Why do they do it, what are they seeking? And what is a shrine, a holy place? Many are put off by such language, reeking as it does of mediaeval incense and crusader’s crosses. Costly and false relics. Rigid and inevitably meaningless dogma.
To him however, language was a poor medium in which to express the holy. The ineffable, as some would have it.
In any event, he found himself in Vézelay and perhaps, despite his misgivings over etymology, he found himself after all to be a pilgrim. He sought no cure, although such would have been welcome. He simply sought. As he had done his entire life.
For miles around, endless forest stretched. A family of wild boar grunted and trundled off, mercifully in the opposite direction. Overhead red kites wheeled in search of their prey. Wild deer roamed the meadows, a pine marten sat, bold as brass on the path in front of him, and stared.
Each perfect village seemed to have its turreted castle, or at least a fortified manor house. And bridges and streams and soft green fields. And above, the ubiquitous forest. It was not too great a stretch of the imagination to place oneself there as Romanesque and later, Gothic churches were being built. Not a better time to live, but a world unspoiled by pollution, a world where the human virus had not yet so befouled a wondrous planet. Violence, plague, hunger was the lot of man, and that at least has lessened a little in the modern age.
Vézelay itself was a place of wonder. A walled town on a hilltop, perfectly preserved and seemingly little touched by modernity. Its history was as bloody as that of any town in Europe, but in days of peace there is no finer place to sit and brood upon the infinite, far from brutish commerce and pointless politics.
A recluse, he was delighted to find the Abbey was still tended by monks, some Franciscan and others from a more recently founded order, whose curious liturgy involved bending to touch the ground and then standing up, opening their hands in supplication and praise to their god above.
In over four decades he had never before known his wife content to sit still and look in awe. Still, and spellbound. But sitting in the nave of the Abbey, the two of them looked, transfixed, at the Gothic choir and ambulatory, while the sound of soft chanting from Vespers in the nearby cloisters washed over them.
Increasingly, he came to believe that the object of his search was at hand. That he had found and need seek no longer. Acceptance was the key and renunciation also. What of? Acceptance of the way things are. Renunciation of the effort to change the world. A simple decision to go with what is, with nature, with the wider universe. And to view animal struggling as a meaningless by product of evolution.
Around him lives were crumbling, as they inevitably do. Friends and relatives were dying, succumbing to the sad state of dementia. Losing all their money, forced into stacking supermarket shelves.
And the world continued as ever, corrupt capitalists and politicians, murderers, criminals and torturers. The sick, the hungry, the homeless. Vicious competition for scarce resources, the victory of the strong and determined over the meek and the weak.
He practised gratitude daily but realised his own place in the world was secured by luck not by effort or the kindly care of some deity. And yet none of it seemed to matter much anymore, especially as the days and years rolled by with an ever quickening pace.
The pilgrimage then was a form of acceptance. A disappearance into a place and state of beauty and peace. A renouncing for good and all of the absurd and destructive Mammon and a realisation that someplace, somewhere a different world existed.
Or perhaps a different state of mind. The same world maybe but a different attitude to it. An entirely altered state of consciousness. An awakened sense of being, where peace and cooperation gave solace and refuge. Where humanity’s vices were jettisoned and the lion sat down with the lamb.
Fanciful perhaps, ridiculous even, to those who still clung to the mores so long afflicting the human animal. And yet to him, a truth had been discovered, a long life of mistakes had been revealed. An end had been found to his seeking and the basic truth of the scriptures had been revealed.
Reality was something else. Something different entirely. And the only way to grasp it was to let go, to dissolve into it.
Life after death, the matrix, gods and demons, who knows? The seeker simply had to let go. Perhaps one day all would be revealed, perhaps not. Maybe a greater reality existed or perhaps the physicalists were right after all.
But peace was acceptance of what is. Of that he was sure. And an abandonment of almost all of what man thought he wanted or needed.
I must admit to a degree of envy of the pilgrim’s journey to Vézelay. Your descriptions are the perfect advertisement for making the trip and for giving the pilgrimage a degree of satisfaction for the visitor that leads to such “acceptance” and “renunciation.” As always, your astute observations and pithy commentary make visiting your blog of such benefit.
You seem to switch so effortlessly between a kind of lament for the state of the world presently, and the blissful experience of the Gothic choir at the Abbey. You ruminate about what might be going on “behind the veil,” as it were, and then express a kind of resignation about not really knowing what might be the answer to the great questions of philosophy.
Your prose is eminently readable, as usual, and when I am reading it, I often find myself wishing you had expanded even more on the subjects you choose. Shakespeare wrote that “brevity is the soul of wit,” and you certainly have embraced that adage in this posting.
I generally have the opposite problem, but do try to be as succinct as I can.
Kind regards…John H.
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