From: The Spirituality of Imperfection
The spiritual masters understood that life on life’s terms begins with the acceptance of the fact that one is not in control; it involves a flexible attitude of life’s uncertainties, a mistrust of the rigidities of certainty. We never know where the vicissitudes of our pilgrimage will take us. The pilgrimage of our spiritual journeys is one of “progress not perfection”.
This 14th century story tells it well:
Imagine yourself an adolescent shepherd in a tiny English village, in Sussex. Each day you take your flock to the hills, where you lie on your back, searching out images in the cloud formations, one ear always cocked for sounds of possible danger.
One afternoon, you return to find your village astir with anticipation. A stranger has arrived, a pilgrim returning from the great shrine at Canterbury. In exchange for a meal and a night’s lodging, the stranger will sit at the village fire that evening and tell the tale of his travels. Eagerly, you join in the preparations. At the supper, you are so anxious to hear the pilgrim’s story that you gulp rather than savor the rare rich meal. Ages seem to pass before everyone is finished eating, and the site is tidied. As the villagers settle in to hear the traveler’s tale, you scramble to gain a place near the front so that you can see and follow the expressions on his face.
The stranger begins, recounting both the perils and the happy coincidences of his journey, describing his fellow pilgrims, and finally detailing the magnificence of the great shrine of Canterbury and the wonders to be beheld there. You hang on every word, picturing every nuance of his story in your imagination. Long after the story is over and you lie abed in your hut, your mind leaps into those pictures, trying to make the stranger’s adventures a part of your own life. The next day, as you return to the hillside with your Bock, you see in the clouds the shapes described by the storyteller, and you long to make a similar pilgrimage. But that is impossible. Young shepherds whose work is needed to help sustain their families do not make pilgrimages.
Several months later, a sheep-plague strikes the area, and most of the villagers’ sheep die. You soon realize that you have become more a liability than an asset to your family and that for their sake as well as your own, you must make your way to the great city of London, perhaps to learn some new skill, at least to find a way of living.
But you need not go to the city directly or at once. Indeed, for your spiritual welfare as well as to ask God’s blessings on your ambitions, you decide to journey by way of Canterbury, finally making the long-dreamed of pilgrimage. But how to get there?
There are no maps; only barons and their knights have those. Still, you do not worry, for starting out is simple: There is but one road through your village, and you know the direction from which the stranger came.
You also know the habits of pilgrims–how your stranger had stopped in a similar way the evening before arriving in your village. After a day’s journey, you might be fortunate enough to stop where he had stopped, and there you might find someone who can point you in the right direction for the next leg of your own pilgrimage. And so you set off, not knowing exactly where you are going nor exactly how to get there, but hoping to find on the way others who are interested in the same quest and who can help to guide your own.
And, of course, you do. Travelers are rare in that age, and strangers rarely meet except when traveling. The people you meet thus answer the question; “Who are you?” by detailing, “how I come to be here.” Each person who joins the quest tells how she heard of the goal and what he knows of it. In the process of telling the stories of their lives, the pilgrims band together, pooling their knowledge about the journey, merging bits of wisdom remembered from the stories told by others who had made the same journey. “The route through that wood is attacked by robbers.” “The rockier trail is the best way around the hill.” “After a rain, that stream can be forded only above its rapids.” In less stressful moments, the journeyers share expectations and hopes: “I heard that a man with a leg more crippled than mine was cured.” “When the procession of the Sacrament begins, it is as if the angels were singing.” “Even lawyers have become humble when standing at that altar.”
Thus it is that, on the way, you learn more not only about the goal you are seeking-the Canterbury of Becket, who preferred the risk of a king’s wrath to the risk of God’s judgment -but also about yourself as the seeker of that goal. What risks are you willing to take? Which do you refuse? What kinds of people have hopes such as your own? Who would you like to be like? Whose help do you accept? Whose do you still suspect?
And, of course, the paramount discovery gradually dawns as the pilgrimage continues–the realization that the ultimate goal you seek is not some reality “out there,” but the awakening of an identity that lies within.
The pilgrimage image suggests that the goal of this particular journey known as life is not to prove that we are perfect but to find some happiness, some joyful peace of mind in the reality of or our own imperfection.
“If I am not farther along than I was yesterday, something’s wrong with me,” the pilgrim thinks, I’m in a different place than I was yesterday, and isn’t this interesting?”