After the Fire, a Rebirth in Stuart

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The Saints Center for Culture and the Arts in Stuart, Iowa. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Sometimes the stories in the news seem overwhelming, don’t they? Each day brings another tale of intolerance, injustice and tragedy. So today I want to tell you about a place that has restored some of my faith in the goodness of humanity: the Saints Center for Culture and the Arts in Stuart, Iowa.

Its story begins in the early 1900s when the Catholic community in this small town west of Des Moines decided to build a church. And not just any church: they wanted a BIG church, one that was loosely modeled after St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. The church that opened in 1908 was a blend of Byzantine and Romanesque styles, with an exuberantly Baroque interior complete with handpainted frescos, stained glass from Germany, altars of Italian marble and a massive copper dome 90 feet above the ground.

For nearly a century this church, known as All Saints, was a regional landmark, voted the “Most Beautiful Church in Iowa” by readers of the Des Moines Register and well-loved by the entire community of Stuart.

And then on an August day in 1995, an arsonist poured 25 gallons of gas inside All Saints and ignited a conflagration that drew 20 fire departments from a 50 mile radius. Despite the best efforts of the firefighters, by the time the flames were extinguished virtually everything in the church was destroyed except for its exterior walls. The arsonist, a man named Charles Willard from Des Moines, was motivated by a hatred of the Catholic Church and a desire to (in his words) “take the heart and soul out of a small town.”

The fire in 1995 destroyed virtually everything but the walls of the church. (photo courtesy of Saints Center)

The fire in 1995 destroyed virtually everything but the walls of the church. (photo courtesy of Saints Center)

Willard was caught (which wasn’t hard, since he sent letters to two bishops and a TV station claiming credit for the crime). He later served a dozen years in prison. The town of Stuart, meanwhile, struggled with the dilemma of what to do with the shell of the building. Catholic leaders had decided that the cost of rebuilding was too great and that instead a new church would be built on the outskirts of town. The loss of Stuart’s most famous landmark was a blow to the entire community.

And then a miracle occured.

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Detail from a door in the Saints Center (photo by Bob Sessions)

Well, in more prosaic terms, a lot of things came together, but it’s hard not to see the entire process as somewhat miraculous. The citizens of Stuart, a town that hadn’t passed a bond issue since the 1950s, approved a $1.7 million measure to help fund the building’s restoration. The state of Iowa contributed grant money. Individual citizens gave donations. By 2007, $4 million had been raised, and over the next two years a massive restoration project was undertaken.

In 2009 the church opened once again, this time as the Saints Center for Culture and the Arts. Today it hosts a wide variety of special events, including weddings, concerts, theater performances, and reunions.

When I visited the Saints Center recently, I found it hard to believe that this remarkable building had been reduced nearly to ruins. Today its main hall is a warm, inviting public space, filled with light from the clerestory windows underneath the dome that once again tops the structure. White walls alternate with columns of exposed brickwork from 1908. While much of the church’s Christian iconography has been removed, its original St. Joseph altar is kept in an alcove in the main hall. Darkened and damaged by the flames, it is kept as a reminder of the fire.

According to Dick Doherty, one of the prime movers in the drive to restore the Saints Center, the building’s rebirth has been a catalyst for growth for the entire town. “The Saints Center has helped revitalize Stuart,” he says. “It’s become a very popular place for weddings, in particular, and that has helped other local businesses like caterers and hotels. Thanks in part to the money that’s been brought into the town from the center, we’ve been able to build a new city hall, school, and aquatic center.”

The main hall of the Saints Center is filled with light from the windows that line its dome. (photo courtesy of the Saints Center)

The main hall of the Saints Center is filled with light from the windows that line its dome. (photo courtesy of the Saints Center)

The fire has had another surprising legacy:  the Learning Museum for Religious Tolerance. Housed in two kiosks at the Saints Center, this self-guided, online resource explores Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Indigenous Beliefs, and Chinese Traditional Religions, as well as the path of atheists and agnostics. It includes video interviews with people living within 60 miles of the church who follow the varied traditions. They talk about their beliefs, rituals and hopes for peace among all religions.

“We wanted to show that in the end, tolerance is much stronger than hate,” says Liz Gilman, who headed the online museum project.

Here’s one of the pieces of information about the Saints Center that I found most intriguing: after the fire, structural engineers found that the steel beams in the church’s walls had actually been made stronger because of being tempered by the intense heat of the fire.

That’s what tragedy can do, is that not right? Sometimes it destroys, and sometimes it makes things stronger. That’s true for buildings, and it’s true for people too.

Someday I hope you can visit the Saints Center, to see what can happen when people refuse to let intolerance and hate have the last word.

Posted in Christianity | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

The Happiness Curve

Today marks the beginning of Thanksgiving week here in the U.S. It’s hard to think of a more wonderful holiday, for the only things you need to do are eat a lot of delicious food and give thanks for your blessings.

I’ve been looking for something to post about gratitude and came across this article in the Atlantic, one that at first might seem like a bad fit: Jonathan Rauch’s The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis. But the more I reflect on it, the more I realize it’s quite appropriate for the holiday.

At the heart of the article is a conundrum: why is it that life satisfaction typically declines after the first couple of decades of adulthoood, bottoms out sometime during the 40s and early 50s, and then increases with age, often (though not always) reaching a higher level than in young adulthood? The pattern, which has been observed across many cultures, is called the Happiness U-curve.

