382: Letters from a Northern Pilgrimage, Part 1: “Two Holidays and a Funeral”

rom time to time, ReadTheSpirit publishes special series — and you have told us over the past year that you most enjoy series that take us somewhere with special spiritual insights. (In the past, we’ve published a series on a pilgrimage to Iona, for example. We shared a series by the poet Judith Valente on a “monastery of the heart.” In another section, right now, we’re publishing a series on the Lenten season.)
    TODAY (and throughout this week), we are proud to share a new series by the journalist and author Patricia Chargot (with images by her husband, photographer Per Kjeldsen). Pat is a journalist who also has devoted years to adapting important stories about our world for younger readers. She has circled the world for the “Yak” newspaper project that serves countless school children across the U.S. She also is the author of “Balto: The Untold Story of Alaska’s Famous Iditarod Sled Dog.”
    HERE, she shares a three-part story about a remarkable journey in which she and her husband started out on a family vacation — and wound up somewhere … else.
    (Note on images in this series: Like any great pilgrimage, this is an adventure. Many of these images are Per’s work. But, some are borrowed from other sources to form gateways to other online locations. Here’s a hint: There’s a recipe via a click on the skillet below. ENJOY!)

(Parts of the Series: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.)


(Part 1)


“Throughout my life, by means of my life, the world has little by little caught fire in my sight until, aflame all around me, it has become almost completely luminous from within.”
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

inter is so much different in Denmark than in the Midwest, milder but gloomier – the price Danes pay for blissful summers in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
      There’s very little snow and the sun needs coaxing. It hangs bizarrely low in the sky, rising noticeably later — at 8:35 a.m. on December 17, the day we arrived in Copenhagen — to climb only about a quarter of the way to the zenith and sink shockingly early, at 3:37 p.m.
      The day dissolves as quickly as Danish Lurpak butter in an aebleskive skillet.
      Yet the higher latitudes – 55 in Copenhagen and 57 in northern Jutland, where my husband Per’s family lives (compared with 42 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we live) – have their attractions.  
     Denmark’s heavy winter cloud covers may be oppressive, occasioning extra rounds of beer and aquavit, the country’s popular caraway-flavored liquor. But when the sun does break through, it’s glorious, casting a low beam of light as lemony and luscious as Danish citron fromage across the flat, pastoral landscape.

    Church light.
    That’s what it resembles, setting farm fields, lawns, cobblestones, country roads, and even highways aglow like sun spilling from a stained glass window onto the floor of a cathedral.
     The analogy isn’t far fetched, considering that over the last 18 years our annual three-week trip to Denmark has come to feel like part of my freewheeling spiritual practice. That or my personal version of  “Groundhog Day,” a reprise of virtually the same trip every year with a chance to make improvements, to do things better. Be a more loving wife. Be a more caring daughter-in-law. Deepen my relationships with relatives and friends. Enjoy myself more, savor everything more fully: sunsets over the North Sea, walks along the beach, drives through the moors, visits to favorite cafes, restaurants, museums and wildlife areas.

    And each trip does get better, though there are still sticking points, mainly stemming from my inability to speak a very difficult language, not that I’ve ever seriously tried. Who wants to study a foreign language on vacation? (Or in the states after a long week of working?) I’d rather devour a stack of good books, mainly novels. Reading keeps me sane, quelling boredom and the feeling of isolation that sets in when the Danish jabber all around me starts to wear.
    Per can’t translate everything, and as the days pass by, he translates less and less, morphing into a more Danish version of himself as he regains his vocabulary and rejoins the herd. Translating, for him, is about as much fun as trying to decipher gibberish is for me.
      This is not a criticism. Most Danes speak at least some English, and those I know have always been more than willing to speak it to me. Per’s mother, Inger, did, beautifully, until she developed dementia several years ago, but Per’s father, Herluf, does not, which has been my loss. (He regrets being unable to speak more than a few words to me, too.)
      Still, we “get” each other. Herluf is a very witty, charismatic, larger-than-life kind of guy, a former men’s clothing salesman, whose signature mode of expressing affection consists of taking my face in his hands and crooning, “my little sweetheart” or “my little darling” in charmingly accented English. What daughter-in-law could resist that? Not me.
    I love Herluf, who at 80 “looks a lot better than I feel,” as he likes to say. I’ve always thought of him and Inger more as a fun, older couple who we like to hang out with than as in-laws or parental figures. Five years ago, they could still party us under the table. Skaal!

