A Review of
Without Oars: Casting Off Into a Life of Pilgrimage
Reviewed by Carolyn Miller Parr
Though I don’t know him personally, the author of Without Oars, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, and I share some spiritual roots. At different times we’ve each been influenced by Gordon Cosby and the faith community he founded, The Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. In the early ‘70’s Michaelson attended this church when he worked for Sen. Mark Hatfield, a liberal Republican from Oregon who opposed the Vietnam war. Wes was in his early twenties then. He went on to become a highly respected ecumenical progressive Christian leader, first with The World Council of Churches in Geneva, and then as General Secretary of The Reformed Church of America.
A dozen years after he left Washington, I moved to DC and discovered the church. There I too learned to appreciate the gift of a spiritual inner journey undertaken in community with others.
In Without Oars, Michaelson uses his experience in “thin places” as diverse as Tabiorar in Nigeria, the shrine of Lourdes in France, and El Santuario de Chimayo in the New Mexico desert to illustrate the meaning and miracle of Incarnation, God’s presence in our material world. The Word was made flesh and dwells among us still, in myriad forms and places. As on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit stills dances and sings in human bodies.
A pilgrimage may be an intentional journey with a pre-selected destination, such as the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the one that frames this book. Or it may be characterized as simple wandering, with no firm destination in mind. It may begin, as it did for Michaelson, with restlessness that led to a simple visit to a monastery. Or, as it did for me, on a three-day silent retreat at Dayspring Farm in Germantown, Maryland. There’s a better-than-even chance the journey will involve breathing fresh air, walking, a spirituality one feels in the body.
Michaelson chose his title from a true story of the “wandering” type. In 891 CE three Irish pilgrims set off in a simple boat with no oars, casting themselves on the ocean currents and God’s grace to take them where they should be. They took a week’s food and water. On the seventh day they landed in Cornwall (now England), convinced God sent them there.
The pilgrimage described in this book was an intentional journey to Compostela the author undertook with three friends. It was a brave commitment. He had two bad knees and couldn’t always keep up with his companions, though they would wait for him at the next village where they’d planned to spend the night. More amazing to me is that, as nearly as I can calculate, he must have been approaching or slightly past the age of seventy.
Without Oars is not a travel guide. It’s the story of the author’s inner journey as well. That journey is no head trip. The inner journey of faith leads, by way of the flesh, to seeking and finding one’s deepest and truest self.
Michaelson’s journey began in his twenties with a sense of restlessness, a sense that’s been magnified for most of us during the pandemic. Quarantine has disconnected us from our ordinary ways of doing work, school, church – but left us feeling not liberated but trapped. Like the Irish saints, we want to break free, but don’t know where we’re going.
A place to begin is shedding. Michaelson describes makeshift shrines along the Camino where pilgrims lighten their backpack by leaving items they discovered they can do without – extra shoes, a book, a makeup kit. Shedding stuff is liberating. We can do it anywhere.
The author’s goal, he writes, has become to leave everything behind but Jesus.
On pilgrimage we detach from the distractions of computers, cellphones, tv news. Another word for shedding is “relinquishment.” At least temporarily, the pilgrim relinquishes the securities protecting the ego. “We detach ourselves from what we do to discover, or rediscover, how to be.” (41) We learn to release the “self” as the center and the notion of controlling our own destiny. No oars. A divested pilgrim is free to pay careful attention to manifestations of God’s grace, in the landscape and in the other pilgrims one meets on the way. “Pilgrims walk away from their lives to discover their souls.” (60)
Walking a pilgrimage is slow. It requires patience. From his starting point in Ponferrada to Santiago de Compostela Michaelson was looking at 344,347 steps on the Camino. The full path of the Camino begins in France, is 490 miles, and takes around 35 days moving at a fast pace, sometimes on rough and hilly terrain. Once, when the sun was beating down, alone, knees aching and feeling physically spent, Michaelson realized he still had kilometers to go before meeting up with his friends. What did he do?
“I called a taxi.” He’s not Superman.
This book is so rich. It’s hard to choose, but I think the most meaningful chapter for me is Chapter 5, “Walking into faith.” The writer distinguishes creeds (head beliefs) and embodiment of faith. He speaks of dancing, feasting (eucharist), and walking into faith. I wonder if he thinks of making love as a way of receiving God’s grace. Maybe that’s why Catholics consider marriage a sacrament.
This passage speaks – no, sings – to me: The incarnation was the final, divine assault on the belief that the material world was only matter and didn’t matter. It is, for Christians, the most reckless, wild act of God. Certainly, it opens pathways for a reckless spirituality that is tethered to faith in an incarnate, rather than an excarnate, world—always, ever infused with God’s presence. (91. Italics added.)
A personal postscript: I once visited the Cathedral at Compostela. I arrived by tour bus. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, begun in 1075 and finally consecrated in 1211. I saw hundreds of newly arrived pilgrims mixed with tourists milling around in the grand plazas within the walled city. I wanted to walk the Camino at some future time.
I never did – but reading Without Oars may be the next best thing.