Illustration by the Atlantic Magazine

Illustration by the Atlantic Magazine

Author Jonathan Rauch writes about his own adventures on the happiness rollercoaster. Despite enjoying considerable professional, personal and financial well-being while in his 40s, he was plagued by a sense of disappointment and frustration. He couldn’t help dwelling on his discontents, both real and imaginary, and tried to resign himself to the fact that he was unlikely ever to be much happier.

He writes: “[Then] as I moved into my early 50s, I hit some real setbacks. Both of my parents died, one of them after suffering a terrible illness while I watched helplessly. My job disappeared when the magazine I worked for was restructured. An entrepreneurial effort—to create a new online marketplace that would match journalists who had story ideas with editors looking for them—ran into problems. My shoulders, elbows, and knees all started aching. And yet the fog of disappointment and self-censure began to lift, at first almost imperceptibly, then more distinctly. By now, at 54, I feel as if I have emerged from a passage through something. But what? … Long ago, when I was 30 and he was 66, the late Donald Richie, the greatest writer I have known, told me: “Midlife crisis begins sometime in your 40s, when you look at your life and think, Is this all? And it ends about 10 years later, when you look at your life again and think, Actually, this is pretty good.” In my 50s, thinking back, his words strike me as exactly right. To no one’s surprise as much as my own, I have begun to feel again the sense of adventure that I recall from my 20s and 30s. I wake up thinking about the day ahead rather than the five decades past. Gratitude has returned.”

The rest of the article explores the reasons why Rauch’s experience is common. Many studies show that the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into our seventh decade or later. What typically happens is that people become more accepting of their limitations. As people age they realize their future is increasingly constrained, and so they set goals that are more realistic and easier to pursue. (Out: winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. In: finishing up that essay for the local newspaper.)

To me one of the most fascinating parts of the article is its description of the “science of wisdom.” Writes Rauch:

There is no evidence … that people get wiser as a result of aging per se (as opposed to learning from experience over time—also, of course, an element of wisdom). And there is no “wisdom organ” in the brain. Wisdom is an inherently multifarious trait, an emergent property of many other functions. . . But it does look likely that some elements of aging are conducive to wisdom, and to greater life satisfaction. In a 2012 paper evocatively titled “Don’t Look Back in Anger! Responsiveness to Missed Chances in Successful and Nonsuccessful Aging,” a group of German neuroscientists, using brain scans and other physical tests of mental and emotional activity, found that healthy older people (average age: 66) have “a reduced regret responsiveness” compared with younger people (average age: 25). That is, older people are less prone to feel unhappy about things they can’t change—an attitude consistent, of course, with ancient traditions that see stoicism and calm as part of wisdom. In fact, it is well established that older people’s brains react less strongly to negative stimuli than younger people’s brains do. “Young people just have more negative feelings,” Elaine Wethington, the Cornell professor, told me. Older brains may thus be less susceptible to the furies that buffet us earlier in life. Also, as Laura Carstensen, the Stanford psychologist, told me (summarizing a good deal of evidence), “Young people are miserable at regulating their emotions.” Years ago, my father made much the same point when I asked him why in his 50s he stopped having rages, which had shadowed his younger years and disrupted our family: “I realized I didn’t need to have five-dollar reactions to nickel provocations.”

All of this brings to mind a family treasure that I discovered in my files not long ago:  a 15-page transcript of an interview done by my Aunt Vernelle with my grandfather, Carl Erickson, when he was 82. In it he describes his hardscrabble life as an Iowa farmer with remarkable equanimity. My favorite line is this: “Oh, the first 25 years we was married it was really rough going. But after that it started to get better all the time.”

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They got older–and happier.

So here’s to riding the Happiness Curve into our future, surfing along the crest of midlife dissatisfaction until we can land on the Caribbean beach of our 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond. It’s not that everything is perfect there—but the view is good, the pina coladas are delicious and the sand between our toes is warm.

Posted in Happiness | Tagged | 8 Comments

Thanking Veterans, One Rock at a Time

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Bubba Sorensen stands next to the original Freedom Rock near Menlo, Iowa. (Bob Sessions photo)

Today is Veteran’s Day in the U.S. In honor of the holiday I want to tell you of a veteran-themed pilgrimage spot in Iowa—well, to be more precise, make that 26 pilgrimage spots, with the number rising each year.

The story begins in a movie theater in 1999, when Bubba Sorensen, an art and design major at Iowa State University, was watching the movie Saving Private Ryan. Viewing the World War II tale of heroism and tragedy made him want to do something to honor veterans himself. He remembered that near his home in southwest Iowa there was a larger boulder that was typically covered with graffiti. Sorensen decided he would paint the rock with a patriotic mural honoring veterans (though its rough and uneven surface was hardly the best canvas for a work of art).

The local response was immediate and enthusiastic. People loved the decorated boulder, which was dubbed The Freedom Rock. As its popularity grew, Sorensen was asked to do similar projects in other places.

Today Sorensen mural work has become a full-time job. While he does a variety of projects, his patriotic murals on rocks have become his signature genre. His goal is to paint a Freedom Rock in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. So far he’s completed 23, with another 60 counties in line. “I figure it will take me till about 2023 to get all 99 counties done,” he says.

As word has spread of his efforts, veterans have flocked to support him, sometimes in unusual ways. “I remember I was working on repainting the original Freedom Rock in 2006, and a group of guys happened to drive by on their way to Washington, D.C.,” he says. “They were going to scatter the ashes of a friend at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. When they saw what I was doing, they asked if I would mix some of the ashes in with my paint. Since then, I’ve gotten this request pretty frequently. Quite a few of the rocks include ashes from veterans.”