       We decided to go to Denmark for Christmas on a whim. We’ve always visited in summer, which pretty much ate up our vacation time. But Per, who’s a photographer, retired two years ago from the University of Michigan, and his main freelance gig, shooting UM football, had ended for the season. And I had recently taken a buyout from the Detroit Free Press, giving up my reporter’s job rather than watch my beloved profession implode. So why not go to Denmark again?
      The economy was reeling and our savings had eroded, like everyone else’s. But after losing so much money, what were a couple thousand more? Inger, 88, or Herluf – or, God forbid, both of them – might not be here next summer. And Anne, an old college pal of Per’s, wouldn’t take no for an answer after visiting us last fall on her first trip to the United States. We had rekindled our friendships a decade after losing touch – hers and Per’s, hers and mine, and ours as a threesome — on a picture perfect trip to Niagara Falls. Anne’s husband, Anders, wasn’t getting any younger, either – he’s 18 years her senior – and we wanted to see him, too.
      “You have to come!”  Anne messaged from Copenhagen. “Christmas and New Year’s in Denmark are wonderful!
      “Do it now, while you can.”
      And so, futilely vowing once again to pack lightly, Per and I crammed two carry-on bags and three suitcases with clothes, books and Christmas presents, and schlepped our way to Denmark, arriving an hour late in Amsterdam but miraculously making a tight connection to Copenhagen because the plane had been delayed. Luck was on our side. It was going to be a fabulous trip.
     Suitcases missing? Not to worry. Surely they’d arrive on the next flight from Amsterdam, and surely Northwest/KLM would put them in a taxi and deliver them to Anne and Anders’ house in plenty of time for me to get dolled up for his 79th birthday party that evening. If not, I would plaster a smile on my jet-lagged face and greet their large circle of distinguished, well-dressed friends as a scum ball, wearing blue jeans and a tee shirt, with no makeup and dirty hair.  Go with the flow, Patricia.
     Besides, I was no run-of-the-mill scum ball, as I had learned on the plane. I was a scum ball living in “the Divine Milieu,” penetrated by a cosmic force that “unites and completes all beings within its powerful love,” according to the book I was reading on Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), the Jesuit priest and paleontologist (the dashing gentleman in the sepia photo above.
     I had been meaning to delve into Chardin for years, based on a single, well-known quote I had come across several times:

“The day will come when, after harnessing space,
the winds, the tides, and gravitation, we shall harness
for God the energies of love. And, on that day,
for the second time in the history of the world,
we shall have discovered fire.”

       What a poetic and powerful prophecy! Chardin apparently believed in love’s potential to transform everything — you, me, the entire world — but based on what? Written in 1934, in Peking, the quote sounded like New Age thinking, as naïve in its simplicity as the so-called Gaia hypothesis, which regards the Earth as a single, living organism. (I don’t buy it.) But it resonated with intelligence and a shimmering mysticism, too. Envisioning love as a form of energy, like electricity, didn’t seem all that much stranger than contemplating dark energy or dark matter. 
     There’s so much we don’t know about the universe. Physicists are searching for a Theory of Everything that would link all the known forces and processes of nature. It’s not inconceivable that love — some benevolent, all-enveloping consciousness  — is the force linking gravity, the strong and weak nuclear forces and electromagnetism, for starters, and perhaps even all beings. Some physicists say that if a unifying force does exist, it might very well be beyond our grasp — too grand to be reduced to an  equation, however elegant.
     By the time we arrived in Copenhagen, I had read 100 pages of “Teilhard de Chardin, the Divine Milieu Explained, a Spirituality for the 21st Century,” by Louis M. Savary, who has doctorates in both theology and mathematical statistics, and I was hooked: I couldn’t wait to finish the 258-page book, which included a series of spiritual exercises.
      “Teilhardian spirituality,” as Savary calls it, seemed to fit with and refine everything I had come to (tentatively) believe (skeptic that I am) over several decades of exploring the world and searching for God as a long lapsed Catholic who probably will never find her way back into the fold, but doesn’t discount the possibility, either.

