“The man of the true religious tradition understands two things: liberty and obedience. The first means knowing what you really want. The second means knowing what you really trust.” —G.K. Chesterton

I’m on the road and heading east to deliver to my college-graduate his wardrobe, some pots and pans, and all his earthly goods he cares to have with him. He flew out to start his new job in New York City a week or so ago, but he’s been staying with friends until he can move into his new apartment this week. Thus, he’s been living out of suitcase and a backpack, anticipating his more permanent digs and his dad swooping in like the cavalry with a van full of stuff. 

I’ve been looking forward to this drive. I like road trips – especially the meandering kind where you have the freedom to start and stop at will, to track down those intriguing brown “Historical Marker” signs and see where they lead, to allow events to unfold rather than attempting to peg every detail ahead of time. 

And I won’t use a GPS device or an i-Gizmo to help me stay on track. It’s a bit risky, I know, and unconventional these days, but I’m rather giddy about the prospect of relying on maps to get me to the vicinity of Central Park by Saturday – actual, physical paper maps, which fold up funny and which are incapable of being updated by Google along the way. Remember those? Do you ever wonder if AAA even still makes those things?

No matter. We still have piles of old mapsstuffed into various nooks and crannies in our dilapidated family fleet, and I think even a beat-up Rand McNally Road Atlas or two. None of these will be particularly accurate, but they’ll give me general notions of the major thoroughfares to stick to as I wander eastward. I’ll attend to my maps at rest areas and parking lots, watch for signage to give me more immediate information regarding distances and turn-offs, and then talk to actual people – friendly folks at gas stations and diners – for specifics, especially if I get hopelessly lost. 

And I know I’ll get hopelessly lost at least once or twice. What fun! Good thing I’ll have a map along to help me get my bearings again. 

That’s what makes a road trip, a road trip,right? Sure, if we need to make it to a job interview on time, it’s essential to avoid any unplanned detours between point A and point B, and that’s when a GPS-equipped device is especially welcome. As all my family can tell you, I’m really a pseudo-Luddite, despite my anti-gizmo rhetoric, because I’ll be the first to call out to passengers if we’re late for something, “Ask your phone where I should turn next!” 

But, for this journey to see Ben and help get him settled, I’m happy to have the leisure to watch it all roll on and see what happens. With the help of my maps and road atlas, along with an awareness of which direction the sun rises from (and a ready willingness to ask for help when necessary), I’ll get to Central Park eventually. 

It was a recent review article in the Wall Street Journal that prompted these cartological musings. “During the next few months,” writes Michael FitzGerald, “visitors to ‘Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth’ at the Bodleian Libraries’ Weston Library of Oxford University can immerse themselves in Tolkien’s world through the most extensive exhibition of his life and work since the 1950s.” There will be draft manuscripts and memorabilia, letters and photos, and “the illustrations and maps that contribute so much to the visual impact of his stories.”

I’d heard about this exhibit from something I’d stumbled across on the internet, and so I was glad to have a first-hand account of what it included. FitzGerald whetted my appetite for when, as the article notes, the whole exhibit shifts across the ocean for a stint at New York’s Morgan Library come January 2019 – another excuse to go visit Ben!

But here’s the bit in FitzGerald’s review that especially caught my attention: “The most fascinating objects in the exhibition are the maps Tolkien created to chart his tales. As he said about ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, ‘I wisely started with a map and made the story fit.’” Huh – that sounds backwards to our modern way of thinking. The typical approach you’d expect a story-teller to take is to lay out the narrative, give us evocative glimpses of characters and setting and mood, and put us on the spot of the action – to help us see what he, the author, sees, to hear what she hears, to experience the story as if we were in it and of it. 

Apparently, that wasn’t Tolkien’s way. His maps came first. “Believable fairy-stories must be intensely practical,” he told an interviewer. “You must have a map, no matter how rough. Otherwise you wander all over the place.” Once you have the map, however, the narrative and the characters become liberated. The adventure and the drama and the unfolding of events can proceed according to the wildest whims of the author’s imagination as long as it all takes place within the limiting frame of the map. Orcs and elves, dragons and balrogs, heroics and happy endings, Tolkien stressed those limits to their limits. Yet, as he himself explained, “In The Lord of the Rings, I never made anyone go farther than he could on a given day.” His maps were concrete, and so his stories came alive. 

All these thoughts of maps and journeys and limits and adventure made me think of Frank Sheed’s superb little primer on the Faith, A Map of Life (1933).“Maps do not prove, but only state,” Sheed writes – that is, they’re concrete, like my atlas and Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Sheed goes on to observe that unseasoned travelers will rely on maps relative to the authority of those who created them. “We need to be assured of a map’s trustworthiness at the beginning of a journey,” writes Sheed. “A map, therefore, must be accepted or rejected according to the confidence the map-maker deserves.” Since Sheed is zeroing in on the journey of life in general, it makes sense that he’d direct his readers attention to the Author of Life and, thus, the supreme Map-Maker, who is God himself. And his supreme Map? The sacred deposit of faith, the depositum fidei, which Sheed summarizes in his excellent book. 

Yet it’s also important to note that this ultimate divine map, which Sheed transcribes admirably, is not an agenda – it’s not, that is, a step by step itinerary that you’re supposed to follow at the risk of never reaching your goal. That’s the Google Maps approach to journeying, a dictatorial GPS vision of what it means to launch out on the adventure of Christian living. Instead, when Sheed speaks of the deposit of faith in terms of mapping, he’s spreading his arms out wide directing our attention to the infinite possibilities and pathways that the Church’s capacious Gospel message permit. There is no “one-size-fits-all” way of being a Christian, you see. We don’t get a sterile Siri voice telling us which corner to take and when to merge and where to pull off – or where to turn around if we goof. 

No, what Sheed presents us, and what we imbibe when we are properly catechized and we regularly immerse ourselves in the liturgy, is a “scale map in which the principal ‘natural features’ will be shown in their right proportions and the roads between them drawn in.” That is, we’ll be equipped with a general awareness of what the Church teaches (doctrine), how she makes us holy (sacraments and liturgy), what is expected of us (morality), and how we should pray – the Catechism’s Four Pillars, that is. 

And, once we’ve got all that, then, literally, the sky – the heavens! – are the limit. We can become saints by any number of different pathways – and we can’t get lost, as long as we stay somewhere on the map and keep going.  “It is true we are on pilgrimage, but, as St. Catherine of Siena said, ‘All the way to heaven is heaven, for He said, I am the Way,’” wrote Servant of God Dorothy Day. “So it is our duty to take the materials God gives and take up our job of co-creator, and do the best we can.”

Yes – do the best we can, and keep going, always referring back again to our maps when we get off kilter or disoriented: Reciting our prayers and the Creed, studying the Scriptures and the Catechism, reading the lives and writings of the saints, not to mention befriending them, and, especially, attending Mass and availing ourselves of the sacraments regularly, frequently. Such are the well-worn maps of living that God has provided us in abundance. We need but put them to use and they’ll keep us on track.

And that reminds me: I stopped by the AAA office before my trip and sheepishly inquired about getting paper maps. “I’ll bet you don’t get too many people asking for those these days,” I remarked. 

Tina, the woman behind the counter, smiled as she bopped around the office, filling a small bag with maps of Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. “You’d be surprised,” she said as she handed them over to me. “It’s easier to keep your bearings if you can see it all spread out before you.” Quite right.