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Pilgrimage

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As the evening shadows lengthen and life's pilgrimage draws towards its inevitable end, the time comes to look back at the long path of pilgrimage and to trace it along the length of its tangled and uncharted course.

It begins a long time ago - in fear and trepidation. Uncertainty, diffidence and wavering faith govern the early faltering steps. They are hard times, unsure of purpose or destination. Not even certain of the status of pilgrim.

This is the morning of pilgrimage, the time of innocent doubt. It is also the time of awakening to the realisation that there is more to life than mere existence; that there has also to be meaning and that this requires choice and challenge. Slowly the understanding dawns that life with meaning is one of pilgrimage and that the road of pilgrimage is uphill almost to the very end. If pilgrimage is a cycle ride, there is precious little freewheeling. The young pilgrim needs to cast aside the mantle of comfortable living and to don the cloak of mortification. Youth rides on the wings of idealism and the pilgrim's path is fanned with their beating.

Then there follows the harsh middle days of pilgrimage, when the sun is high and the pilgrimage itself is arid and desiccated and the heady scent of idealism is burned and dissolved in the scorching winds. The world around is too lively and full of challenge and entertainment easily to wear the pilgrim's shroud. In a world of colour, the sackcloth and ashes seem embarrassingly out of place. A heady mixture of hedonism and ambition wrestles for poll position, forcing aside the pilgrim's sandaled tread. And the pilgrim is suborned, for the blood runs hot and the sap impassionedly rises and conscience is abandoned on the roadside. These are the scarlet days in which the sense of purpose is distorted and the primeval instincts claim precedence.

Not for long. The pilgrim eventually fights back, driving the material world off centre stage and into the wings. It is an uneasy, uncomfortable fight, a civil war of the soul, but one that must be fought - and won.

For there comes that moment when life without hope of the pilgrim's final crown loses shape and meaning. The self-centred existence begins under its own cyclonic pressure to implode, the soul to strike outwards to escape the cyclone’s clutches. For a time the ensuing struggle is harder than the pilgrimage itself.

In the end the beating pilgrim heart breaks through; not into sunlit uplands but onto the pilgrim's road, that rocky passage through the parched hills of the soul's Sinai, through the baking sun of the tempter's day offering enticements of shade, of water and of rest, through the chilling silences of the soul's dark night. That is the true pilgrimage, the test, the challenge, the climbing of the fog-shrouded mountain where every next step is hidden from the last. These are the hard years of the screaming sinews and the sorely tried heart. It is the true route of the pilgrim.

It is anything but a path without temptation; the desert of the pilgrim's passage is cluttered with enticing mirages. Thus the pilgrim is not shrouded in poverty, but surrounded by mirages of wealth and power that seem so real that they test his resolve. He is not attended by shrivelled fellow pilgrims but by enticing beauties so seductive that they test his self-control. The hermit leads a solitary life fighting the demons of loneliness and deprivation. The pilgrim is constantly surrounded by plenty.

And then, suddenly into the gentle twilight of the pilgrimage. The demons of temptation are gone. The summit is passed and the path slopes gently downwards. The memories of the hard days begin to fade. The stiffness of back and the soreness of foot become more bearable. In the distance, a glow of the warming light at the end of the road. The night grows darker and the pace slows. The breath comes shorter and the heart beats faster. The outer eyes grow dimmer while the inner vision becomes ever more focused on the light ahead.

And then the race is run, the pilgrimage fulfilled and the crown attained. And in the light and warmth the unclear becomes clear, the doubtful becomes meaningful, the quandaries become resolvable, the sadness becomes glorious and the suffering a golden cloak around the weary shoulders. The final piece has found its rightful slot, and the picture is complete.

The pilgrim has come home.

2007

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