Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Spirituality 8

Tyre tracks, Donabate Beach,
The Spirituality of Journey

Journey is surely one of the most central metaphors in our lives.  In fact, it is a multi-layered metaphor at that.  On a simple chronological level our lives map out a simple linear graph starting at our birth and ending at our death.  Another layer refers to the unique journey each of us makes as regards to life's choices with respect to partners or family or career.  On a deeper level again, it refers to the spiritual journey we make in getting to know ourselves as a unique and unrepeatable person.  On another level again, on a spatial level we can travel from A to B.   In fact, we can travel anywhere we like in the world provided we have the wherewithal to do it, whether it be good health, money or contacts.

Journey is an age-old physical action which we humans have engaged in since our forefathers went out as cavemen to forage for their wives and families.  It quickly became a very important symbolic physical action in the religious lives of ancient humankind, an action which perdures to this very day.  In religions, the word is transformed into a closely associated one, laden with heavy religious overtones, viz., pilgrimage.  A pilgrimage is a journey or search of great moral or spiritual significance. Typically, it is a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person's beliefs and faith. Many religions attach spiritual importance to particular places: the place of birth or death of founders or saints, or to the place of their "calling" or spiritual awakening, or of their connection (visual or verbal) with the divine, or to locations where miracles were performed or witnessed, or locations where a deity is said to live or be "housed," or any site that is seen to have special spiritual powers. Such sites may be commemorated with shrines or temples that devotees are encouraged to visit for their own spiritual benefit: to be healed or have questions answered or to achieve some other spiritual benefit. A person who makes such a journey is called a pilgrim. In America, the term pilgrim is typically associated with an early colonial Protestant sect known for their strict rules of discipline.

Places of Pilgrimage

Sunset at Clontarf
In Ireland we have our own sacred places of pilgrimage.  The one that comes quickly to my mind, which I climbed once many years ago with both my brothers, is Croagh Patrick (Gaeilge: Cruach Phádraig), nicknamed the Reek,  that is a 764 metres (2,507 ft) tall mountain and an important site of pilgrimage in County Mayo, on the west coast of our country.  It is 8 kilometres (5 mi) from Westport, (Cathair na Mart) above the villages of Murrisk and Lecanvey. On "Reek Sunday", the last Sunday in July every year, over 15,000 pilgrims climb it.   As well as being an exhilarating climb, the view of the hunderds of little islands out in Clew Bay is uplifting to say the least.  It is a physically demanding climb, journey or pilgrimage which symbolically or metaphorically represents the inner spiritual struggles of our very lives.  5 June 2010 marked the first of 365 consecutive ascents by Croaghpatrick365 founder Matt Loughrey. (See this link here: Irishtimes )

Another close association with journey, or pilgrimage in my mind is The Canterbury Tales which I studied at school and later at college.  We had to commit the whole prologue to memory at secondary school and those Middle English words still rattle around in my mind -

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flour.

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century. The tales (mostly in verse, although some are in prose) are told as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

A third association in my mind is that of Colin Thubron who is a brilliant travel writer as well as novelist.  He writes in such a way that the reader feels he/she is journeying with the author to the places where he goes.  One could say that one accompanies Thubron on his travels.  Also there is a depth in his travel books which move me and bring me into communion with a sensitive and wonderfully inspiring mind.  The book I read by him was Shadow of the Silk Road. That book recounts his 7,000-mile journey from China to the Mediterranean encompasses cultures that have obsessed his working life: Islam, China, the old Soviet Union, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey.

Sign at Howth Head, Dublin.
A de Mello Story on Journey (paradox)


"Is the path to enlightenment difficult or easy?"

"It is neither."

"Why not?"

"Because it isn't there?"

"Then how does one travel to the goal?"

"One doesn't.  This is a journey without distance.  Stop travelling and you arrive."  (One Minute Wisdom, p. 55)

Once again I am brought back to another literary association in my mind, those wonderful words from Thomas Sternes Eliot's (1888-1965) Little Gidding (Part IV of The Four Quartets) which I have quoted many times here, and the tenor of his words are similar to the message in de Mello's "arrival" story:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Path, Ardgillen Park, March, 2011
Again, another good association in my mind is the title of a lovely wee book, which I bought some years back, called Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn.   There is much wisdom in this koan-like title.  The real travelling is an internal travelling.  The real journey is an internal journey.  The real pilgrimage is an internal pilgrimage.  I have a workplace acquaintance, who is now making his death journey as he is suffering from terminal cancer - which luckily is in some sort of remission at the moment - and he cannot accept it.  He is making journeys here and there to this and that country, more in a desperate bid to avoid the reality of facing dying or death.  His journeying is all too external rather than being internal.  I wish him the best in his attempting to come to terms with his final journey.  I won't say too much more here as I might identify him, which I should never wish to do.  I merely mention this case to illustrate the difference in levels between inward and outward journeys.

Finally, it has always struck me, since I suffer from clinical depression, that the same thing can be said about the weather.  External weather - be it good, bad or indifferent - is inconsequential really because it is one's internal weather, the mental weather if you wish, that truly matters.

As we say in the Gaeilge, "Go dté tú slán ar an mbóthar atá romhat!" "May you travel safely on the road of life before you!"

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