This May, I served as a program assistant for St. Norbert College’s Global Seminar Course, Walking the Camino: The History and Spirituality of Pilgrimage. The group walked the last 160 miles of the Camino Francès from Astorga, Spain, to Santiago de Compostela. In a series of blog posts over the next few months, I want to reflect upon the journey and the connections I made with my work in vocation back on campus.
My general approach to traveling—and, one might say, to life—is to prepare and research enough to have some knowledge of where I am going and where I am resting my head at night, yet leave plenty of room for the unexpected and unimaginable experiences ahead. I schedule the opportunities I might miss out on if not planned in advance, but keep space for what I find along the way.
“Whatever is given,” says Nobel prize winning poet Seamus Heaney, “can always be reimagined.” For the past six years I’ve taken students to Northern Ireland (as well as the Republic of Ireland), and each time I have two thoughts. First, nothing seems less able to help than the imagination. Bombs, shootings, riots, marches. Violent murals, omnipresent flags, banners, and painted curbs (red, white, and blue in Loyalist areas, green, orange, and white in Republican areas) all of which serve as warnings to the zone of loyalties one is entering. Then there are the peace walls, the ironically named concrete and barbed wire monstrosities erected by the British army to keep neighbors from murdering each other. “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?”
My second thought is that nothing is more urgently needed than imaginative push back. In his essay “Frontiers of Writing,” collected in The Redress of Poetry,Heaney (with a little help from American poet Wallace Stevens) voices an astounding call to exercise the civic imagination on behalf of the common good. Heaney says of the Loyalist majority in Northern Ireland that “everything and everybody would be helped were they to make their imagination press back against the pressure of reality and re-enter the whole country of Ireland imaginatively, if not constitutionally” (202). Because Northern Ireland and the work of Seamus Heaney have taught me so much about the power and limits of the imagination, my mind drifted to them during Dr. Robert Franklin’s closing plenary at the NetVUE gathering in Louisville last month, in which he argued for the imagination as a virtue to be practiced in leadership and institutions in the face of the challenges confronting America (challenges enumerated by Dr. Rebecca Chopp in her opening plenary). As I listened, I found myself wondering: Could America be helped if we began to believe that meaningful change could at least begin with the imagination? Could I persuade students that imaginative resistance and push back is itself a vocation? What happens when we think about the imagination as a confrontation with possibility?