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Sorenson’s first Freedom Rock is about 12 feet tall and is repainted every year with a new set of images. (Bob Sessions photo)

While Sorensen repaints the original Freedom Rock each year for free, he creates other patriotic murals on commission. Many of the Freedom Rocks are located in out-of-the-way corners of the state, making it a bit of a treasure hunt to find them. “I go with whoever asks me first in a county,” he says. “Sometimes it’s in the center of a town, and sometimes it’s out in the country.”

As I talked to Sorensen, it was clear that his mural work has become both a career and a calling for him. “This has taken off in ways I’d never dreamed of when I started,” he says. “I have three goals: to honor veterans, to promote Iowa tourism, and feed my family. So far I’ve been able to do all three.”

Sorensen’s murals around the state depict images from all of the nation’s wars, from the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan and Iraq. The people who are featured are typically veterans from the surrounding area who have been killed in conflict.

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A makeshift shrine has been created by visitors to the Freedom Rock. (Bob Sessions photo)

It was a foggy, cool morning when I visited the original Freedom Rock. I was moved to see the tokens that have been left on a nearby telephone pole (for holy sites appear wherever there is need of them). Pinned to the pole were flags, medals, pictures, and patches representing various military units. And in the guest book kept in a nearby kiosk were signatures of people from around the country who had visited the rock. “The original Freedom Rock is getting more visitors every year,” says Sorensen. “We’ve even had people from France, China and Kenya. I enjoy visiting with people while I paint. You never know who’s going to show up.”

I love this story. Bubba Sorensen didn’t set out to make a career for himself. He certainly isn’t getting rich painting rocks in rural parts of Iowa. But he is making a living honoring those who often get forgotten except for Veterans Day. And once he’s finished each rock, it becomes a new shrine for those who were killed in close-to-home battlefields such as Yorktown, Shiloh and Gettysburg, or in far away places like Verdun, Dunkirk, Midway,  Inchon, Xuan Loc, Kandahar, and Fallujah. They stand as sentinels, silently reminding us of those who gave their lives in service to their country.

See The Freedom Rock for information on where Bubba Sorensen’s murals are located. The original Freedom Rock is on Highway 25 near the small town of Menlo, Iowa (one mile south of exit 86 on I-80). 

Posted in Unconventional Holy Sites | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

That Most Beautiful Form of Courage

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Northeast Iowa in Fall (Bob Sessions photo)

What the day gives

Suddenly, sun. Over my shoulder
in the middle of gray November
what I hoped to do comes back,
asking.

Across the street the fiery trees
hold onto their leaves,
red and gold in the final months
of this unfinished year,
they offer blazing riddles.

In the frozen fields of my life
there are no shortcuts to spring,
but stories of great birds in migration
carrying small ones on their backs,
predators flying next to warblers
they would, in a different season, eat.

Stunned by the astonishing mix in this uneasy world
that plunges in a single day from despair
to hope and back again, I commend my life
to Ruskin’s difficult duty of delight,
and to that most beautiful form of courage,
to be happy.

“What the Day Gives,” by Jeanne Lohmann, from The Light of Invisible Bodies: Poems by Lohmann, Jeanne published by Daniel & Daniel Pub Paperback, © Daniel and Daniel Publishing, 2003.

Posted in Poetry | 7 Comments

In Which I Unleash My Inner Viking & Discover a New Ancestor

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A sign from Reykjavik (Bob Sessions photo)

The picture at left (a sign we saw in Reykjavik) begs the question: why in the world would one want to unleash one’s inner Viking? They were, after all, the feared Northmen who plundered and raided the coastlines of Europe for hundreds of years, beginning with the sack of the English monastery of Lindisfarne in 793.

I knew the reputation of these bad boys on my family tree before visiting Iceland. But while I was there I visited a number of sites that helped give a more nuanced interpretation of the Viking Age, including the National Museum of Iceland, the Settlement Exhibition at the Reykjavik City Museum, the Saga Museum, and Viking World. While I’m not quite ready to buy the entire Vikings-Were-Just-Misunderstood-Farmers explanation, I was happy to learn that my ancestors weren’t an entirely blood-thirsty lot.

Viking-friendly historians point out, for example, that these Norsemen lived in a violent age, and that Europe had plenty of marauding groups that rivaled them for ferocity. What’s more, many Norsemen put their seafaring skills to use as merchants, traders and explorers.

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Leif the Lucky and me in Reykjavik (photo by Bob Sessions)

Exhibit A is Leif Erikson. He was dubbed Leif the Lucky because things just seemed to go his way—including landing on the shore of North America somewhat by accident around the year 1000. Leif dubbed the region Vinland (historians can’t agree on exactly where he landed, but a good guess is somewhere on the coast of what is now Canada). He was said to be a handsome, wise and generous man, just the sort of person one wants to have in the family gene pool. I was happy to have my picture taken with him in Reykjavik, where there’s a mammoth statue of him overlooking the city.

It was another statue that caught me by surprise. As we were driving along a deserted stretch of highway on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, we came upon a monument honoring Leif’s sister-in-law, Gudrid.

Gudrid was born on a farm near the statue, but she certainly didn’t stay there for long. As you can see from the map below that depicts her travels, Gudrid had the Viking wanderlust something fierce. She lived in Iceland and Greenland before traveling to Vinland, where she gave birth to the first child of European origin in the New World. Three years later, she traveled to Norway, then back to Iceland, where she settled on a farm and raised two sons on her own after her second husband’s death. Then, at an age when most women were settling into old age, she sailed to Denmark and walked on pilgrimage to Rome.

