Monday, December 27, 2010

Pilgrims and Passages

Pause for reflection, Montes de Oca - Michael Krier

We are all pilgrims, whether we set out consciously or unintentionally on the path of life-- toward love. Traditionally, a pilgrimage is a chosen journey to a destination considered sacred or special in some way, connected with a spiritual figure, a person or an event. 

Some of the more well-known pilgrimage destinations are Mecca, Benaras on the Ganges, the Wailing Wall, Deer Park, and Canterbury. Many are the shrines, temples and sites worldwide to which pilgrims have been drawn for thousands of years. Are these pilgrimages symbolic of a longer path we travel whose destination may be more uncertain? Who are pilgrims, and what are their expectations, hopes, fears, capacities and deep longings? Is the pilgrim prepared and fit for such a journey, both the inner and outer elements of it? The idea of a pilgrimage calls forth images of both wilderness and the Promise Land.

All great literature, or any story worth telling, involves the drama of a pilgrimage of sorts, a setting out, or being thrust out to seek, to escape, to discover and/or to experience on the way the inherent conflicts, decisions, risks, reflections and reconciliations.  Also possible, however, is the recognition of something pure and simple in the end, usually related to love.

Shakespeare’s King Lear unknowingly puts himself on a path of discovery when he seeks affirmation of love through words. He asks each of his daughters to express her love, intending to reward them according to the profuseness of their declarations of affection. Believing words are not necessary to prove her love (and that words are not the measure of love), his youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to honor his selfish wish. The proud, outraged father disinherits her and casts her out. His other daughters willingly comply, but the words are empty, crafted for self-gain. When they receive what they were promised, they exile him. All is now lost to him— position, power, wealth. Most devastating is the realization that his daughters' words were empty and deceptive.

Everything he possessed or thought he possessed is gone. He is thrust into the hardships of an unasked for pilgrimage—both the outer elements of a raging storm, as well as the inner experiences of his anger, incredulity, then blindness and madness until the once king does not know where or who he is. Ironically, he is saved by Cordelia, the daughter who had refused to speak her love. Instead of the words of love he demanded (and apparently needed in order to accept his daughter), he is given his daughter, who demonstrates her love through deeds—pure, simple, yet unconditional—the kind we have been told God has for us.

Pilgrimages may involve considerable physical, as well as psychological challenges—various and rigorous, with unexpected and often dangerous turns, climbs, sheer drops, crossings, storms and obstructions on the path. However, the way also may reveal the unimaginable beauty of vistas, and small delights in the colors of dawn, the flutter of an unseen wing, the perfume of a meadow, the refreshment of a spring shower or the magic of glistening snow flakes. Yet, the challenged and changing inner landscape of the pilgrim may be infinitely more rewarding.

I imagine some pilgrims are utterly faithful and fit for the journey, setting out in full consciousness to demonstrate their belief, as a means of devotion and sacrifice.  Others may anticipate healing, answers to prayers; while other are thrust on to a path, filled with doubt or in desperation, as is King Lear. The pilgrim may set out alone, but along the way, or, in the end, encounters the warmth and concern of fellow travelers. Another may begin with the company and camaraderie friends, only to find himself alone and lost. It is the nature of the pilgrimage, and of life, that it stretches out before us, the destination hidden from view and mysterious; it tests us, requires courage and may build up strength through its challenges or shatter us along the way.

Yet, isn’t it ultimately that unconditional love and acceptance that we seek and hope to find here on earth through our fellow men, knowingly or not? We, as faithful pilgrims, must be willing to go to the ends of the earth, to the limits of our longing to find that which we have all come for—sometimes “costing not less than everything.” We, as lords and masters of our selves, in the end, must be willing and able to take that journey within so that we may be found worthy of the love we seek?

Whatever its requirements and demands, the pilgrimage embodies potentiality and possibility, wilderness and promise land. Whatever the condition and capacities of the pilgrim, he inevitably undergoes a transformation—large or small—the kind only a journey can engender.