Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Pilgrim's Progress: Holy Spaces and Shrines etc

The gap between this post and the previous one has been filled with the minutiae of preparation, moments of joy at reconnecting with old friends because I asked them for money and thinking about the place at the end of the pilgrimage.

Pilgrims travel to shrines, holy places. I can recognize at least three places in my travels that echoed with holiness for me. I think two were hallowed by prayer; two were hollowed out by suffering to be filled up with prayer. The two most obvious were the 15th century Convent of San Marco in Florence and the pre-1959 parts of Lhasa. The Convent of San Marco is a monastery decorated with Fra Angelico's murals in the cells. My friend Marge and I looked at them in awe but wondered how the monks could see the murals with only candlelight. What an unbelievable luxury to have these almost invisible devotions. Marge turned and pointed to circular openings in the wall above the door. Once a day, the sunlight would pour through the opening to illuminate the mural. Suffering maybe not but light and prayer filling the space, certainly.

Lhasa is the center of the Tibetan Buddhist world, the suffering submerged in glancing references to before 1959. There were few Chinese visible but there were surveillance cameras in the market and high posts. The ancient tiny pilgrims performed prostrations like inchworms around the sacred circuit. Giant prayer wheels spun slowly as yak butter votive lamps burned throughout the temples. (My clothes reeked of yak butter after I left.) Both ancient and endless prayer and more recent suffering and loss. In spite of everything, there was a deep peace in Lhasa.

The mystifying holy place was a building I entered on the Plaza Bolivar in Cartagena Colombia. I noticed a plaque by the door but didn't stop to read it. I just wanted to get out the sun. Like many Latin buildings, it was built around a central courtyard filled with lush tropical plants, even trees. I climbed to the third floor and leaned on the railing over the courtyard. It was shady and deeply peaceful. I stayed resting in the quiet and the coolness. I had the same sensation I had had in old European cloisters... much prayer and contemplation. When I finally left, I read the plaque. To my consternation, it read El Palacio de la Inquisicion. I had forgotten that the Spaniards brought the Inquisition with them to New Spain and logically, the center would have been in the first royal port. All I can think is that the suffering of those souls ultimately became peace.

I wonder how Lui will feel. The people suffered a great deal during the civil war and yet by all accounts their faith is strong and vibrant. Mike Kinman pointed out in his Good Friday sermon that the cross is the safest place to be because the worst has already happened. Once the worst has happened, the joy of the resurrection follows. Perhaps Lui has already experienced the cross....


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