We don't receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us. MARCEL PROUST
Jennifer Lash — novelist, painter, and mother of the actor Ralph Fiennes — wrote her book On Pilgrimage in the late 1980s/early 1990s while in remission from breast cancer. She lost her fight with the disease on 28 December 1993 at the age of 55. This book remains one of my favourite books about pilgrimage. The following extract is taken from its final pages:
One is always looking. Perhaps finding is simply looking further. 'Looking' is life. Maybe pilgrimage puts that 'looking' into keener focus.
Just as at Rocamadour and Vézelay, it was sad to be in Santiago for the last time. It is easy to try too hard to see and feel. To be filled with excitement and longing, and miss the point completely.
I wondered what I had been looking for. Certainly the adventure with cancer had been an impetus. There had been some sense of urgency after that, urgency towards a deeper understanding of oneself; the nature and opportunity of one's being. Obviously quality of life depends on the kind of trigger you choose.
Carl Jung once said, 'To my mind it is more important that an idea exists, than that it is true.'
Santiago certainly exists, the place itself and the myth of the wandering apostle. All these routes, all those shells, all those shrines. Botticelli may have conceived Venus, born out of a scallop shell, but the figure of James, without any foundation in fact, only the roots of legend and myth, was born so many years earlier with his shells intact. A bright star, a shepherd, and the birth of an archetype. James, close to Christ, but still simply one who is 'on the Way'. Everyman. The Wayfarer. The Pilgrim. When it suited the times and the culture, he was turned into a soldier, devastator of the infidel. Today he has shaken back down again into being a simple pilgrim force.
There is such freedom in the myth of James and in the final celebration of the cathedral itself. A healing feast for the psyche . . . Like some extravagant theatre of texture and imagination, its [the myth's] lack of certainty is its strength.
I met a very laid-back Dutchman who said, 'Santiago is a circus, the Benidorm of the blind mind.'
Maybe only the 'blind mind' dares to acknowledge the extreme circus of the human condition. Our mad mix of images, feelings, hopes and fears. In the cathedral, high above the ambulatory, cherubs wave phallic fronds from between their legs, acorns are at every tip, every so often they burst into flower. Huge, sultry angels lazily guard the canopy of this womb-cave, where altar and saint glow with a full, wide-awake welcome. A very positive and individuated James is the happy focus of anyone who enters the cathedral, and gathered round him there is the triumphant expression of all those wild, rich feelings that may lurk as threat and disease, if they remain unclaimed and hidden.
Maybe 'blind mind' and 'scholarship suspended' allow the psyche sufficient freedom to connect to this burst of human and sacred inheritance . . .
It is not enough to seek and care; to pay lip service to all manner of ideals. Real witness is what counts. Why is it so difficult? It is something to do with leaps in the dark. Recognising that truth is hidden. But the transformation towards truth is something else. It is practice and diligence as Lama Jigmé said. Referring to faith and belief Thomas Merton wrote, 'We do not see first and then act; we act then see.'
JENNIFER LASH On Pilgrimage
Everyone's arrival in Santiago is uniquely different, as these two paragraphs from William Dalrymple show:
In medieval times, the pilgrim to Rome came down from the heights of Tuscany to be rewarded with a view of the city's magnificent walls looping over the seven hills. The approach to Jerusalem was an equally suitable climax to so long a journey: the last wonderful stretch of road from Emmaus threading up through the pine trees and oleanders.
In comparison, the first view of Santiago was always unremarkable; even the Romans seemed to have been unimpressed, for the river you cross is named Lavacolla, derived from the Latin 'arse-wipe'. Yet to arrive at any destination which you have longed for has its rewards. I was in a fairly bad way. I was unshaven and none of my clothes had been washed for a week. I stank. More seriously, a blister on the ball of my right foot had gone bad and I had a pronounced Quasimodo limp. Just to arrive, cease walking, seemed enough.
WILLIAM DALRYMPLE A Pilgrim's Progress Ends from The Spectator 8 June 1991
There is no right or wrong method of arrival, no feelings we ought to have — there is only arrival, there are only feelings.
Arrival, like origin, is a mythical place. REBECCA SOLNIT.
To be continued . . .