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Summering in Place

For those who travel, and for those who do not.

It’s June, school is wrapping up, church programming is coming to a close, and with the flurry of promotions and commencements comes the annual dreaded question: “What are you doing this summer?”

If I’m honest, my first thought is usually “collapsing”; but once I’ve recovered, I usually put together as short and honest a summary of what my wife and I have lined up. As an academic, I’m often embarrassed by the exotic nature of some of the European cities I’ll be visiting — apparently for work, so thus less exotic? Eyes widen and countenances fall, nonetheless. And so, I go to further lengths to make it sound unromantic and tedious. Am I embarrassed to be traveling? Should I be?

This summer, we’ve got an entirely North American schedule, and I’ll admit that I’m feeling a little green at some of the international plans my friends and colleagues have made. I also can’t help but notice how apologetic others sound when we discuss these matters, whether they’re traveling or no. Most humbling are the looks of those for whom our relatively local trips this summer apparently sound extravagant — a reminder that travel, as a hobby or a necessity, always costs something.

In these kinds of conversations, the impulse to compare summer plans is real. And it certainly isn’t helped by social media, which ensures that I’m able to post my travel exploits and feel FOMO that I’m not keeping stride with you. I will be the first to admit that I do love to travel, and that there are many good reasons to do it. So, how do I travel well? And what am I to do when I can’t travel? Is my life therefore diminished and lessened?

Pondering these questions put me in mind of an epistolary treatise on a related subject that I read years ago by the fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nyssa (Epistula 2: On Those Who Make Pilgrimages to Jerusalem). Along with his brother Basil and their friend Gregory Nazianzen, Nyssen is often counted as one of the Cappadocian Fathers — a grouping whose value is now sometimes questioned — who would serve as bishop of Nyssa in Asia Minor. The fourth century, in which he lived, was a century that saw two great ecumenical councils — Nicaea I (325) and Constantinople I (381). It was also an early heyday of pilgrimage and ecclesiastical touring.

As we know from the Pilgrimage of Egeria, both women and men were increasingly drawn to the Holy Land, to experience the liturgies of the Jerusalem church and to see the places where the drama of the Scriptures played out. This desire, to walk “in those holy fields / over whose acres walked those blessed feet” (Henry IV, Pt. 1, I,1.24–25) would remain perennial for Christians and travelers of all sorts — from English kings and crusaders, to Franciscan monks, to the Spanish nobleman Ignatius Loyola, to today’s holiday travelers, secular and religious.

Given the almost universal appeal of travel, and the import of the cult of the saints in Late Antique and Byzantine Christian piety, it is surprising to find Gregory actually arguing against pilgrimage in this letter. Some of Gregory’s worries — such as the necessarily deleterious moral effects of women being helped off their horses by men (Epist. 2.6) — do not concern us anymore; but there is far more to Gregory’s argument against pilgrimage than the contextual particularities of ancient travel technologies. First, there is the mere fact of dislocation from one’s home place, which renders one more distractable. Then, there is the reality that hotels, hostels, and taverns are not necessarily the most wholesome of places — then or now. All things considered, on a spiritual cost-benefit analysis, Gregory strongly urges his readers to hedge their bets and stay at home.

I realize that my publicly championing Gregory’s position could sound insincere. Aren’t I the one who often travels to Europe in the summer? (Full disclosure: I have also visited Jerusalem, when studying Modern Hebrew during grad school.) Isn’t this a case of me getting a taste of my own medicine and feeling how the other half usually lives? Perhaps.

Gregory was open to similar criticism and charges of hypocrisy. In his role as bishop he had gone to Arabia and by invitation came also to speak with the churches in Jerusalem and saw the holy sites. “Why did you not lay down this law for yourself as well?” some asked him. “If there is no gain to the pilgrim according to God for having gone there, why did you undertake such a vain journey yourself? (Epist. 2.11, trans. Silvas).

A fair point, and Gregory feels the touch of it. My point in recommending Gregory’s treatise is thus not to dissuade you from traveling. As Gregory argues, there are very good reasons to change one’s location, both personal and professional. And yet, as any traveler will tell you, one inevitably comes home from a trip both tired and enriched; both invigorated and disoriented; both better and worse off for the living of one’s daily life, once the regular rhythms of term-time or the church programming year recommence. New experiences, sights, sounds, and smells fill the senses; but home friendships will have atrophied, the lawn will need mowing, the cat will have become restless, and the garden will stand in desperate need of weeding.

Gregory thus speaks in good faith when he writes the following:

We knew that [Christ] was made man through the Virgin, before we saw Bethlehem; we believed in his resurrection from the dead, before we saw his memorial-rock; we confessed the truth of his ascension into heaven, without having seen the Mount of Olives. We benefited only this much from our travelling there, that we came to know by comparison that our own places are far holier than those abroad.

Accordingly, “all you who fear the Lord, praise him” (Ps 21:23) in the places where you have your existence. For the changing of one’s place does not bring about any greater nearness to God. No, God will come to you (cf. Exod 20:24) wherever you are, if the abode of your soul is such that the Lord himself comes to dwell within you and walk with you (cf. John 14:23, 2 Cor 6:16). (Epist. 2.15–16, trans. Silvas, adapted)

A medicine of sour grapes? Or the wisdom of a seasoned traveler? I leave it to you, dear readers, to determine for yourselves. In either case, Gregory’s treatise poses questions to all of us, whether we travel or whether we don’t.

First, to those who busy themselves with much travel, even for work or pilgrimage, Gregory bids us ask (and here, I also ask myself): to what end? Why is it that you have made a risky venture of abandoning your little shires and hamlets, villes, towns, fields, and burgs, to try your fortunes on the seas? Are you merely bored or adventure-sick? Or is there something more that is calling you? And, when you do travel, what will be asked of you upon returning home again? How will you have traveled for others?

Second, to those who stay at home, summer in place, and sit at the feet of your usual workaday routine — you have chosen the better part! Your staying is one of the sinews that holds the Church’s broken body together. Your stability is witness to the triunity of God. Lovingly inhabit “your own places,” light a candle on the home altar, contemplate the holy icons, and enjoy the slower pace of things. Pray for those who travel, and recite Gregory’s words often: “The changing of one’s place does not bring about any greater nearness to God. No, God will come to you wherever you are, if the abode of your soul is such that the Lord himself comes to dwell within you and walk with you.”


  1. Thank you Fr. Cover, for this fine exposition of “ sheltering in place.” I’m reminded of some of David Lodge’s novels. Benedict warned us about religious “gyrovagues” who wander around to no good end. The virtue of stability has a spatial working out. Thanks again for this meditation.

    • David Lodge, indeed! John, I assume you’re thinking of *Small World*, which for me is the definitive fictional treatment of the academic conference.
      Thanks, Michael – I’ve been on the road much of this past month, for both work and play. But the rest of the summer I’ll be staying close to home, practicing what you have called the “better part.”


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