I want to recount to you something that happened to me this morning – something I witnessed – and it will stay with me forever.
I’m still deeply affected – and felt I had to put down my thoughts, and my stirred emotions – straight away.
Last night I couldn’t sleep – jet lag from the flight from India – and I woke up at 3am. Finally realising I wouldn’t get back to sleep, I decided to head out in the dark to film the sunrise over Assisi for the movie.
A couple of kms out of town I found a good position, so in the dark I set up the tripod and waited. The sunrise was truly spectacular. The light was magical, and transcendent. I shot a lot of footage, and took some stills.
Once the light became uninteresting, I packed up and headed back up the hill into the ancient town. I decided I’d go to the Basilica – the massive Church on the edge of the ridge – and take some shots while the town was still empty of tourists.
I got some nice shots – and as I walked back to the hotel I noticed someone coming slowly up the hill. At first from a distance I thought it was a “little person,” because he was quite small.
But as I got closer I realised it was a man making his way up the hill on his knees, heading to the Basilica.
He was wearing rags stitched together – it looked like hessian cloth from flour or wheat sacks – and he had a cord around his waist. His legs were thin, his feet dirty and thick with callous. I glanced at his face – he had a beard, and his eyes were lowered to the ground.
He looked like Jesus.
His moved slowly – and I came around behind him and followed him up the hill. I put my camera onto silent mode so that the sound of the shutter didn’t disturb him. I was very conscious that I was witnessing something quite profound, and I didn’t want to intrude.
Immediately a whole bunch of questions hit me –
- Where had he come from?
- How far had he come?
- What was his story?
- What had triggered the need for him to do this?
- Was he mentally ill?
It was a dreadful thing to ask myself – was he mentally ill? – because I guess I couldn’t fathom the extreme faith of his actions. And it seemed so anachronistic for him to be doing this. Someone in their right mind simply doesn’t do that kind of thing in this day and age.
And yet I’d just come from India where I’d seen pilgrims prostrating themselves along the ground to reach the Dalai Lama’s Temple. It’s done in other cultures, why not ours?
Irrespective, I kept photographing him – following him as he got closer to the Basilica.
A car passed and honked it’s horn at him because he was in the middle of the road. I felt his violation. It was like a spear in his side. He took no notice. He kept moving inexorably up the hill to the ancient church.
I didn’t want to get in front of him and photograph his face. That too I felt would be a violation. I didn’t want to intrude. I just wanted to observe, and try to capture the essence of the man’s actions, and his faith.
Now several hours later, as I look back on the images I took, I’m still deeply moved. And still the questions remain, and of course they will always be unanswered.
We who walk the Camino call ourselves pilgrims. I don’t really feel I can call myself that anymore, not after witnessing what I witnessed this morning.
Once again I’m speechless.
So many unanswered questions Bill and what a privilege to witness such humility.
Surely the man must have calloused knees and tops of his feet or they would be stripped of skin.
Perhaps it is a frequent ritual?
Quite incredible and very humbling.
The photos are quite moving. Thank you for sharing them with us.
I have only one thought about your comments: everyone’s Camino (pilgrimage) is different. Not everyone is the same kind of pilgrim. Just because you don’t have callused feet and didn’t walk your pilgrimage on your knees, does not make you less of a pilgrim, just a different kind of one. The pilgrimage that you made changed you in a profound and deep way. Perhaps this man needed this kind of pilgrimage to affect a similarly profound change in him.
It is my humble opinion that you can (and you should) honor his pilgrimage and your own as different types of the same journey.
~from the pre-pilgrim,
I posted a reply and reread it and thought it was not really properly addressing what you said, so I deleted it.
Yes you are right – every Camino or pilgrimage is different, according to the needs and life experience and consciousness of the person undertaking the journey.
His pilgrimage seemed so… Medieval… to me, if I can use that word. As though I was witnessing something out of time.
He obviously had a strong “need” to do it this way, and I was, and continue to be, intrigued by that…
of course, now I’m curious about the first comment . . .
Bill, wonderful post and intriguing pictures.
As to the pilgrim walking to the shrine on his knees, that is a common practice to religious shrines (Lourdes, Fatima, Mediugorie, Assisi, quickly come to mind). Even in other places, not as famous. As I child, seeing pilgrims in penitence, approaching a church, was common.
For myself, I have very mixed feelings about any display of religeous fevour. I am private about it. I must confess, that since the Camino, I am more open with my own spirituality, but still private.
You and I are no less of a pilgrim. I experienced profound change and re-connection to my creator, and set out with no great expectations and most definitely not as a pilgrim in the “traditional” sense. The person that started was a seeker, and became a pilgrim, still seeking, but content.
I know you did too.
So my dear peregrino, you can’t just simply shed that mantle, once you have been gifted with it.
As always, Light and Love and many blessings,
Thanks for this Bill. I would like to have a go at answering the last of your two questions if you don’t mind. (Obviously no one could answer the first three unless they knew this pilgrim.)
“What had triggered the need for him to do this?”
Most likely a deep love and gratitude to Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who for love of Mankind, came to SUFFER and DIE for our sins (to Redeem us) and ‘open the gates’ of Heaven for us. This pilgrim surely wished to imitate Jesus: “”Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Meaning doing penance, and the humble acceptance of all our unavoidable suffering.
(To truly follow Jesus is to faithfully obey ALL His Teachings of course.)
“Was he mentally ill?”
No – very unlikely. Though there are many indifferent Christians nowadays, he was LIVING his faith with courage and humility. (And by the fact that this was early in the morning, he was probably attempting to avoid making a show of his sacrifice.)
Ingrid is right – there are many places like the ones she mentions where one can witness these demonstrations of faith, hope and charity, of repentant sinners seeking self-imposed penances (^) solely for love of God. The Cathedral dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico is another one.