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.