A PILGRIMAGE OF CHURCHES, Ron Starbuck. Saint Julian Press, 2053 Cortlandt, Suite 200, Houston, Texas 77008, 2023, 60 pages, $18 paperback, http://www.saintjulianpress.com
A Pilgrimage of Churches is a collection of Ron Starbuck’s black and white photographs of primarily church buildings, with some schoolhouses, farms, and landscapes, counterpointed with meditative verse in liturgical style, commemorating the heritage of people and place in and around Easton Township, Leavenworth County, Kansas, and in his current residence of Houston, Texas. In his own words, the project is “one person’s answer to the landscape of the Great Plains, flowing from Canada to the Coastal Plains of Texas, and the people who live there, who work the land, and who worship together in community on the Sabbath” (the Sabbath being a common euphemism for Sunday in the religious tradition of many rural church denominations).
Actually, the book devotes three-fourths of its footprint to the “Great Plains”—The Smokey Hills, The Glacial Hills of Kansas, The Flint Hills of Kansas, and one-fourth to The Coastal Plains of Texas (Houston). In those terms and in other ways, this collection is a soaring success. The striking photos document a life that was common after the Civil War until the latter half of the 20th century—every town and municipality not only in the Great Plains, but in, dare I say, in most rural places where people worked the land and lived in community with a common heritage, mythos, and practice about and at home, school, and church.
The author makes it clear from his introduction that the point of view of his photographs and written verse, although open to other traditions (particularly Buddhism), view the world from inside the walls of liturgical Christianity. And yet, this work is much more than its title, A Pilgrimage of Churches, might suggest. Once art is created, it no longer belongs to the creator. Viewers and readers will see and hear narratives other than the ones intended by words such as these in answer to the Olsburg Bell Tower with an epigraph from Psalm 118 that ends with Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his mercy endures forever.
Honoring those who conceived
A church laid with shingles
And a sapling once planted
Grown taller now brushes softly
Against aged wood to cast shadows
Where peeling paint and light
Reflecting from russet autumn
Leaves catch and enter our eyes
So that our mind turns gently
Towards the light where waiting
In thoughtful simplicity of heart
The pure stillness and silence
Of our modest mortal flesh
Signals an imminent prophet
Envisioning our healing
Beyond the ruined places
Of our human hearts
Where voices raised in reverence
Welcome this holy mystery
Cherished long since childhood
Although “open to [all] voices raised in reverence [that] welcome this holy mystery,” this work of image and text, like the builders and congregants of the churches and other edifices photographed, is expressed in ritual—a ritual meaningful to the people of its era and a ritual that held—and still holds—them together, the cultural glue that has loosened in modern and postmodern times. Between photographs, each page begins with a title the author has given the preceding photograph, then a Biblical reference of book and chapter, the liturgical name for the Psalm or passage of scripture, and the key, selected verses. The writer then transmogrifies the scripture to verses that act as an ekphrastic expression of not only the images photographed, but truths that well up from the land and its people. The opening photograph is of the United Methodist Church of Beverly, Kansas. What follows is example of the form of the entire book:
IN THIS HOLY HOUSE – SHEKHINAH
PSALM 51 Miserere mei, Deus [Have mercy on me, O God]
11 Create in me a clean heart, O God;
and renew a right spirit within me.
12 Cast me not away from thy presence;
and take not thy holy spirit from me.
We must imagine, beyond A divine presence dwelling
All our visions—in every Within all flesh – as humanity’s
Holy House of God Sons and daughters prophesy
An indwelling, a settling In a reconciliation and
Of the Holy Spirit – shekinah redemption within the world
An abundance of light In a name given and exalted
That rises up Above every name in heaven
As the last darkness Upon and under the earth
Passes over humankind Confessed on every tongue
And transforms all things So that we might too
Pouring out a radiance Become servants emptied
A great reverence Of all presumptions and desires
This page opens up not only the book, but the first of four sections: The Great Plains, Smoky Hills of Kansas. The next two sections begin with the same title, The Great Plains, with subtitles of Glacial Hills of Kansas and The Flint Hills of Kansas. Section Two, The Glacial Hills, is noteworthy because it not only contains photos from Easton Township, Kansas, where Starbuck’s ancestors settled, but it also contains, in addition to photos the county’s churches, an intimate look into his heritage with photographs of possibly a distant relatives’ marriage ceremony, the “Family Homestead,” and automobiles of the era, similar to the silver blue 1940s model with whitewall tires where Starbuck rode shotgun while his grandfather drove in the poem, “Marvelous Remembrance”—
…smell[ing] of aftershave
Lotion and fresh cigar smoke
The hood and fenders shimmer[ing]
And polished with light
From freshly applied car wax
Brightly buffed to shine and glow
As we glowed inside whenever
We kept company together
This is the wonderous thing
About all grandparents
And aunts and uncles too
We spoil children in their earliest
Years—showing them in flashes
The marvelous wonders
Of a world without end
Creating a wonder inside them
Lasting a lifetime and beyond
To share with the next
Generations to be born.