    I’ve paid my dues: 16 years of Catholic education by four religious orders.
    I pray. I meditate. I walk labyrinths. I burn Native American sacred herbs – sage, sweet grass and tobacco. I commune with nature. I read books and listen to tapes and CDs on Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Native American spirituality, Sufism and more.
    And that, in a nutshell, is the history of my scattershot spiritual evolution.
      Evolution is the foundation of Teilhardian spirituality. Chardin was obsessed with it, both as a scientist and a spiritual seeker. It inspired his belief in a “Divine Milieu,” which Savary describes as a “sea of divine grace and favor” and a “divine bath or ocean in which everything exists.” 
     We are all immersed in it all the time, mostly unaware that it’s even there.
     “Teilhard has been accused of being a pantheist (one who believes that everything is God),” writes Savary.  “Teilhard is not a pantheist, but a panentheist (one who believes that everything has its own existence but is living in God as in a milieu).”
     Divine Milieu, from the French — I hadn’t come across a spiritual term that potent in a long time. In meaning, the Great Tao (DOW) comes close, but is characterized as an impersonal cosmic force. (The 2,500-year-old “Tao te Ching,” or Book of the Way, is my favorite spiritual guide. I never tire of it, and carry a copy of Stephen Mitchell’s English translation in my purse.)
     The Divine Milieu is “accessible” and “possesses a personal identity,” writes Savary. It’s a “holy presence” that is  “near and perceptible,” though it   “constantly eludes our grasp.”
      It is not God, but was created by God, the “divine omnipresence.”  And it’s been evolving in complexity and consciousness since the Big Bang, working for billions of years to coordinate and harmonize everything from the evolution of galaxies and planetary orbits to the talents and strivings of individuals, with the ordained goal of someday reaching maturity, which Chardin called the Omega Point.

     I’ll stop there. There’s a lot to Chardin — too much to summarize here, so I’ve included a list of books and Web sites at the end of this series.
     Anders was waiting for us at Kastrup Airport, looking like the affable and dashing Dane we remembered: lean, fit and exuding vitality — he’s a long-distance biker — though a lot grayer, as are we all.
     On the way home, he took us on a whirlwind tour through the oldest and most beautiful part of Copenhagen — our first in a car; we always walk or take the bus or train when we visit. 
     It was like seeing the city with new eyes. As tired as we were, it was thrilling – and my first encounter with that strange, low beam of golden light, which we seemed to be chasing as it set licks of fire to everything, like some prankster arsonist.
      We passed the whimsical front entrance of Tivoli Gardens (photo above), with its 2,600 gleaming terracotta stones in 78 designs; and Nyhavn (NEW-hown, photo at left), the old sailor’s quarter, with its saffron-and-cinnamon colored bars and restaurants facing out to the harbor.

    We caught a flash of the iconic Round Tower (at left here), with its interior spiral passageway leading to the top — wide enough for a horse and carriage — and the Church of Our Savior, with its exterior spiral staircase, allowing tourists to ascend the spire.
      We skirted Amalienborg Palace, where the royal family lives.
      “Hello, Queen Margrethe!” (She’s a very cool queen.)
      Beyond, in an area I had never explored, Anders pointed out “Anne’s church,” Holmens Kirke — KIR-kuh means church in Danish — the Dutch Renaissance-style Lutheran royal chapel and naval church where Margrethe and Prince Henrik were married.  It jutted up from the edge of a canal, like a brick ship in dry dock.
      Several years ago, Anne abandoned her long career as a pediatric dentist to take an administrative job at Holmens Kirke, not because she’s particularly religious — most Danes aren’t — but because she loves classical music and its choir is renowned as the best church choir in Denmark. She had promised to take us to the church’s Christmas concert on Saturday, the day before we were to fly to Aalborg for our stay with Per’s parents.
     Anne and Anders, a retired dental professor, live in Hellerup, one of the capital’s most gracious older suburbs, in a cozy, two-story house filled with books, paintings, Anne’s photos, and a casually elegant mix of family antiques and the sleek, well-designed appliances and house wares for which Denmark is so famous.
     Hygge (HOO-geh) – coziness – is a hallmark of Danish hospitality. Danes effortlessly create warmth and ease in their communal spaces, clustering furniture for maximum intimacy, investing in the best and most beautiful light fixtures they can afford, and even lighting candles in the middle of the day if friends drop by for coffee pastry. Which is so, so nice. Tea lights originated in Scandinavia, after all, and Danish homes are aglow with them.
     So it came as no surprise that the Christmas season truly is something special in Denmark – much less commercialized than in the United States. Sweeter and more authentic, even old-fashioned – and who among doesn’t long for Christmas Past?

