Journey: 1) The act of traveling from one place to another, especially when involving a considerable distance; a trip…. 3) A process or course likened to traveling, such as a series of trying experiences; a passage.[i]
In August 1981, I completed my seminary training in New Jersey, and we began a cross-country trip to my new job in California. We were driving our 1971 Plymouth Scamp. In the back was our 2 ½-year-old daughter in her car seat and our pregnant Calico in a cat carrier. We planned to camp as much as possible to save money.
One morning we left West Virginia and headed west. Our destination was Branson, Missouri, where a seminary friend was expecting us.
Late in the afternoon, we stopped at a gas station in the Kentucky countryside. It was hot and humid. As the attendant was washing the front window, he said something. He had a strong Kentucky accent and spoke softly, and I could not understand him. I said, “Sorry?”
He repeated the phrase. It took me a minute to make a guess.
“Our radiator is leaking?”
He nodded. I got out and looked under the engine; water was dripping on the concrete.
We unloaded our daughter and cat and pulled the car into the service bay. He inspected it. “Your radiator is cracked,” he said.
“What will it take to fix it?” I asked.
“We’ll have to call and see when we can get a new one,” he said.
We found some shade for our daughter and the cat carrier. The cat’s eyes were squinting as it panted in the heat.
I made small talk with the gas station attendant.
After an hour, the station owner answered the phone, then came and told me they could not get a new radiator delivered until the next morning. And then he said, “You know, you’d be welcome to stay with us tonight.”
We had not planned on this. I was uncertain about what to do. But we decided to accept.
The owner closed the station, then got in his car and drove us several miles into the country to an old two-story house. It turns out he lived with several people, including his girlfriend, and they welcomed us. One guy said it would only be right if we had some beer; living in a “dry” county meant he’d go to the closest “wet” county to buy some, so he got in his truck and made the trip.
That night we enjoyed dinner, conversation, and warm 3.2% beer.
The next morning, we thanked everyone, and he drove us back to the station. The radiator arrived, he installed it, and we continued our journey.
We began to correspond with the couple after we settled in California. We exchanged Christmas cards. They sent us news of their engagement. Then their wedding announcement. Then, several years later, pictures of their first child.
I’ll never forget how vulnerable we felt that day, and what their hospitality meant.
Our cross-country trip was a “journey” in the first sense — The act of traveling from one place to another, especially when involving a considerable distance. But, through this unexpected kindness, it became an example of the third definition: “A process or course likened to traveling, such as a series of trying experiences; a passage.” It became for me a spiritual journey. Being on spiritual journeys involves something more than just covering distances. It’s about trusting what we cannot see and relying on resources beyond our control.
At La Casa de Maria Retreat Center, we hosted thousands of guests every year. I often gave introductory tours to people and groups. I would walk with them around the 26-acre property and point out places they may want to explore: the small meditation chapel, benches along the creek, the spiritual gardens, a labyrinth, the Peace Garden, a stone memorial honoring victims of gun violence, and the oak grove that had been cultivated for centuries by native people. I would tell them to be like Alice in Wonderland: walk around and see where your curiosity leads. Then see what happens if you just sit for a while.
Our guests rarely left the property, so did not travel far in the literal sense. But people came because they were on personal journeys. They took time to rest and be in nature, and be attentive to their thoughts, feelings, intuitions, and unseen, benevolent forces. Time and time and time again, people would gain insight, experience a sense of healing, or find a new vision for their life.
The Gospel of Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary made the journey to Bethlehem not because they wanted to, but because the Roman government had ordered a census. When they arrived, there were no rooms available. But the innkeeper offered them a night in a stable. It was enough. They had to trust what they could not see, and, in time, found their way home.
People experiencing grief often feel like they are on a journey. They may be living in the same place they have for years, but the absence of a loved one can make it feel like they are now in a foreign land. This is particularly true during the holiday season. Once, I was sitting in on a grief support and a recently widowed woman described what the holidays were like: “I see the lights on the trees and houses, but they’re not sparkling.” Members of the group understood. She was not alone.
I’ll never forget the feeling of vulnerability at that gas station, and what it meant to be offered kindness and hospitality.
Being on spiritual journeys means we don’t know where exactly we will end up. But along the way, we often find support, help and blessings in unexpected places.
[i] American Heritage Dictionary
Art work: “Nativity,” Giotto, 1320