It was the gusty February of 2004 when my friend Aubine, the mother of Ariane of the Wells, brought my husband and me to see Chartres and the Black Madonna. It was a stunning experience to stand beneath the towering and immense structure of this cathedral, to navigate its many steps, gates and archways and finally to enter the sacred space. It was inky black inside except where the fitful sun pried its way through the ancient stained glass windows and where people had lit prayer candles.
The great labyrinth or pavement maze which is built into the floor of Chartres, so beloved of medieval penitents, is covered with chairs these days, defeating its purpose, which is to provide a walk for seeking pilgrims to become closer to the Creator as the maze is solved and the pilgrim finds the central figure.
The centuries of craftsmanship in wood carvings along all the walls and apses can only be faintly seen. If you visit Chartres or any of the great European cathedrals, bring a flashlight or some matches so that you can see the incredible works of love carved into these walls.
As my friends and I moved slowly through the vast space, we could see a steady stream of dusty people, some with bare feet, coming to a chapel in which prayer candles stood in a deep bank to one side of a chancel within which was a statue called The Black Madonna. The pilgrims would come to her feet and prostrate themselves in profound prayer.
These people were following a tradition which has been honored since medieval times, but which was revived by the French poet Charles Peguy in the early 20th century. About 15,000 pilgrims per year begin their pilgrimage at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris and walk the 100 kilometers to the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres, a town in the “bread basket” district of Beauce.
No wonder the pilgrims are dusty! No wonder they are weary! After such a walk the strongest hiker is bound to be footsore and exhausted.
When my spiritual life was yet young, as a grade-schooler, I dreamed of pilgrimage. I thought to become a nun-doctor and serve the poor and helpless among the nations of the Third World, or on the mean city streets and rural reservations of the needy and neglected souls of our country. Their need was my shrine, and I yearned to visit. However, I was never meant to be a nun, and my life took a completely different turn.
Yet I have been on an inner pilgrimage all my life. My heart cries out for the sacred. I cannot rest in the seemingly mundane for an hour. My rebellious heart must make holy every scrap of existence; every mote of sunlight; every atom and iota of life experience.
There are many with me on this pilgrimage of the soul. We are keeping house, raising children, doing our work, paying the bills and making responsible choices. That is part of the truth of us. The remainder of the truth is who we are as we do these chores.
Are we housekeepers or servants in the temple of our home? Are we raising children or are we offering service and support to the sacred souls in our keeping? Are we working to make a living or because it gives us joy? Are we writing checks or are we offering green energy in thankfulness to those who have supplied us with the necessities of food, warmth and shelter?
Hoimar von Ditfurth, in “Children of the Universe,” wrote, “We ourselves may have descendents as genetically distant from us as we are from Homo Habilis. We might constitute a bridge to non-biological descendents of an entirely different sort.” He suggested that once in an eon there comes a period of shift such as occurred when the great apes somehow produced the human race.
It is a freeing and generous concept and one that resonates to me, for I feel the heaviness of this physical body and feel also the lightness within, breaking forth as my very DNA changes under the pressure of this shift into a new heaven and a new earth.
I feel as though I am a pilgrim of the shift in consciousness going on around me today. And because the shift is metaphysical rather than physical, I do not need dusty roads to make my pilgrimage real. All I need is the cathedral of my own open heart. In that sweet chapel, there is also a maze to walk: the maze of daily duties and chores. At each new turning of the pattern there is a moment of time when I can stop, light a candle of hope and pray that I may offer my whole life to my Beloved.
Rather than the dark and grizzled face of the Black Madonna, my iconic Blessed Mother is Sophia, the sacred feminine principle and author of compassionate wisdom within the deep recesses of my archetypal mind. She has and needs no form, for she is all “compact of fire” as Shakespeare said, the essence of passionate love.
I am in love with the Creative Principle, so in love that I sometimes cannot go forward one more step until I have touched in again to her bright and lambent spirit in my heart of hearts.
There is a lot of distraction in the outer world for a soul pilgrim. Our most difficult source of distraction is our own belief that we must do something; produce something, in order to serve. Like many people, my life is outwardly fruitful. I write this column weekly. I am working on a book, and have another book coming out within the next month. I will speak at Mackinac Island the weekend of Aug. 11 and here at home for our L/L Research Homecoming over Labor Day weekend. These are worthy works, and I am thankful to have the space and the grace to offer these things from my heart to the world.
Yet in terms of pursuing the divine, they are distractions. They are ways in which I can identify myself not by who I am but by what I do.
My spirit calls me back, again and again, to focus on being rather than doing. In the midst of washing a saucer at the kitchen sink, angels swarm around me and sing their Alleluias. What a blessing to pause in the work and sing along! As I write these words, the joy of communicating with my fellow pilgrims graces my homely office details with sanctuary beauty. My teacup sings, Magnificat!
It is my hope to live lightly upon this earth, so that my spirit may soar free. G.K. Chesterton said, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” I am no angel. No one whose favorite food groups are steak and vodka is an angel. But I am, indeed, a pilgrim soul, restless until I find the Creator.
By living lightly, I do not mean living without thought. I mean that spiritual maturity has taught me that all thoughts are illusory. The only question is, at what level are they false images of the transcendent and very real love that lies behind and surrounds them?
The love that lies behind all thought is to thoughts as our life experiences are to a black and white film made about our lives. How paltry words are! How insubstantial! How lacking in color and texture! And yet that which lies behind words and thoughts is infinity and eternity, wrapped up in our highly colored consciousness. We have the truth within us and between us. We cannot open that truth with our intellects, yet we live with the underlying truth of Sophia’s compassionate wisdom every heartbeat of our lives.
Welcome to my pilgrimage, my beloved companions. It is good to have your company on this inner road of tears and joy. With St. Richard of Chichester, let our song be this:
Day by day,
Dear Lord, of Thee three things I pray:
To see Thee more clearly,
Love Thee more dearly,
Follow Thee more nearly,
Day by day.
I open my arms and embrace your spirit. May we pilgrims see, love and follow the soundless voice of Love itself, day by day, until, in the center of the labyrinth at last, we happen upon the Creator and return to our Source and our Ending.