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Archive for the ‘Quest’ Category

The concept of pilgrimage reaches back across millenia to times so distant and remote that they can evoke shadows of mystery and wonder. As early as the 7th century BC, members of Israel and Judah embarked upon treks to holy sites, eventually settling on the temple in Jerusalem as their religious focus. In ancient Greece, individuals sought the shrines of oracles and cults. But in no other time was the idea of pilgrimage so vigorously undertaken than in the Middle Ages, and in no other era has the deep meaning and potential for transformation that pilgrimage offers been forgotten than in ours. 

A group of medieval pilgrims appear to be offered hospitality at the castle of a rich lord

By the Middle Ages, Europe had become a wonderland of holy sites that sparkled and enticed people from all walks of life to make long and perilous journeys, fraught with bandits, sickness and even the possibility of death. Yet these hardships could not deter the throngs of souls who wore down the roads with their ever advancing steps. There was scarcely a town or city in Europe that did not have some relic or holy reason to at least pause for a visit, however brief. The pilgrim’s wonder stretched all the way across the continent to Jerusalem, which was the final destination of many.

Medieval pilgrims said farewell to home and hearth with special blessings and many would don clothing and badges that distinguished them along the road.  Some even carried bells that they jingled and sang to as they passed through towns. For them, the journey was enhanced by what they thought and felt inside, and what they utilized without.

Sadly, the protestant reformation tore away at the centuries of devotion until pilgrimage came to a grinding halt, never to be restored. The glistening jewels of medieval Europe that had sprung up all across the continent, from cathedrals to holy sites of rich meaning, began to fade in significance as the modern world built its own new ideas and concepts over the increasingly forgotten and neglected graves of the past.  Much was lost, but perhaps the most poignantly sad loss of all was the mindset of those who had once traced across Europe in search of transformation as pilgrims.

This loss can be seen in our modern era, when a tourist needs a guide to explain the symbolism and significance that literally drips off the walls and shouts from the rooftops of a gothic church or an intricate fresco. Yet over 500 years ago, a simple peasant without any education could have easily translated and been edified by what highly educated doctors and lawyers fumble over today.

This loss could be considered the equivalent of walking into a fully stocked library yet being unable to read one word without serious effort and labor. The work of so many authors would be lost and only enjoyable as a laborious academic pursuit of analyzation until the texts’ meaning was discovered, rather than just letting the words work their magic moment by moment in full fluency.

The richness of medieval European civilization is likewise lost on the modern mind that can no longer understand the intricate spiritual language of the past. With a cultural mindset radically shifted to one of entertainment and the “here-and-now,” deep spiritual and religious nuances have become an agonizing labor to comprehend.

Many, frustrated with their modern mental conditioning and longing for an encounter with the divine, escape to cultures that are still emerging out of a simpler time. Still breaking free from such a basic cocoon, these places lack the sterile decor of McDonald’s and commercial advertisements, and easily help the visitor to escape the mental zoo of modernity.

Yet it could be argued that Europe holds a treasure ground far richer than these. While it has become a land overrun with the harsh reality of the present, this can makes its history all the more captivating. Europe has become the land of the treasure hunt, and all great treasure hunters know the unique joy of discovering that one lost but precious find.

A pilgrim undertakes his journey

Such a treasure hunt may also require much bravery and courage. When something becomes so lost that its meaning is forgotten, twisted, and even condemned by the current world view, it is easier to escape to places that do not challenge the mind both historically and personally. Yet if we take the time to explore, and to really look, we may either become those who will witness the final glimpses of a lost Atlantis before it sinks beneath the symbolic ocean tides of modernity, or we may be those who can carefully salvage it, pull it from the torrents that seek to wash it away, and bring it to light again in small yet meaningful ways.

Like the pilgrims of old, we will need all the courage we can gain. Our robbers and bandits are no longer the same as the ones that medieval pilgrims faced. Instead, they are those who would distract us from tapping into the old ways, by covering them with modern versions that no longer can be defined as truth for they interpret incorrectly and therefore fail in doing their subjects justice. Our possible sicknesses and death are those of an entertainment culture, quick to numb our minds with neon signs, loud sirens, bustling clubs, and a multitude of deterrents.

But perhaps there is no greater voyage than this; the voyage of a contemporary pilgrim trying to unravel the mysteries of the European past, while the modern world fights so aggressively to swallow it completely. Perhaps there is no greater challenge for a pilgrim than to resurrect the dead and to find that they were still alive all along. Perhaps there is no greater epic story than the voices of the past finding their way through the mental walls of time and unveiling their beauty on their own grounds.

Europe is still a fertile ground for pilgrimage and transformation. If we are brave enough to find our way through the layers of the present and courageously search for the lost treasures of the past, we never know what riches we may journey home with.

 

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Joan of Arc is the quintessential figure whose brief life became both a physical quest and a spiritual journey rolled into one. While her time on earth may seem too extraordinary to relate to our lives, it can nevertheless be discovered that she offers a guide for all who seek to embark upon a spiritual journey.

Born around 1412 in Domremy, France, she started life as the simple daughter of Jacques d’Arc and Isabelle Romee. Yet her life would slowly begin to change when, at the young age of 12, she saw three figures whom she identified as Saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret in a field near her home.

At the age of 16 she implored a relative to take her to the nearby town of Vaucoulurs, where she petitioned to visit the French royal court at Chinon. Undaunted by the sarcastic comments she received, she persisted until she was finally able to meet Charles VII.

Eventually she gained the trust of enough individuals in important positions that she was sent onto the battlefield to encourage and inspire the French troops. She performed her duty so well that she was instrumental in leading the way to several important victories and the crowning of Charles VII as King of France.

Eventually captured by the Burgundians and sold to the English, she was tried at court and finally burnt at the stake as a heretic. She is today one of the patron saints of France.

Joan of Arc as a young girl heard the voices of three saints urging her on to fulfill a greater destiny than she had dreamed

Her brief yet legendary life, which ended at 19, marked out several basic patterns of a heroic spiritual quest.

To begin with, she felt an inner call to fulfill a role that was unique to her alone. In her situation, this call was made exceptional by the voices of saints speaking to her and urging her on. Yet regardless of the extraordinary nature of her calling, she still had to listen and follow what she believed to be an unquestionable call from God.

Second, she experienced opposition and hardships. There were many obstacles that were placed in her path that could have easily led to her turning back and deciding not to advance any further. But despite the difficulties of war, wearing mens clothing in a time when this was considered scandalous, and being seen as somewhat mad, she pushed forward with her thoughts focused on accomplishing what she believed to be her mission in life.

Finally, she had great faith and a rich inner life. Even amidst the persecutions that intensified until they ended in her death, she refused to lay down the sword of her faith but continued seeking for God in every event that surrounded her.

While Joan of Arc will always remain unique in the history of the world for the spectacular way that her mission was laid out, her journey in its essence is no different from anyone else. We all have a vocation that is particular to us in this life, which lingers on our heart and whispers to us if we only listen. If we hear it and set out to follow the path that it creates, we will certainly encounter obstacles, yet it is imperative that we continue to push forward. And ultimately, it is our faith that will sustain us. Even if we do not see our calling realized in out lifetime, it is our faith that has to hold us until the end and emblazon our lives as true warriors.

The life of Joan of Arc offers a beautiful roadmap for anyone who sets on a spiritual adventure, wether it be of the heart or a combination of both the physical and spiritual. While it is a roadmap that warns of an unusual life and a difficult one, it also speaks of a life with rewards beyond the ordinary. It speaks of a life made extraordinary.

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