Tuesday, February 03, 2009
A number of years ago, Joe and I went to Rome. It was an October holiday and I can remember that we went for a posh meal somewhere, complete with wine. The next day, on a trip to the villages in the hills surrounding Rome, we bought the same bottle of wine in a local supermarket for a fraction of the price!
What really sticks in my mind is something I didn’t do, rather than something I did. Somewhere in Rome, in one of the churches, there was a staircase. It had originally been a part of Pilate’s palace, I think. Someone had moved the staircase to this church in Rome. They had a habit of doing that kind of thing in the early days. Bits of the cross, bones of various saints and other religious paraphernalia were collected and treasured. This staircase just happened to be a bit bigger than most other religious artefacts.
Half of the staircase was roped off. It was set aside for pilgrims to ascend on their knees. The other half was for “normal people” to go up and down.
The one thing I regret was joining the normal people! There was something in me that really did want to do the knee ascend, not out of any impression that I could really impress God by the manoeuvre, but I suppose out of a desire to kneel before God and catch a sense of awe and wonder.
Sometimes as Christians we can take so much of the sensory experience of spirituality out of our walk with God that life and worship can be almost bland. I am not saying that anyone should ascend a staircase on their knees, that there is any more merit to be had than just walking up. People can wrap themselves in blankets of sensory experiences and not connect with God at all.
I have just finished watching a programme about a particular Buddhist celebration. I can’t remember the name of it. It is not an annual one, and it doesn’t always happen in the same place each time.
This particular year, the celebration was held in Tibet, in the town where the Buddha became enlightened. Lots pilgrims made the effort to attend, travelling from all over the place.
The programme covered a lot of symbolic actions. I was watching to see if there was anything useful, a small section that I could show to the young people I deal with and provoke conversation or whatever.
Most of the pilgrims walked to Bodh Goya. There were a group that didn’t just walk. They prostrated themselves along the route. They would take a step, kneel down, stretch out on the floor, then get back up, take another step and do the same thing. It didn’t matter about the terrain, over rocks, through streams of water, they would do the prostration. One man was interviewed. It had taken him three years to travel to Bodh Goya, travelling thousands of miles, prostrating himself at every step. He had a wound on his head and fibrous lumps on the side of his hands, from all the prostrating.
I can’t comprehend that kind of devotion. It puts going up a flight of stairs on your knees into the pale!
Part of the celebrations involved walking around the base of a mountain. It took three days to do it. Some of the pilgrims did the journey prostrating. The pilgrims that had not been properly acclimatised risked their lives to do it. At the end of the journey they erected huge pole with prayer flags flying from them.
The monks spent days meticulously constructing a huge mantra, an elaborate pattern, made of coloured sand, only to sweep it all away at the end of the celebration. It was a detailed work of art which had taken them ages to put together. The monks worked twelve hour shifts to get it done, and then it’s all swept away.
There just seemed to be so much to do. It was an endurance test.
Christianity in comparison, the vibrant faith variety, has it so much easier! You choose whether to ascend the staircase on your knees. No one makes you do it. And yet there is a sense that it is harder too. To rest on the work that someone else has done for you doesn’t always sit so easy. To have someone else say “It is finished” and to know that there is nothing you can add to that work…it’s like it is too easy. Inside we almost cry out for something to do, for some part in it…and our part is to receive what has been done, simply to accept.
Pride does not find that an easy part to play.