to do what I do. Photography had been a dream for a long time; a delayed one at that, and I am endlessly grateful to God and my family for the privilege to fully pursue that dream in graduate school, and most especially for the work I was able to produce for my thesis project: The Way, the Truth, and the Life. That year spent shooting, crafting, and agonizing over the project was one I will never forget, and it came with some truly great friendships and moments of insight along the way. Photography, like all art, only fulfills its purpose when it helps us to see and comprehend the truth, and I certainly came to understand the world and our present moment far better through it. Of course it took great effort on my part to accomplish, but, more importantly, by the grace of God, and the help of my professors and friends, I was able to hone and refine the gift of sight into a beautiful expression of a craft that does indeed seem to speak to others. If my work is any good, it is due to them and their cooperation with God’s mercy in ensuring I did not bury my talents. So, if I might say it one more time, thank you. I could not have done it without you, and wherever this craft will someday take me, I go bringing your love and care with me. There are certainly more stories to tell, and if beauty is everywhere, photography must be too.

That beauty would remain only visual though, if it weren’t encountered with the soul of a poet as well as the eyes of a photographer. Though I did not actually write my first poem, outside of high school English class, until this past spring, the enchanted, lyrical nature of reality has been woven through my entire life. There is meaning, purpose, and intent behind the patterns that pervade our picture of the world, and I have always had a strong and, at times, nagging sense of what I can only call “the story.” Life is written by a Poet, and every person, no matter how intellectual or mechanical his or her thinking, needs that perspective to fully understand the narrative unfolding each day. I don’t know if I have always thought this way, but I can say I first became cognizant of it when I was kid, and again later in my early teenage years, often taking long, meandering walks through the park across the street from my dad’s house. That place was the kind of playground every kid needs. It was huge, empty in the offseason, and full of a hundred variations in landscape from wide open fields to dense woods to beautiful manicured gardens. Wickham Park had it all and it was on these walks, or rather, adventures, that I could quietly, contemplatively, but still playfully interact with beauty and the poetry I’m talking about. Each morning, each one uniquely beautiful, was enchanted with some mysterious sense of transcendence. It was as if I was never truly alone as I wandered and ran through those fields, simultaneously followed and called forth by verse that could only be described as personal. I came to know that person, the author of that verse, as the Author; the author and creator of the beauty around me, and around each of us.

What, then, to do with such a revelation? I knew it wasn’t original; plenty of people have had the same experience for thousands of years, but it felt deeply personal, and couldn’t be ignored. I suppose that’s where the wandering comes in.

Wandering is often used as a romantic synonym for travel. Everyone says they “love to travel” these days. That’s probably not a bad thing. There is merit and value to the act of deliberately stepping out into the wide world to experience new things and, to a degree, we’re fortunate that’s become so easy and accessible for the average person. I have been blessed to go and see many places in my few years on this earth, and have spent quite a while thinking about what it is I’m actually doing out there. What I’ve come to realize is that not all journeying is the same and, just as there are levels to any work we might do, there are greater and lesser forms of, and motivations for, a journey. On the one hand, there’s the way of the wanderer. On the other, the way of the pilgrim. Both have some diversity within each category, and both have their value, place, and similarities, but they are distinct and have unique purposes. The wanderer journeys aimlessly, leisurely, and without much if any, intention. The focus is on seeing, not knowing, if there’s any focus at all. The wanderer, of course, can come to know, but when he does he is no longer wandering. To know takes intention, effort, and love; none of which are as passive as wandering. The pilgrim’s road is entirely different. The pilgrim walks with purpose, direction, and often tremendous conviction whether by choice or necessity. The openness and docility to God’s will on the road are the same, as the pilgrim must be prepared to endure suffering and trials on his journey, but still, he has an end goal, and he will not be shaken. The wind may blow, the earth may shake, feet may blister, and the pilgrim takes another step. I used to be a wanderer. I am now a pilgrim.

This is something of a shift that we must all experience. At a certain point, you can no longer wander through life, as romantic and carefree as that may seem. You must confidently choose a specific direction towards something, or away from something else. The Body of Christ, the Church, is a church of pilgrims. The journey of our earthly life is not aimless and unknowable. It is mysterious, yes, but nonetheless demands intention and deliberate effort. I hope it is clear I am using the religious connotation of the word pilgrim very intentionally; as this applies to all people both inside and outside the Church. We are religious beings, and whether directed towards ancient ritual and the worship of God, devotion to any number of pop culture franchises, or caught up in the wild frenzy of a crowd, we all have a religious impulse and sense. In other words, life is fulfilled as a pilgrimage. In my case, I always liked the idea of a pilgrimage, but I didn’t have much of an idea where I was going beyond a vague idea of “towards Heaven.” That made it hard to do anything but wander.

A wanderer, I am no longer. I am a pilgrim, and a poet photographer as well. It is fitting, although unexpected, that I have been called forth to live a life of pilgrimage so intentionally, and literally, as a Creatio missionary-guide these next two years. In fact it seems so simply and narratively fitting for me that I almost feel foolish for not seeing it coming and doubting it when I did. What else, my God, would you have had me do? Of course there’s no way for me to know that. What you have called me to, you have called me to, and that’s that. No sense in spending time wondering about what might have happened in the face of what has happened. There is a path laid in front of me, and a pilgrim, set on his goal, accepts each step as it is given. Photographer, poet, pilgrim, and for now, missionary guide. What stories to tell. What story to live.

It is now, my friends, if you’ve made it this far, that I must ask something of you. Not necessarily financial support, although I would be deeply honored and incredibly grateful if you would like to support me and my life as a missionary in that way. Rather, I am asking for you, and whatever you could possibly have to offer. Pilgrimage is a communal experience, not the path of a sole, isolated, individual, and I wouldn’t have even stepped on the road if it wasn’t for all of you in the first place. Whether you have thoughts about my work, insight to bestow, correction to offer, love to impart, prayer requests for me to carry, or would simply like to offer your own prayers for me, I ask that you do so. I have undergone much of the spiritual life alone for far too long, and if I’m going to plant my flag on such a deeply and publicly spiritual living of my entire life, I must invite you all in to share it with me. Pray with me, walk with me, think with me, and talk with me. You are my fellow pilgrims, and my life will be lived for you as much as yours have been for me.

Always and faithfully,