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A sign at Gudrid’s statue on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula depicts the many journeys she took. (photo by Bob Sessions)

Let me repeat that: She walked on pilgrimage to Rome. Isn’t that amazing? Historians say Gudrid was probably the most well-traveled woman of the Middle Ages. She crossed the stormy Atlantic no less than eight times. She straddled the Old World and the New and the shift between the pagan and Christian eras. She’s lauded in the Sagas as “Gudrid the Far-Traveler,” a woman renowned for her courage, wisdom and goodness. To this day, most Icelanders proudly claim descent from her.

Forget Leif Erikson–after learning about Gudrid, I want to change my name to Lori Gudridsdóttir.

Nancy Marie Brown’s book The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman gives more background on this remarkable woman. Gudrid lived during the era when beliefs in the Norse gods and goddesses were being supplanted by Christianity, but there was still considerable blending of the two traditions. Images of Christ from the period, for example, have a lot in common with muscular Thor.

Brown writes that Christianity was likely adopted first by women in Iceland. While Viking women (freeborn ones, at least) enjoyed considerable status in pagan society, the new religion brought additional benefits. Infanticide–which historically was done more to girl babies–was outlawed. Distinctions between social classes were lessened among converts. But the biggest attraction concerned the afterlife.  “Valhalla, the glorious feast hall of Odin, was open only to men killed in battle,” writes Brown. “Several other gods had halls that welcomed certain dead, but most women . . . could look forward only to a cold, damp, dark, dreary and depressing eternity ruled by Hel, the half-giant daughter of Loki.”

To me the most surprising chapter of Gudrid’s life was her pilgrimage to Rome. Think of it: her husband was dead, her children grown. I can see her standing on the shore of the sea, pondering her future of settled domesticity. I’m sure there was religious devotion in her decision to go on pilgrimage, but I think she also was restless for another big trip. Her feet were itching. She who had traveled so far knew that there was one last journey in her.

And think of what she experienced, this woman who had lived only in remote outposts of the Atlantic. She walked across the Alps, saw huge cities, toured gilded cathedrals, and shopped in markets filled with exotic treasures from around the world.

When Gudrid returned home, she became a nun, living out the rest of her days in a church her son built for her. I’m sure she was devout, but I also think she must have spent a lot of time savoring in her mind all that she had seen.

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A statue of Gudrid and her son Snorri stands near the farm where she was born in the latter part of the 900s. (photo by Bob Sessions)

(About the only thing Gudrid did that I don’t approve of was naming her first son Snorri. If you look at the picture of her statue at right, you can see what happens when you name your son Snorri: everybody thinks he’s a dwarf.)

Isn’t life wonderful? I came to Iceland eager to learn more about Leif Erikson, but to my delight I found an ancestor I claim even more enthusiastically.

Gudrid’s story helped me realize that there seems to be a recessive gene for travel in my family. The Vikings had it in spades, but through the centuries it became diluted. By the time it reached my farming ancestors in Iowa, it had pretty much dwindled out. My parents, wonderful people in all other ways, viewed travel with the deepest suspicion. Even a trip to a seemingly friendly state like Wisconsin or Minnesota held multiple risks—uncomfortable beds, unfamiliar roads, the prospect of getting lost, restaurants where you didn’t know exactly what to order. Best just to stay home.

For whatever reason, however, I got the traveling gene. It explains the route I’ve followed ever since leaving the farm of my childhood, the restlessness I feel whenever I’m home for more than a few weeks, and the sense I have of being most fully alive when I’m on a trip.

So here’s what I learned in Iceland, the insight that turned my trip into a pilgrimage (for the best journeys teach us about ourselves as well as other places). I know that for most of my life, I’ve felt like a chick that was put into the wrong nest at birth. But in Iceland, I discovered that my clan includes a lot of people like me. Some were Vikings, setting off in longboats to raid distant shores. Some were adventurers like Leif the Lucky. And some were like Gudrid the Far-Traveler, who seemed to have taken nearly every opportunity she had to set off to sea. I can recognize a kindred spirit when I see one, even from a distance of 1,000 years.

 

 

Posted in Iceland | Tagged , , , , , | 13 Comments

Iceland’s Ring Road

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The Ring Road of Iceland is one of the world’s great road trips. (Bob Sessions photo)

There are times when we English majors simply have to concede that images trump words.

Today is one of those times, for I honestly don’t know how I can adequately convey the beauty and grandeur of Iceland’s Ring Road. Bob and I spent eight days driving this 2,000-mile route that winds along the coastline of the main island of Iceland. When we started, we kept comparing the landscape to other places we had seen, from Scotland and New Zealand to Wyoming. But gradually we fell silent, for the ever-changing vistas proved themselves to be incomparable.

I know of no other country like Iceland. It holds mountains, waterfalls, high deserts, rich pastures, and tiny villages tucked under the looming shadow of glacier-topped peaks. One valley would be lush and green, and the next as bleak as the surface of the moon. Other than one 15-minute nap, I don’t think I missed a single section of the entire trip, for I was mesmerized by what was unfolding. Each night I dreamed of what we had seen that day, the images and colors gliding one into the next with wraith-like fluidity.

