Tuesday, October 15, 2013

God the Wanderer, Francis the Walker

“Even more difficult for me to understand is the growing feeling of something spiritual and sacred in the ordinary act of walking. I start to feel that each step taken is part of an invisible journey, for which there is no map and few road signs. I am not sure I am prepared, and the discomfort both frightens and excites me” (John Francis, The Planetwalker: How to Change Your World One Step at a Time). These are the words of a man who spend 22 years of his life walking. Of those, 17 years in perfect silence. Is there anything spiritual and self-transforming in the ordinary everyday act of walking? Gurus say “yes”. It is an act of getting back to oneself, returning to the primitive Self (“un-fallen” Self) inherent in all. That would be a sufficient reason for everyone’s craving to travel, wander about, set out on a voyage to unknown and remote regions, like birds fly away to the freedom of the sky, fishes diving into the mystery of blueness of the seas. I am blessed with the love of a motherly figure for the last few years. She is lame from her early childhood on wards. She used to tell me: “Son, I have walked hundreds and thousands of kilometers sitting at my window side raising eyes to the eternal blue of the sky.” Wow, all through life hardly gone out of the house, yet she traveled to the ends of the earth! That is the primitive nomad dormant within us.

Nomadic Instinct
Humanity has an untold and unwritten history of thousands of years of nomadic life as gathers wandering about from place to place. In comparison to the nomadic life of humans written history of the civilized man is a small fraction. Moving over large stretches of country the nomad took a wider view of life. Land stretched before him without territories, confines and boundaries. Unseen faces and sights, unheard sounds, un-smelled fragrances, un-savored tastes… all kept on coming into the horizon of his life widening it into eternity and infinity. He knew more of minerals and bio-diversities than the settled folk upon the fallow lands because he went over mountain passes and into rocky places and thickness of green forests. Life breathed afresh and anew every day.  It was nothing but paradise, a total harmonious living in communion with the nature. And his God too was not a settler enshrined in Temples, but someone always walked with him, whom he worshiped everywhere in the nature. The universe was full of Spirit; Nature was his Temple proper.
As man gave up a mobile and egalitarian life of hunting and gathering and became sedentary farmers and landowners varieties disappeared from his life. Dullness spread its thick black blanket everywhere. He started separating spirit from earth. The static and hierarchical structures of the civilized society contrasted with the mobility and freedom of the wanders. It is the loss of mobility that brought about a rigid society with classes, fights over territory, warfare, and alienation. Man became frightened of each other as wolfs standing against each other in rage to devour. Wars and fights are the result of privatization of the land and resources, and the consequent fear.

God the Wanderer
Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between humanity, the universe and God. When I read the Old Testament history of Israelite people I am stuck at the central events of “Exodus” and “Exiles”. Perhaps, the entire history of the Jewish people can be summarized in these two concepts. They are reactionary consequences of a nomadic people struggle to “get settled” in a land where they thought honey and milk would be flowing. Israelites were nomads. Their great Father Abraham receives this command from Yahweh: “Go forth from your native land…” (Gen. 12:1); and later Israelites proudly narrated the story of their grandfather “my father was a wandering Aramean” (Deut. 26:5). A Jewish Rabbi says, “the wandering Aramean Abraham once thought: ‘Is it possible that the world lacks a caretaker?’ Then the Blessed Holy One looked out and said to him: ‘I am the Sovereign of the Universe.’”
Yahweh of Old Testament is a wandering God. He wandered about with his people all around, in the land of slavery, amidst the raging waves of the Red Sea, in the desert, in clouds, in thunders, in the burning bush, in cool breeze, and above all in their tents where His people ate, slept, made love, reared their children. When Israel stopped walking and got settled in Palestine God ceased to exist around them. When they could no more see Him around, they started looking upward, and started imaging a God sitting up there in inaccessible transcendence. And God is still there for a civilized settler, aloof, alone, in a world of imagination, in heaven above. And a walker alone finds Him really in him, with him and around him. It is on the way to Emmaus He joins with you in your talks and meals. It is the Garden of Eden, on the damp and dusty soil of the earth, He will come to walk with you.

