Pilgrimage to South Africa, Part I

I have just returned from my long trip to South Africa (by way of Amsterdam) that could be considered a pilgrimage in its own way. I went off to spend time with two dear friends, John and Isobel de Gruchy. Was the joy my doing?
Did I deserve God’s presence?
Was the pain my fault?
Did I cause God’s absence?

No – sometimes joy bursts
in on us as sheer gift.
Sometimes, without reason,
sorrow overwhelms us.
In it all, God is still present.
Pain will pass and joy will last.
Cling to that.
(Excerpt from the poem “Well and Woe” found in In Well and In Woe: Poems by Isobel de Gruchy)


In his The Life You Save May be Your Own, Paul Elie defines pilgrimage as “a journey undertaken in light of a story.” And I have just returned from my long trip to South Africa (by way of Amsterdam) that could be considered a pilgrimage in its own way. I went off to spend time with two dear friends, John and Isobel de Gruchy. Isobel is a wonderful poet and artist and I have begun this blog by citing an excerpt from one of her poems titled, “Well and Woe.” John is a well-known theologian and scholar whom I “met” three years ago at a meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Baltimore.

And here is my story about that meeting that led to my pilgrimage. When I was in Amsterdam on my way to visit them, a waiter in my hotel asked how long it had been since I’d seen my old friends. And I had to say that that was a long story. In fact, we had never met face to face. John was asked the same question when friends found out I was coming. And his answer was … well … our friendship rested up until then on what used to be called “pen pals.”

At that Baltimore meeting held in November of 2013 – the first I had attended alone since Bud had died that previous January – I noticed that on the program was listed a symposium focused on John de Gruchy’s new book, Led Into Mystery. He wrote that book in response to his son Steve’s tragic death by drowning some years earlier. In his anguish over that death, he struggled with his grief and addressed the question of our mortality and suffering, and God’s place within the pain of our lives. Because I was also struggling with grief, I left that symposium, found the book in the Exhibits area, took it home to Richmond and immediately read it.  

I was profoundly touched by John’s writing and spent some days tracking him down, bouncing from one secretary in South Africa to another until finally one gave me his personal email address. I wrote a long email to him, explaining my background, my writing, and my life at this point without Bud. He gracefully responded with an email back, indicating that he knew of Bud’s work but unfortunately had never met him. In due time, Isobel joined our frequent correspondence and we became a threesome – sharing our thoughts and lives along the way, chatting about our writing, sending each other drafts we were working on, but also swapping thoughts about the politics of the day and other topics of our concern. Along the way, John would ask now and then, “When are you coming to visit us?” Finally, when I learned that his birthday was toward the end of March, I couldn’t resist. And so off I went, spending four nights in Amsterdam city center (near all the canal rings) before my 11-½ hour flight to Cape Town.

John and Isobel picked me up the next morning after I landed, greeting me with warm hugs. We were not strangers but old friends, recognizing each other easily from the photos we shared. We had a scenic drive back to their home within a conference and retreat center where John is resident theologian and also one of the ordained clergy on site. On the way to their place, we stopped at a lovely restaurant near the ocean for lunch, my sipping for the first time some fantastic South African wine. (This is wine country, folks, with numerous wineries and vineyards along the countryside.)

The highlight of my visit with them was John’s birthday dinner – 11 of us around a big table, spending the evening in both light banter as well as more serious discussion of politics and other matters. The next day was actually John’s birthday, and so he and I went to one of those wonderful wineries, tasted a few, and I purchased a lovely bottle of both red and white wine to replace the wine we drank at their home. The other evenings the three of us would just watch CNN before dinner and afterwards watch an episode of Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show before heading for bed.

If you notice the title to this blog, I have labeled it Part I. In a future blog, I intend to post some of the photos I took on my journey in order to share with you some of the visual images from my pilgrimage.

In the meantime, here is the surprise ending: After my visit, I flew back to Amsterdam and stayed at an airport hotel the night before I was to leave for Dulles and home. In the middle of the night and in my pitch-dark hotel room, I somehow fell – thinking I was back in bed but somehow was not! When I got home the next day – in some pain – and after X-rays were taken, it turns out I fractured three ribs in the process. So now I am recovering slowly from that, but I assure you that disappointing ending has not blotted out all the wonderful memories of an otherwise perfect pilgrimage taken in order to enrich my friendship with two dear people who have come to mean a lot in my life.

Finally, it occurred to me that this enforced slowing down that the accident has necessitated is actually an opportunity for relaxation, reflection, and a kind of retreat. As the journalist Pico Iyer would say, an “adventure in going nowhere.” As unaccustomed as I am to slowing down, it actually feels good to stop, rest, breathe in and out some meditative moments and just “be” for a while.

Let me end this rather lengthy blog with another poem by Isobel entitled “Pray as You Breathe,” from In Well and In Woe:

Pray as you breathe:
     when breath ceases the body dies;
     when prayer stops the soul dies.
Breathe in the Spirit,
breathe out your soul to God.

Pray as you breathe;
     with your whole heart,
     even if you feel nothing,
even if nothing seems to happen;
for if prayer stops the soul dies.

Pray as you breathe;
     pray through the dryness and the emptiness,
          the feebleness and the malaise;
God will rejoice in you,
     hold you and lift you up.

Pray as you breathe:
     inhale oxygen, exhale carbon-dioxide.
          Inhale the fresh, exhale the stale,
breathe in the Spirit, breathe out self:
so God turns all our living into prayer.