We did other memorable things that week—hikes up steep mountain canyons, meals of fish soup served in tiny cafes overlooking the sea, soaks in outdoor hot tubs with a cold rain needling our faces, and nights when we marveled at the northern lights dancing across the sky. But when I look back, what I remember most is that endless ribbon of highway, beckoning us ever onward, teasing us with the prospect of yet one more radiant expanse of sea, sky and earth.

So I wave the white flag and give up trying to describe it. Instead, here’s a small sampling of what we saw (with thanks to Bob Sessions for the images and Kevin MacLeod for his tune “Long Road Ahead”).

Visit Iceland can help you plan your own trip on the Ring Road.

Posted in Iceland | Tagged | 10 Comments

The Return of the Norse Gods and Goddesses

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Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson is the chief priest of Ásatrú, the contemporary revival of Old Norse paganism. (Bob Sessions photo)

One of the things I love best about my work is the chance to meet spiritual leaders in a wide range of traditions. Of all the people I’ve interviewed, Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson is one of the most interesting.

Hilmar is a well-known musician, film composer and art director in Iceland who has received a host of awards, including being named European Film Composer of the Year in 1991. But I wanted to talk to him because of another role he plays: allsherjargoði, or chief priest, of the religion Ásatrú, which is a revival of belief in the Old Norse gods and goddesses. On a gray morning in Reykjavik near the end of our stay in Iceland we spoke for nearly an hour about Icelandic history, its holy places, and what it takes to bring a dormant religion back to life.

Hilmar began by sketching a brief history of how Christianity came to be adopted in Iceland in the year 1000. “There was huge political and economic pressure to convert,” said Hilmar. “But I think it’s interesting that when the chieftains were trying to discern the way forward, they did a pagan ritual to decide. And even after Iceland became officially Christian, many people continued to follow the older traditions for several centuries.”

After that, the stories of Odin, Thor, Freyja and their divine kindred were primarily kept alive in the literature of Iceland, particularly in The Poetic Edda and The Prose Edda
(collections of Old Norse poems and stories). “Under the guise of teaching literature,” explained Hilmar, “people learned the old myths and stories.”

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The god Odin gave up one eye in return for wisdom. (Wikimedia Commons image)

The modern revival of the religion began in the 19th century, influenced by the Romantic Movement in Europe and a revitalized sense of Icelandic national identity. In 1972 the Icelandic government recognized Ásatrú as an official religion, giving it legal authority to conduct weddings and burials. Today about 3,000 people are officially part of the Ásatrú community.

One of the things I found most interesting about our discussion is learning of the intertwining of Celtic and Norse traditions in Iceland. DNA analysis of people who lived in Iceland at the time of its settlement in the ninth and tenth centuries have revealed that about 70 percent of the women were Celts from the British Isles. “They brought with them their stories and beliefs,” said Hilmar. “Women are often the ones who keep culture alive, because they’re the ones who teach the children. Icelandic culture owes nearly as much to the Celts as to the Norse.”

Hilmar has had a ringside seat for the revival of Ásatrú, for when he joined the community at the age of 16, he was number 36 on its official registry. He said that in its first decades Ásatrú remained small and was viewed skeptically by many Icelanders, but eventually public opinion changed.

“Slowly people began to see we were serious,” Hilmar said. “Today we are the largest non-Christian denomination in Iceland, and there’s considerable interest in what we do even if people aren’t official members. About 42 percent of Icelanders describe their religious viewpoint as pagan. I’m happy to say that our relations with Christian leaders have improved as well. There’s a sense of mutual respect between us.”

There are four main holidays in Ásatrú: the winter and summer solstices, the first day of summer, and a mid-winter celebration called Thorrablot honoring the god Thor. There is no sacred text, but rather a set of precepts that include tolerance, honesty, honor and respect for the cultural heritage and natural world of Iceland.

“Fundamentally, we’re a nature-based religion,” said Hilmar. “In Iceland, we’re humbled by nature every day. The land is active. You can feel it beneath your feet. It’s easy to feel awe here.”

As high priest, much of what Hilmar does are the ordinary but important rituals of any religion: marriages, funerals and naming ceremonies for babies. Even in our brief time together, I could sense that he is a person of warmth, strength and integrity, someone who has done his spiritual homework.

When I asked Hilmar if there were some sites that are considered particularly holy in his tradition, he named three (all of which, I’m pleased to say, we had visited on our tour of Iceland):

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Thingvellir, now a national park, is located on a fault line marking the boundary between two continental plates. (Bob Sessions photo)

Thingvellir is the place where representatives of all the tribes of Iceland began meeting once a year beginning around 930. The yearly assembly continued to 1798. In 1944, the nation gathered at Thingvellir to celebrate Iceland’s independence from Denmark. The site is also significant for its geology, for it sits on the fault line between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. “Thingvellir is the spiritual and symbolic heart of Iceland,” said Hilmar. “When you’re there, you can feel that it’s a place of power.”

The Snæfellsnes glacier lies atop what is widely regarded as the most beautiful mountain in Iceland (as with many of the peaks in Iceland, a volcano simmers beneath the ice). In the Icelandic histories known as the Sagas, Snæfellsnes was identified as an opening to the underworld, a tradition that inspired Jules Verne to write his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth.  Mary’s Well, which I described in my previous post, lies at the base of Snæfellsnes.

Helgafell, located on the north coast of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, is a low-lying mountain that is also mentioned in the Sagas. In ancient times it was a pilgrimage place particularly for those nearing death, for it was believed to be an entry point into the afterlife. It was said that from its peak, one could sometimes see Valhalla, the paradise of warriors. Today people climb it in hopes of being granted three wishes, provided they follow these rules: As they ascend, they cannot look back. They must walk in silence. And they can never reveal to others what their wishes were.