Jesus the Itinerant
Jesus resembles very much a wandering gypsy archetype of all age. In the short lifetime during his mission, Jesus is recorded as one always wandering from town to town, from village to village, from populated places to the wilderness, from hill top to seashore. Jesus says, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Lk 9: 58) which symbolizes his own wandering nature like a gypsy. In three years time he must have walked hundreds and hundreds of kilometers in Palestine: from the province of Galilee to Jerusalem three times (nearly 200 kilometers walk even today), from Galilee to Samaria, from Capernaum to the boarders of Galilee near Syria, Caesarea Philippi… In fact, this was also the nature of early followers of Christ who perhaps were following Christ’s very teaching as recorded in Gospel of Thomas. In the Gospel Jesus commands his disciples, “Become passerby…This world is a bridge. Pass over it; but do not build your dwelling there.” This is a teaching for the chosen among his followers and holy companions advocating the lifestyle of the solitary, itinerant ascetic. Village to village Jesus wandered, lifting his long staff like a lance lithe and tireless in his progression until culminating it at the summit of mount Calvary.

Francis of Assisi, the Walker
Now I must come to my dearest walker, Francis of Assisi. He was not a lone walker, but a movement as such in the history of walking. It was about Francis of Assisi one of my friends once wrote: “He was a walker. He walked miles and miles. He knew that it was the best way to imitate Jesus; being on the road. Francis walked on the peripheries and reached God.” And he continues, “I believe in the God of Francis of Assisi. That God who alone is sufficient, rest can be abandoned. A God who is in ruins, walks in the periphery, a minor God who languishes himself in beauty, in the golden hair of the sun, saturating heart of the river, light feathers of the rain. The eternal dancing lover God.” (Jose Suresh)
Francis used to remind his brothers that they were to be “pilgrims and strangers” in the world. That was his attitude towards life as such. Everyday waking up to the morning sun of his own Assisi each dawn was very strange and new for him. Walking weeks and months through the woods of Mount Subasio and through the rifts and valleys of Spoleto he could not stop wondering at the mysteries they hide for him. In twenty years time how many kilometers he must have walked! From Assisi to Holy Land, from Assisi to Rome, from Assisi to Mount La Verna, from Assisi to Spoleto, from Assisi to Gubio, from Assisi to Perugia, from Assisi to Puglia, Assisi to Spain, from Assisi to Egypt, from Assisi to all the villages of Umbria, and always back to Assisi . He was a born wandering Troubadour. Almost half of his life he lived on roads. He reminded his brothers to be authentically evangelical by going through the world as pilgrims and strangers, without belongings, without their own home, without economic security, working faithfully and with devotion, and begging alms.
This walking Francis became a movement in the collapsing church of Middle Ages. This movement was called “Mendicant life,” a new form of communitarian living of sanyasa which was unheard in the history of church. “Mendicant” means “open handed”. They wandered about like birds of the air; and when they were hungry begged with open hands like birds picking their corns from any field without bothering about its ownership and flying away to the freedom of the sky. They approached God, and the entire world, as beggars, with open hearts, and open hands. Up until that time the monks of Europe worked at their trade in the security of monastery, within the walls. While renouncing personal property, they owned all things in common as a community. While mendicants are the original type of monks in Buddhism and have a long history in Indian Hinduism and the countries which adapted Indian religious traditions, they didn’t become widespread in Christianity until the time of Francis of Assisi. Sanyasa could be lived in the streets, outside the walls of hermitages and monasteries!   It was a new revelation for West.

Into the Wild
Reflections of the biographer of a 24 years old American youngster, Christopher McCandless, would be a proper conclusion. In 1992 at the completion of his graduation McCandless donated his entire wealth to an organization working for social justice and eradication of poverty and ventured into the Alaskan wilderness in search of solitude. After six months of solitary living he had some serious injuries, and finally died of starvation, of which we do not know much. His biographer Jon Krakauer writes: “Many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty.”  (Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild).
Of course, there are many ways to travel. There is tourism, there is traveling for business, joining a scientific expedition, visiting our relatives for the holidays. But to make travel a way of life is different way of looking at life. Only who are ready to be carried away by the wind of the spirit are inspired to engage in it. It is a profitless journey; and the only profit we make out of it is the journey itself. When we travel we are fulfilling our inner need for an exile. Walking makes us bystanders in our own body making us observers of our inner moves. In walking we walk over our bodies. We start giving ourselves away to flowers, to wind, to hills and seas, to snow and heat, and to children and old we meet on the road.

“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain