The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.
Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made
is star-stuff too?
– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –
dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.
Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.
Thursday, 16 April 2015
the journey is home
A constant stream running under my conscious thoughts is my preoccupation with the notion of pilgrimage: what it means in our 21st century world, how to do it in a secular society, and why it's important. (If you use the search bar at the bottom of this blog you'll see that I've written about this many times before in one guise or another.)
This stream bubbles to the surface each year around March, as my heart starts to fill with the forthcoming writing retreat that I lead on the magical and sacred Isle of Iona each April.
When Chaucer was writing in English (a departure from Latin) in the late 14th century, April was a traditional time in mediaeval England for making pilgrimage.
'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;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
(That slepen al the nyght with open eye)
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes...' (Chaucer's original Prologue)
'When April with its showers sweet
Has pierced March drought unto the root
And bathed each vein in liquid power
From which new strength creates the flower;
When the soft West Wind with sweetest breath
New life has breathed in copse and heath
In tender shoots, and the young sun
In Aries half a month has run,
And small birds start Spring's melody
(Nightbirds who 'sleep' with open eye),
Then nature stirs the hearts of each
To make folk long for pilgrimage,
And travellers to tread new shores,
Strange strands, set out for distant shrines...' (my 'translation')
And so we too set out to some kind of stirring – for restoration, for renewal, or on account of some undefined longing.
Pilgrimage comes from the Latin 'peregrinus', which in turn means a wanderer, a traveller, a stranger. (I love that it also names a bird, a falcon.)
Although of course it has been associated with established religion, I believe that the need for pilgrimage exists as an archetype (maybe for renewal, remaking) in the human collective unconscious. We could call the 'hero's journey', the motif, as Joseph Campbell saw it, behind most of the world's great myths, or the journey of the Fool in the tarot, as an expression of this universal archetype. Wikipedia tells me that there's a book written on this: Jean Darby Cleft & Wallace Cleft, The Archetype of Pilgrimage: Outer Action With Inner Meaning. The Paulist Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8091-3599-X.
And that's a beautiful definition to my mind: outer action with a corresponding inner purpose or meaning.
This is the journey to fuller consciousness, wholeness.
For me, the art of living is something to do with making every moment count. (Or rather, the aspiration to do so.) And it's also about recognising that every moment, every action, every journey, every destination, is sacred, if approached in a spirit of presence, with soul.
Implicit in such a journey is the spirit of openness, of trust, of sharing silence and conversation, solitude and belonging, story and poem, self with self or self with other.
Pilgrimage doesn't have to be to a sacred shrine. It doesn't have to have any traditional religious significance.
Something in us longs to rest, to be still even as we're moving, to be fully present in this moment, on our journey on this tiny planet around its star in the trillions of stars in this arm of the spiral Milky Way galaxy. Of course, our lives tend to lead us towards the opposite: towards acceleration, distraction, accumulation of more and more (whether objects, facebook friends, twitter followers, or experience) with less and less time in which to appreciate it.
How would it be to slow down, to let every footstep, every breath, every moment really be richly enough?
And so we can quietly follow a longing for renewal while recognising that we don't even have to go out of our front door to make a pilgrimage – though it might be hard to explain to neighbours or nearest and dearest who don't get it that we're 'on pilgrimage' in our silence and slowness within four walls. (After all, what is a retreat but a non-moving pilgrimage?)
Or we go out of our front door not knowing what we're seeking but knowing that the longing is taking us. And we go slowly, embracing with such relief the sense of stillness that will come and visit us if we invite it, even as we're moving.
What we are doing on any journey undertaken with this focus, intent and presence, is bringing ourselves back home. That's all – in its smallness, its hugeness.
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