One of the first Buddhist teaching stories I received from my teacher over fifty years ago now was this:
Buddha was asked, "What do you and your monks do?"
He replied, "We eat, we walk, we sleep."
The response was, "But, everyone eats, walks and sleeps."
"Yes," Buddha said, "But, when we eat, we are aware we are eating. When we walk, we are are aware we are walking. And, when we sleep we are even aware we are sleeping."
On pilgrimage, awareness of walking is an essential. One of the ways early pilgrims could identify other pilgrims was by their distinctive garb - especially the hat and the staff. Just so on this pilgrimage. The hat is essential to protect one from the elements - sun and rain. The staff is essential to help maintain balance and sure-footedness. The terrain is sometimes quite steep and uneven.
Two spiritual matters are brought to mind about both of these matters.
First, the garb helps identify those around you who are also on pilgrimage. At the cathedral here it has been easy to see those who have come to le Puy to begin making the journey. Some people do it entirely by foot making, at times, up to 30 miles a day. Some have their luggage taken from one place to another by companies who specialize in such tours. Some, like us, stay in of one four or five key places and make treks out from there, such as we have done today. More about that in a moment.
When the Bishop in le Puy decided to institute the pilgrimage, he encouraged churches, abbeys and monasteries along the way to provide places of hospitality along the way. This is the origin of our modern hospitals.
We learn on pilgrimage that who we hang out with and what we talk about greatly determines the quality of our lives.
The second matter is the importance of paying attention. Certainly taking time out from one's regular routine and entering an entirely foreign terrain, a different language and culture cause one to pay keen attention to what is going on. This "paying attention" is crucial to psychological and spiritual growth.
Today, we ventured out to the Abbey of La Chaise Dieu, which was the first major stop on the journey from le Puy. Today the Abbey is famous for its mural "The Dance of Death." During the Medieval Period this part of the world had its population reduced by as much as half by not only the Black Plague but also the Wars of Religion (now there's an oxymoron for you!) I looked at these murals made around 1450 and thought of what most of us in the State know as "the day of the dead."
Pilgrimage, then, reminds us of our finitude. Pilgrimage calls us to focus on what matters most and not to live shallow lives that reflects the mistaken belief that we have forever.
We walk. We converse with and come to know our companions along the way. We pay attention. We know that life, no matter how long we live, is short. And, precious.
More to come.