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This statue of Thor in Reykjavik is modeled after a bronze figure dating from the year 1000. (Bob Sessions photo)

Like a volcano of great power hidden under a blanket of snow, the Norse traditions underlie much of Icelandic history. The Icelanders were pagan far longer than they’ve been Christian, and today as Christianity wanes in much of Western Europe, it’s intriguing to see the ways in which these older traditions are resurfacing.

Would an ancient Norse warrior recognize the rituals of Ásatrú? The question gets to the heart of the challenges of reviving a religion. Because the culture of Iceland has changed so dramatically (no more chieftains fiercely guarding their honor or long boats setting off to raid foreign shores), simply copying the practices of a former era is not possible. How can a person believe in Thor as a thunder-maker if one understands the physics of lightning? But I think Ásatrú is saving the best parts of those old traditions–their deep respect for the natural world, their sense that there are powers far beyond human understanding, and their appreciation for the myths and stories that shaped the Icelandic world for centuries. And like any good religion, Ásatrú provides community and meaning for its followers and a guide for navigating the transitions of life: birth, marriage and death.

I know that when Bob and I stood on the top of Helgafell, that windswept promontory felt like many other holy spots we’ve visited–a thin spot, as the ancient Celts would say, where the boundaries between worlds is transparent. Like countless pilgrims before, we had followed the simple rules, which are likely a watered-down form of older and more complicated rituals. But I was struck by the spiritual truths embedded in those instructions: Don’t look back or dwell on the past. Meditate in silence to discover what you most desire. And keep the innermost yearnings of your heart private.

The picture below shows what we saw from the top of Helgafell. Perhaps it’s only because of my Scandinavian heritage, but for a few exquisite moments, I had no difficulty at all in believing I was looking at Valhalla.

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Valhalla, as seen from the top of Helgafell in Iceland (Bob Sessions photo)

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With the Hidden People in Iceland

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Stores in Iceland are full of creatures like these. (Bob Sessions photo)

Soon after we arrived in Iceland, Bob and I were browsing in a small town shop when the clerk saw me looking at some figurines for sale. “We have a lot of elves in Iceland, you know,” she said. “More than half of us believe in the Hidden People.”

When I asked if she herself had ever seen one, she assured me she had. “Go up to the park on the edge of town early in the morning and you might see some yourself,” she said.

One of the things I love about my husband is that when I suggest we get up early to hunt for elves, he doesn’t say no, but rather asks what time we need to leave. So the next morning there we were, walking slowly through the woods, peering underneath bushes, and occasionally saying loudly, “Boy, it sure would be nice to see some elves.”

You might see this as weird, but in my line of work this is called research.

We did a lot of elf research in Iceland. Before arriving, I’d read stories of how road planners in Iceland try to avoid places said to be home to huldufólk or Hidden People. Once there, I asked a wide range of Icelanders their opinions, from tour guides and college professors to locals we met while soaking in the public hot tubs that are a major part of Icelandic life.

There was a surprising amount of unanimity in their responses. While few had actually seen one of these creatures themselves, virtually everyone had an open mind about their existence. (The only person who flat-out denied the possibility of elves was a geologist who worked at one of the national parks. Note to self: in the future, do not try to interview scientists about magical creatures.)

I learned many things about elves from these conversations. Several people related the story of why the Hidden People are sometimes called the Dirty Children of Eve. When God asked Eve to show him her children one day, she didn’t have time to clean all of them up and so hid them, and they’ve stayed hidden ever since.

But that doesn’t mean that they stayed dirty. I learned that many of the Hidden People wear elegant clothes, typically in a style of an earlier age. “My grandmother and her sister saw them in a meadow once, and they were dressed in fancy outfits,” a man told me. “She was a militant atheist when it came to religious matters, but to her dying day she believed in elves.”

In the small village of Bakkagerði in the east of Iceland, Bob and I visited Álfabor, a pile of rocks said to be the Throne of the Elf Queen. The local Álfheimar Hotel offers Elf Tours that take visitors up into the surrounding mountains. I spoke to a young man on staff at the hotel who had grown up in the village. “It’s perfectly safe to walk around the throne, but you have to be careful not to move anything on it or take away any stones,” he told us.

He also told a story of a woman he knew who had lost her camera on a hike in the woods. To her astonishment, she came upon it three months later on a river bank and it was in pristine condition despite having been exposed to the elements for so long. When she checked it, she found that it contained pictures she hadn’t taken, shots of grass and stones. “Pretty clearly they were taken by elves,” he said–and who was I to disagree?

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The Throne of the Elf Queen is in the village of Bakkagerði in the East Fjords of Iceland (note the rock outcropping between the village and the mountain). (photo by Bob Sessions)

Perhaps I should be embarrassed to say that on our trip to Iceland, I actually looked diligently for elves on our hikes and walks. Does this make me crazy? I prefer to think it makes me Icelandic.

But it also has gotten me thinking about what it means to live in a landscape where the Hidden People might appear at any time. Similar traditions occur in other cultures, but Icelanders seem unique in being fully modern and yet open to this possibility. And because of their belief in these beings, Icelanders’ love for their environment comes with a bit of wariness–don’t put a road through that field, for example, or bad things may happen.

Looking back on my time in Iceland, I’m also struck by how my perceptions of the landscape changed because I was looking for the Hidden People. While l’m an avid hiker, I know I walked more deliberately in that landscape than in other places and experienced it more deeply as a result.