Section IV ends this collection with photos and text commemorating the author’s current location in Houston, Texas: The Great Plains: Houston—Coastal Plains. The first image is of a massive, vaulted archway in the Trinity Episcopal Church, with its cruciform architectural plan, common in Roman Catholic churches in medieval times. The text that follows it is appropriately one of thanksgiving:
“THANKSGIVING PRAISES / PSALM 95 Venite, exultemus (Come let us praise): Come, let us sing to the Lord; / let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation. // Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving / and raise a loud shout to him with psalms.
The center of this mixed-media work, is not merely the visual narrative supplied by the photographs and the lyrical responses of the author, following the liturgical rubrics from The Bible, but it is also tied up with the very structure of the edifice of the book itself—a study in darkness and in light, both in the subject of the photos and in the text of mostly lines with three accents, mostly in two columns over two pages, a massive amount of white surrounding them—an analogue of the aspirational and memetic nature of the portrayal of the spiritual milieu of times when these churches were built.
There are no stronger images and text than the ones found on pages 104-107, closing this collection. The image of the interior of Live Oak Friends Meeting [Place], a study in light and shadow of empty pews turned at ninety degrees, facing four windows and doors with light bled out to a brilliant white, showing only faint images outside left to the imagination, opens this series. What I consider to be one of the strongest passages written by Starbuck follows this image. Placed after this, is an image of the same interior of the Live Oak Friends, but from a different angle, followed by the exterior of the building, with clouds, trees, and ground all flowing together to form one organic whole, one body with many parts that all work together—“all work[ing] together for good, to them who love God…” (Romans 8:28), an apt text to describe the structure of this unique work. Here are words taken from the center of Starbuck’s final text:
We do not always know
Until we embrace this calm
In the absence of dogma and doctrine
When we step away from ancient
Creeds and councils cluttering the mind
The ritual of such reticence becomes
A sacrament of faith and mercy
We cannot and may never name
And yet something unexpected
Arises from the tranquility resting
Between and within us now
On the razor’s edge of light
We hold with a gentle hope
Waiting in suspense
Balanced delicately between
Our binary observations
And timid choices
So often obscure[d] now
In dichotomies of false choices
A Pilgrimage of Churches is more than a tour of church buildings of the great plains with text added, it is a catalyst for making sure that we as individuals, communities, and nations, renew our vows, to make the right choices for the sake of our present lives and our future heritage. And it is a gesture of reconciliation between two worlds, the present world with its disintegrating common mythos and values, and the world that Starbuck records in vivid images and stunning diction—a world that not only deserves re-examining, but a world that still offers a mythos and values that this post-modern culture would do well to incorporate into its life. Thus, A Pilgrimage of Churches becomes a necessary book to view and read again and again.
RON STARBUCK is a poet, writer, and the Publisher/CEO/Executive Editor of Saint Julian Press, Inc., in Houston, Texas. Ron’s four poetry collections are There Is Something About Being An Episcopalian, When Angels Are Born, Wheels Turning Inward and, most recently, A Pilgrimage of Churches, a mythic, spiritual journey in verse and photos that crosses onto the paths of many contemplative traditions.
Forming an independent literary press to work with emerging and established writers and poets, and tendering new introductions to the world at large in the framework of an interfaith and cross-cultural literary dialogue has been a long-time dream. Ron is a former Vice President with JP Morgan Chase and public sector Information Technology — Executive Program Manager with Harris County, Texas.