Have you ever been on some of the really old roads in Appalachia or New England, or England or Ireland, that have been used for so long that the passage of feet and hooves and wheels has worn a deep groove in the earth? Driving or walking on such a road means that all you see is what seem to be the sides of a ditch. Trees may grow over the road, and seem to meet above it with the intention of obscuring it from view. The road becomes a mysterious tunnel.
Other roads run along ridges that are ancient, and became travelways because the stone in the ridges prevented trees from growing, and thus made it easy to keep the road open. Sometimes, such a road determines the destination. The Ridgeway, the ancient chalk footpath that crosses Southern England, opened that part of the island to trade because it was possible for people to walk there easily. The journey became defined by the relative ease with which people and animals could travel it.
The old path that wound down what we call locally the Shenandoah Valley became a road for Native Americans because it was a way to travel through a mountainous region without constantly climbing or descending. That way became what we know as Route 11, and eventually Interstate-81, with its moving wall of trucks, followed the way that tribes had journeyed to trade and hunt.
Other roads become necessary because they lead to places of pilgrimage. The road from London to Canterbury, from southern France through the Pyrenees to Compostela, became constantly journeyed paths because people wished to visit the shrines of Santiago, (that is, St. James,) in Spain or Thomas a Becket at the scene where Henry II’s knights murdered him, the cathedral in Canterbury.
I am going on about roads at some length because what they mean to us is worth some thought. There is a brief sentence in the Gospel of St. Luke about Jesus healing the 10 lepers that I believe speaks a profound truth about our experience as human beings on this strange and wondrous planet. It is clear from reading the works of travel writers like Jan Morris, or Patrick Leigh-Fermor or the Victorian ladies who went off on great adventures (even though their culture thought they should stay home, stay pregnant, and stay out of sight): people who travel for the sake of travel are often suffering a great sorrow, or asking themselves a great question. I see such sadness — or such questions — a lot in the people who stop in Harpers Ferry from traveling the Appalachian Trail. When they share their stories, one often learns of a wound they carry with them, or a question they seek to answer.
I believe that, one way or another, all of us are on the road. Or, as a friend of mine said when we were discussing this, “Life is a journey, blah, blah, blah.” So what is the mysterious insight that we can gain from the Gospel? Here is the key sentence, one that I have seldom seen mentioned: “As they went, they were made clean.”
It seems to me that in that almost invisible sentence in the Gospel, a great truth is hidden. We go on our many roads with the intention of accomplishing something. We also go with a less overt intention — the intention to clear away some sorrow, cleanse ourselves of some sin or sickness, or clarify some question. As we travel, we become aware that whatever burdens we carry, whatever disease we face, whatever mystery puzzles us, we are not alone. We are walking ancient trails, some of them worn deep into the earth, some of them seemingly worn into our souls by our experience, asking ancient questions, and begging understanding and healing of God, the Ancient of Days.
We like to think that we are unique and that no one can possibly understand the complexities of our lives — but as many different paths as there are, and as many ways as we may face challenges and sorrows on the road, God knows all of them. Once I was walking on Adams Street in Chicago, on my way to the El after a hard day of work, going home to my two little kids, and feeling very burdened by the difficulties of life as a young, newly single mother. I looked up, and a very light snow had begun to fall amid the tall buildings in the Loop. A man was coming toward me with a black pea jacket on, with those delicate snowflakes making star points on the fabric. He was wearing a button on it that said, “I’m a lot like you.” It made me smile, and also made me remember that I am not unique, and that probably many of the people walking along Adams that evening had just as many difficulties as I did. We are walking many roads, but we are not alone.
So, what does Jesus say to the leper who comes back? “Get up and go your way.” Which is what Jesus himself does. He is always traveling around Judea and Samaria, and even into Syria, teaching, preaching and healing. He does not stop. The road he is following to the cross does not prevent him from doing his work of preaching and healing. His love is constant and reaches out to all his fellow travelers.
There is one sure thing: like Jesus, the roads we follow have only one destination — the death of the body. We are assured by him that death is a transition into a larger life where we will find freedom in the nearer presence of God. In the meantime, we are walking in the light of God. Peace be with you as you travel, fellow pilgrims.
— The Rev. Georgia C. DuBose is the priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Harpers Ferry and the St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Leetown