      Danes still put real candles on their Christmas trees, which look like Charlie Brown trees, with fewer branches and ornaments than would suit most Americans. But each ornament is a treasure, often made by Royal Copenhagen, “purveyor to her majesty the queen of Denmark,” or one of the country’s other fine porcelain houses; they hang from long silk ribbons, not hooks — and not just from trees.
      At Anne and Anders’, gold ornaments dangled from every window in the living room, as well the door jambs and ceiling: birds, crowns, hearts, bells. The effect was dazzling, and very hyggelig.
    Danes also set out Advent wreaths, which I have seen in the states. But I had never seen a  “Christmas candle,” with the numbers one through 25 running down one side. Many families buy more than one, lighting them daily, starting Dec. 1, and letting them burn down to the next number before blowing them out. It’s a very hyggelig ritual, a countdown to Christmas for adults as well as children.

    I didn’t have to attend Ander’s party as a “scum ball” after all: Our suitcases arrived in the nick of time. And the party was wonderful — a traditional Danish birthday party, my first — complete with a Danish red-and-white flag, frikadeller (frek-ka-DELL-uh), the Danish version of meatballs, marinated fried herring, and Danish citron fromage (which is lemon mousse, not lemon cheese).
     After dinner, Anne passed out song sheets and the entire party — 14 guests, everyone but me — broke into rousing renditions of at least a dozen Danish traditional, patriotic and drinking songs, as if they were all back in college. It was great fun, and by the time Per and I got to bed we were exhausted.
    We slept until 2 p.m., then did it all again: Stayed up late eating leftovers and drinking too much beer and wine with Anne, Anders and their next-door neighbors.
    We had met Ginny and Flemming at the party, but  Anne wanted us to get to know them better because we had a lot in common — he’s Danish and she’s American. Like me, Ginny is a children’s book writer, as well as a retired children’s book publisher. Flemming raises funds for Earth University, a non-profit school in the Costa Rican jungle, whose mission is to produce leaders committed to sustainable development.
    They were a delightful couple, so lively at 81 that it was hard be believe they were two decades older than we were. We talked for more than an hour after our exhausted hosts excused themselves.
    The conversation turned personal, and we told Ginny and Flemming about Inger — that Herluf had warned us that she was a lot worse than she was last summer, when she was already a ghost in he house. Right before we left for Denmark, she was hospitalized because she had stopped eating and would drink only a few sips of water. But she became so anxious that Herluf decided to take her home. It’s what she would have wanted.
     It was unclear whether she would regain her strength or further weaken — shunning food was nothing new and she’d been treated for dehydration before. Per’s cousin, Susan, a geriatric nurse, was at the house, so things were under control. There was nothing we could do.

     Per and I regaled Ginny and Flemming with anecdotes about the old Inger (at left), who was funny, generous, up on current events, and always smartly dressed, but never frivolous: a woman of substance, who was now lost to us.
    They listened and laughed. Then suddenly, Ginny bolted upright and clutched the sides of the table. 
     “Did you feel that?” she asked.
     We had no idea what she was talking about.
     “I just felt a tremor! I’m sure of it.”
     Earthquakes are rare in Scandinavia, but two days earlier, one measuring 4.7 on the Richter scale had hit southern Sweden. It was felt across Copenhagen, which is connected to Sweden by a bridge.
     Ginny must have felt an aftershock. Minutes later, we said our goodnights and they went home.
     As Per and I were getting ready for bed, the phone rang. It was Susan, calling to tell us that Inger had died about 20 minutes earlier, in bed holding Herluf’s hand — very likely while we were talking about her, perhaps even as Ginny was feeling the aftershock.

     My husband is not a superstitious man. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that his mother’s spirit had passed by to say goodbye, through Ginny. Neither could I. It soothed our sadness during a long night of wakefulness and only intermittent sleep, and made me think of a drawing I had recently seen by Brian Andreas, an American artist and writer. It was a little story, really – an imaginary clown figure, a funny little creature with three legs, and a single neatly printed sentence:
   “He told me that the night his mother died, there were storms & far away he saw purple lightning & someone left the window open & the room filled with a swirl of butterflies & she slipped out quietly without anyone noticing & I’m sure the grief was softer because of that.”


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