Let us pray for all who suffer and are afflicted in body or in mind;
For the hungry and the homeless, the destitute and the oppressed
For the sick, the wounded, and the crippled
For those in loneliness, fear, and anguish
For those who face temptation, doubt, and despair
For the sorrowful and bereaved
For prisoners and captives, and those in mortal danger
That God in his mercy will comfort and relieve them, and grant them the knowledge of his
love, and stir up in us the will and patience to minister to their needs.
Gracious God, the comfort of all who sorrow, the strength of all who suffer: Let the cry of
those in misery and need come to you, that they may find your mercy present with them in all their afflictions; and give us, we pray, the strength to serve them for the sake of him who suffered for us, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
--Book of Common Prayer
I am just about to finish an annual 40-mile ultramarathon. It was originally for runners and walkers but has become more of a bicycle rally. I have biked it a couple times but this year simply drove along a parallel route, parked near the six checkpoints and walked across the timing mats. The event is loosely refereed. The challenge I set for myself this year was to keep from drinking for the whole length of the course except at the aid stations next to each mat. At mile 39, I got the urge to run again. And that’s what I am doing now. My stride is lengthening. I’m pushing myself and want to push even harder to enhance my sense of oneness with those who ran the whole way. Maybe next year I will bike the whole course again. Maybe even train so that I can run it or at least walk it. I see the finish line! I’m going to sprint until I cross.
The marathon is Lent. Driving a parallel route is cruising through Lent with token deprivation, superficial reflection, and more concern for comfort than compassion. Drinking at the aid stations is indulgence on Sundays, not counted as Lenten days. The urge to run, to join with others, is reflection on the above prayer that I read last night, Good Friday. Thoughts of exerting myself more next year are discontent with this year’s indiscipline, insensitivity, inaction. The finish line is Easter. I will celebrate it but probably not as wholeheartedly as those who have more attentively and appropriately participated in the Lenten season.
I hope that next year—or next week or today—when I pray that “God in his mercy will comfort and relieve” those who suffer, it can be with more of a sense that God-in-me—God-in-us--has comforted and given relief to those who suffer and that God-in-us will continue to do so.
An earlier post showed how the younger word trail has taken over meanings once associated with path. Similarly, the younger road is now used to refer to what was once covered by way. Comparing the King James Version (KJV) with contemporary translations of the Bible indicates how the use of the two words has changed over the past 400 years.
The KJV uses road only once in the entire Bible, in the coastal king Achish’s question to David “Whither have ye made a road to day?” David is at the time a military hero-turned-fugitive in conflict with Israel’s king Saul. Achish has allowed David and his “600 men” to stay in his territory. David’s army supports itself in ISIS-like fashion by attacking towns to the south of both Achish’s and Saul’s territories, “leaving neither man nor woman alive, and taking away the sheep, and the oxen, and the asses, and the camels, and the apparel.” King Achish is asking David not about road construction but about where he went to raid others. David’s answer: “Against towns in Saul’s territory.” His massacres have left no witnesses to say the contrary and Achish can think David “hath made his people Israel utterly to abhor him; therefore he shall be my servant for ever.”
Road was first used in English to refer to the “act of riding horseback” or “a journey on horseback”. It later referred to the “act of riding with hostile intent” and then to acts of hostile intent whether or not with horses—raids. The metonymic association of riding and the place of riding gave rise to the sense that we know today: an “ordinary line of communication used by persons passing between different places, usually one wide enough to admit of the passage of vehicles as well as of horses or travellers on foot” (OED).
Road was just beginning to be used in this sense in King James’ time; much more common was the use of way:
King James Version: the way to Shure; rough ways; way of the sea
Modern translations: the road to Shur; rough roads; road to/by the sea
In King James’ time, way matched well with the biblical Hebrew derek, Greek hodos, and Latin via. All could refer to a “stretch of land, trodden solid and therefore used as a road.” All could be used to refer to what would be labeled a path, trail, street or road today. They could also be used in the sense of travel or journey or, even more generally, when referring to life’s journey, conduct, behavior, or custom.
Today, however, the use of way to refer to a material road or road-like structure is rare, apart from names of streets such as “London Way” that might lead to Ye Olde Towne Shoppe. Way is mostly used in the abstract senses of “direction,” “manner of proceeding” or “means”. So while Milky Way well translated Latin’s via lactea in Chaucer’s time (“See yonder, lo, the Galaxye, Which men clepeth [call] the Milky Wey”), Milky Road would today better express what the poet Ovid said the gods traveled over to arrive at the palace of the mighty Thunderer.