That gets to the heart of what most intrigues me about this belief in elves. Most of us live in a disenchanted world, but in Iceland nature is raw enough and close enough that the enchantment is still there. Part of it is the sheer power of its landscape, with its volcanoes, earthquakes, winds, rain and glaciers. In Iceland you know that you’re small and insignificant and that the world has more things in it than you can control or understand.

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On the Snæfellsnes Peninsula near Hellnar, a guardian spirit overlooks Mariulind, a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary. (photo by Lori Erickson)

So did we see any elves on our journey through Iceland? The easy answer is no. But let me tell you about two experiences that made me wonder. After visiting a holy spring in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, I found something unusual on my camera. I had taken a variety of pictures of the spring and its statue of the Virgin Mary (wouldn’t you know that I’d find the one Virgin Mary shrine in all of Iceland). But when I looked through my pictures, I saw the picture at right. While that spring is associated with Mary, I think there may be another spirit watching over it as well.

Will you indulge me with one more story? On our last full day in Iceland, Bob and I took a group hike up a glacier and were heading back through a beautiful valley carpeted with grass and moss. The rest of the people had walked ahead, giving me some time alone with our guide. I peppered him with questions about the Hidden People, which he answered patiently.

“Just up there is an elf church,” he said, pointing to a large rock in the distance. “I’ve never seen anything there, but some people have.”

He told me that there are many stories of humans falling in love with elves. “Sometimes, you see, the person doesn’t realize they’ve met one of the Hidden People,” he said. “It’s only after they’ve fallen in love that the truth is revealed, and then they have to decide whether they’re going to go through the stones and join them forever.”

Then he mentioned that there was a folk song about just such a story. I asked him to sing it, and—after protesting that he didn’t have a good voice–he started singing in a resonant, clear tenor.

As we walked down that verdant valley, he continued to sing, the tune haunting and strange. I couldn’t understand the words but I knew they were filled with longing and sadness, and that the language I was hearing hadn’t changed much since the Vikings had walked this same landscape.

It was, beyond a doubt, a magical interlude, one of my most cherished memories from Iceland. And looking back, I’m not entirely certain my guide was human.

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The Elf Church near Mýrdalsjökull, a large glacier in southern Iceland (photo by Bob Sessions)

 

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On the Trail of Vikings and Elves in Iceland

Lori Erickson, Viking (Bob Sessions photo)

Lori Erickson, Viking (Bob Sessions photo)

Yes, I know it’s a cheesy photo. And those horns are totally wrong, because Vikings didn’t wear helmets like this. But something about visiting Iceland has put me in a playful mood, despite the fact the country threatened me with an exploding volcano, buffeted me with wind, froze me with cold, steamed me like a lobster in outdoor hot tubs, and led me across many a hill and dale in a vain search for elves. I’ve forgiven Iceland for all of it. In fact, by the time I left, I was hoping the volcano would erupt so I had an excuse to stay longer.

Bob and I went to Iceland for a meeting of the Society of American Travel Writers, but I had a personal reason as well, one that has to do with my last name: E-R-I-C-K-S-O-N. My ethnic heritage is Norwegian, but because the Norwegians settled Iceland, I’ve decided I get to claim it as my ancestral homeland too. In downtown Reykjavik they even have a statue of my most illustrious relative: Leif Erikson, the first European to visit North America. (Well, I don’t know for certain he’s my direct ancestor, but we have the same last name and how many people in Scandinavia have the unusual last name of Erickson?)

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A statue of Leif Erikson overlooks Reykjavik. The family resemblance is uncanny, isn’t it? (Bob Sessions photo)

For a country of just 320,000 people, Iceland competes above its weight class. They call it the Land of Fire and Ice, a tourism slogan more accurate than most. It’s a place where they like to multiply their natural disasters by installing glaciers on top of volcanoes–that way, there’s a gigantic flood when the volcano erupts. Earthquakes, lava flows, blizzards, ice storms, gale-force winds, even something called a volcano tornado–Iceland’s got ‘em all. The country is both gorgeously green and as bleak as Mordor in Lord of the Rings; with cold winds that chill you and bubbling geothermal pools that warm you back up again. If you’re bored with the same ol’-same ol’, you might want to head to Iceland to shake things up.

Iceland is also quirky, which perhaps comes from those long winters. At the opening reception for SATW, for example, the mayor of Reykjavik (movie star handsome, just like many of the Icelandic people) spoke of the country’s innovative marketing campaigns of the past few years. “In 2008 we crashed our economy and in 2010 we blew up the Eyjafjallajökull volcano and shut down European airspace for six days–both of which succeeded brilliantly in increasing recognition of our brand name,” he said.

It’s not surprising that a country with these characteristics has a complex and somewhat contradictory spirituality. More than half of Icelanders believe in God, but only a small fraction go to church more than once or twice a year. A surprisingly high percentage of them believe in the existence of Hidden People (a.k.a. elves). The largest non-Christian denomination is Ásatrú, a revival of faith in the Old Norse gods and goddesses.

Here’s what I think after two weeks of touring the country: if Thor, Odin and Freyja are still alive anywhere, it’s in Iceland.

In writing about Iceland, I also describe a type of trip I haven’t previously covered on this Spiritual Travels website. Searching for family roots often has elements of pilgrimage and can have profound effects on people’s identity. There are rich insights to be gained from walking in the steps of your ancestors.

