Yet sometimes it’s only through extended stillness or exhaustion that we finally stop and go clear like water. When stilled of all that stirs us, we can see what is life-giving.
The huge dorm behind the cathedral in Conques, France, was reminiscent of many of the Spanish albergues and monasteries on the Camino Frances. Many double bunks were stacked close together and there was little quiet or privacy. I was up late because I had attended the Cathedral service and been invited to read the lesson in English. Others read in French, Spanish and German. I was stirred up by the beauty of the service and elated by the feeling of community in the pilgrim congregation despite all our differences. I knew sleep would be a long time coming.
Snuggled in my sleeping bag I practised every trick I knew: deep breaths, body scan, muscle relaxation, mantra repetition. Whenever I managed to drift off to sleep the man in the bunk above would turn over with a heave of springs. The slightest rustle of plastic or clomp of boots snapped me awake. Sleep talk and snoring broke into my fractured dreams. Deep sleep was unachievable and light sleep impossible.
Next morning I dragged myself out of bed and set off down the hill. On the other side of the Pont Romain the muddy track rose steeply. The miasma of weariness and physical misery threatened to overwhelm me as I struggled up the slippery slope through the fog. The climb was endless. Then I heard a bell ring out and excited voices close by. Pilgrims were milling around a tiny chapel taking it in turns to pull the bell rope. In the old days the bell signalled that pilgrims had crossed the sometimes dangerous river and were safely on their way.
I stepped up to the rope as my tall French friend from a few days before finished a graceful sequence of notes. My first attempt was not so melodious. Then I realised that a little break between each firm pull let the bell peel clearly. In that little break I found stillness within. From that stillness, gratitude uncurled at the beauty of the sound I was making and at meeting this man again when I thought he was kilometres ahead. As I stepped back to give others a turn I looked back toward Conques. The town was hidden in the fog which filled the valley but above over the mountains the sky was clear. Weariness receded into the background and I found energy for the day’s walk.
A little further up the hill we stopped for a picnic across from a bigger chapel. It was not an attractive building. Undecided on whether it was worth an inspection, I lay on my pack and took a nap. After an orange and a few nuts and without thinking, I ventured in. Light streamed in through two stained glass windows on either side of the building. On one side a blue Christ’s outstretched arms were supported from above by a pair of hands and a circle of angels. Below, the fires of hell – or were they of earth? – burned bright. In the window opposite swirls of blue and indigo glass culminated in a radiating yellow and purple star. Stunned I sat and drank in the subtle gradations of light and colour suffusing the space. Once again surprise gave way to thankfulness – thanks that I entered the chapel, thanks for the beauty, thanks for the time and space to enjoy this artist’s creation.
Stilled again, I was reminded of Mark Nepo’s wise words: “Sometimes it’s only through extended stillness or exhaustion that we finally stop and go clear like water. When stilled of all that stirs us, we can see what is life-giving.”