In the Gospel of John, it is the Greek hodos that leads to the supreme deity’s palace. Jesus says he is going there and expresses confidence that his followers know the hodos. Thomas says, “We don’t know where you’re going. So how can we know the hodos?” Jesus replies “I am the hodos—and the truth and the life.” Most versions follow the KJV in translating hodos by way here. I was brought up to think this meant “the means by which you get to heaven” (the cross, the resurrection, etc.), without questioning why this futuristic notion would be mixed in with the non-temporal references to truth and life. I rarely if ever associated the image of a road with this saying. Rather than being encouraged to think of how “truth” and “life” relate to a part of everyday experience—a road, I was taught to understand this text as an abstract claim in keeping with a dogma. The Message is the only translation I know of that keeps the image:
Jesus said, "…You already know the road I’m taking."
Thomas said, “Master, we have no idea where you’re going.
How do you expect us to know the road?”
Jesus said, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life.
But even The Message bows to tradition when translating one of the first names for the new religion described in the book of the Acts of the Apostles: “the hodos.” Immediately preceding and following the use of this name are two key events that most modern translations rightly depict as occurring on a road. An Ethiopian traveling from Jerusalem back to his homeland is met on the hodos/road by a Jesus follower, hears “the good news” and continues on--or in--his hodos rejoicing. The scene immediately switches to a Saul who is tracking down people of The Hodos/the Road. (Most if not all translations keep the King James “Way” even if they used “road” in the other contexts.) But heading toward Damascus, he is blinded by “a light from heaven.” A Jesus follower takes Paul in and explains about Jesus “the one appearing to you on/in the hodos/road.”
The road is the way. The road, the journey on the road—sometimes a path, sometimes a trail, sometimes a street, sometimes a paved road—is where one encounters the Divine.
 Koehler & Baugartner. The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.
About four years ago outside the English department’s building, I recognized a guy from faculty meetings and stopped to ask him something. I have forgotten his brief answer, probably getting me to a meeting at the right time or place, but not his own question: “Didn’t you run in the Big South Fork Trail Race?" The guarded exchange of strangers quickly turned to amused recollection of hopping limestone slabs, getting stung by wasps, and wading through rain-swollen streams. Before long, he was encouraging me to pursue other trails. It was Jason who prodded me to run my first ultra: the Land Between the Lakes 50. We ran there again this past weekend though for shorter distances. With appreciation for the friendship that has developed from the camaraderie of the trail, I post son Pascal’s video of the LBL 50 done three years ago.
The ancient philosopher Plato blazed one of the western world’s most traveled trails. Some of those who have walked on it and created side-trails of their own are the biblical writers John and Paul, theologians Augustine and Calvin, philosophers Kant and Frege, poets Emerson and Yeats, and the producers of movies such as The Matrix and The Room. Probably the best known spot on the trail is the Allegory of the Cave. I thought it a good spot for Freshmen to visit at the beginning of their liberal arts education. Before taking them there, I would ask how many had already visited it. Usually, none. So I summarize it here in case a reader has not been there—or has only a hazy memory of having visited it long ago.
People are bound to their chairs, facing the wall of a cave. They cannot look behind them, where a fire is burning. Between the fire and the prisoners is a walkway traversed by others carrying a variety of objects. Of these, the prisoners see only the shadows cast upon the wall in front of them. This is their reality. They give names to the various objects and honor those who most cleverly communicate about the shadows.
One prisoner’s chains are broken and he stumbles along an upward path, out of the cave into the organic world. He at first must shield his eyes from the sun, finding it easier to look at reflections in the water than at their source. Eventually, though, he is able to look at this new world, marveling at the beauty which so greatly surpasses that of the cave’s shadows, and even at the sun itself, the ultimate source of beauty, goodness, light.
He returns to the cave to tell others of what he has seen. He stumbles while his eyes adjust form the light to the darkness. The prisoners laugh at this and his attempts to communicate what he has seen.
I would ask my students questions of the kind that I still ask myself:
I often hike on Plato’s trail, but I also leave it. Long ago, on a warm summer day, I was contemplating the pine in front of me, assuming it to be only a shadow of true pineness and yearning for a vision of the beauty behind it. Then, “This is it! This is the height of beauty. This tree. The gleaming needles on the bough. The bough gentled by the breeze. The scent. The imprint of the fallen needles on my palms.”
For a greater vision of pineness, I might better have studied a botany book for the relationship between this pine and others; but for a greater appreciation of the abstract relationships presented in the botany book, I could continue to study this specific tree. In Paradise Lost, Milton suggests that the concrete, material universe may be a realm of beauty and goodness even higher than the realm of light from which it was conceived:
O Earth, how like to Heav'n, if not preferr'd
More justly, Seat worthier of Gods, as built
With second thoughts, reforming what was old!
For what God after better worse would build?
Trails we follow,