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Looking out to sea from the bow of a Viking longship at Viking World in Reykjanesbær, Iceland (Bob Sessions photo)

I’ve wanted to visit Scandinavia for many years, and my experiences in Iceland were deeply meaningful to me. One of my favorite moments came when I stood in the bow of a reconstructed Viking longboat at Viking World in the seaside town of Reykjanesbær. The wooden vessel had been built according to old designs and was sailed to America in 2000 as part of the millennial celebration of Leif Erikson’s journey to the New World. Dismiss it as a romantic fantasy if you like, but as I stood there looking out at the stormy Atlantic just beyond the glass, for a few brief moments time and space seemed to shimmer a bit, almost as if I really was at sea with my ancestors.

It’s for moments like this that we travel, isn’t it? To be taken out of ourselves and transported to a place that is unexpected and yet familiar. I felt a shiver of recognition there and a call to something I still can’t quite name.*

So come along with me to Iceland over the next few Holy Rover posts. I’ll introduce you to the high priest of the old Norse religious community, tell you some stories about the Hidden People, take you along on One of the World’s Great Road Trips, and try to convince you that the Vikings were not marauders but rather misunderstood farmers with poor social skills. There may even be a troll sighting or two. Step on board, won’t you?

 *I know you’re thinking raiding and pillaging, but it’s not that.

 

 

 

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A Jesus Pilgrimage with James Martin

Several years ago I visited the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, the Trappist monastery where Thomas Merton spent many decades. I was excited to get the chance to interview the Guest Master at the abbey, but as the time approached for our meeting I found myself getting nervous. How does one interview a person who’s taken a vow of silence? (Well, they’re allowed to talk a little, but you know what I mean.) What could I possibly ask that didn’t sound trite to someone so deeply immersed in the contemplative life?

I entered the monk’s office with some trepidation, sat down, and asked my first question: “What do you hope people will take with them from their time at Gethsemani?”

The monk leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. Seconds passed. I could hear the clock ticking on the wall. More seconds passed. The clock ticked on. I wondered if perhaps he’d dozed off. I fiddled with my pen and notebook, looking at the other questions I’d jotted down. I knew I only had a few minutes with the monk, and the clock kept ticking and ticking as the seconds stretched into minutes. I wondered if I should leave him in peace by sneaking out the door or wake him up.

Finally the monk opened his eyes and leaned forward. He clearly hadn’t been napping, but instead thinking. And then he answered my question with a single word: “Jesus.”

And that’s the story of the shortest interview I’ve ever conducted in my writing career. For honestly, I couldn’t think of a single question after that.

51mA7IoWUIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Which brings me to the topic of the day, James Martin’s wonderful new book Jesus: A Pilgrimage. Faithful readers of this blog will recognize Martin’s name, for I’ve recommended his books before (most recently, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life. Martin is a Jesuit priest and gifted writer, but here’s what I appreciate the most about him: he seems like the sort of person who’d be a good friend. His writing is both accessible and wise, like talking to someone who can teach you something without seeming preachy.

Unlike that Trappist monk, Martin has a lot to say about Jesus. His book is a blend of genres: a travelogue of a trip he made to holy sites in Israel, an overview of current Biblical scholarship about the historical Jesus, and a memoir detailing Martin’s own spiritual struggles and explorations. Most intriguing of all, the book is deeply shaped by his years of prayer as a Jesuit. The Jesuits practice a form of contemplation in which they put themselves into Biblical stories, imagining they are in the middle of the scenes. Martin frequently talks about insights that have come to him as a result of these meditations, often coming up with strikingly original and moving reflections that opened up the Gospel stories for me.

I also enjoyed getting the chance to re-visit sites I’d seen in Israel, from the small town of Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (I was pleased that Martin found it as intriguing, mystical and peculiar as I had). Martin writes that touring the Holy Land is like seeing the home of a friend you’ve known for a long time. Even if you think you know a lot about someone, visiting where they live and the places that shaped them brings new understanding. That’s certainly true for anyone fortunate enough to see where Jesus walked, lived and taught (and this is why the Holy Land is sometimes referred to as the Fifth Gospel).

In the book, it’s often the small details that are the most evocative. While visiting the site that tradition says is associated with the miracle of the multiplying of the loaves and fishes, for example, Martin writes of the boy who brought Jesus five barley loaves and two fish. It was a child who made the miracle possible, he says, and then goes on to tell of how many times it happens that something we believe to be small becomes something big for someone else:

We may feel that our efforts our inadequate. We try to help our friends and family, but nothing seems to work. We try to fix our children’s lives, but it doesn’t seem to help. We try to seek forgiveness, but others are still resentful. We try to encourage our friends, but they still seem disconsolate. We try to love, but it doesn’t seem enough.

But Jesus accepts what we give, blesses it, breaks it open, and magnifies it. Often in ways that we don’t see or cannot see. Or will not be able to see in this lifetime. Who knows what a kind word does? Who knows what a single act of charity will do? Sometimes the smallest word or gesture can change a life. A few years ago I told a Jesuit priest how what he had said to me on retreat helped me through a tough time. When I repeated what he had told me–word for word–he laughed and said he didn’t even remember saying it. Yet his loaves and fishes had been multiplied.

martin_jamesI’ve been savoring this book for months, reading just a few pages at a time because I was enjoying it so. It’s helped me read the Gospels with fresh eyes and meet a more complex, intriguing Jesus in its stories.

The book is heartfelt but not cloying, intellectually challenging but not dry. It’s worth spending time with Martin as he walks in the footsteps of the man to whom he has dedicated his life.

 

 

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