A Pilgrimage in 50 Parts

My goodwill is itself
The height of my victory,
Even if I cannot or do not
See any satisfactory result from it.”

– Sri Chinmoy, Flower-Flames, Part 2

lendal-towerYork is a wizened little city, halfway from London to Edinburgh. Tourists come by their busload between the two, alighting for a day here, taking high tea, snapping group portraits against medieval backdrops. It’s a place that asks little and gives much, like one of those lone benign family members who’s glad when you drop by, and always has something freshly baking just in case, but who won’t detain you. It’s a place that well remembers the times when everything was horse-drawn and hand-tooled, when you could leave your back door open.

But these are not the reasons I’m mounting the bar at Micklegate, treading the curved hollow in the steps where countless feet have worn down the stone before mine. If a pilgrimage is a journey of spiritual significance, I suppose this is a pilgrimage of sorts. Although not taking me far from home, I still hoped it would take me a little further from my own limitations – inner expansion through outer expedition.

I itched to get away from here as a teen – to be anywhere but York, anywhere but Yorkshire, anywhere but England. I’d probably have renounced the planet itself if I could, not knowing it was the confines of my mind that were so disappointing. I won’t say I’d be happy anywhere – that wouldn’t yet be true – but now I carry my interior home with me, I want for much less outside of it. Meanwhile, this city, this county, this country – all these ancient charms and imperfections – have sneaked up on me and snared my heart.

It must have been a year ago I saw a video of Sri Chinmoy talking about goodwill. I can’t recall enough to quote his words, but he compared the inner manifestation to the outer – the one being vastly more powerful than the other. The effect of mechanically putting up a given number of posters for an event is nothing to a yogi in the Himalayas silently offering goodwill to the world. This he described as having the strength of lions roaring in their thousands. Imagine that.

York is too quaint a place for public posters on the whole, but we take leaflets door-to-door, posting them through letterboxes. I enjoy the simplicity, and there’s a certain mental satisfaction to completing each bundle of 100, 500, 1000. Of course we all try to approach such tasks as a meditation, but I suppose I wanted to go back to the very roots of manifestation – the inner offering of goodwill with nothing to show for it. That sounds easy, and I don’t doubt it would be for you. I can’t claim to have heard even one lion testing its voice thus far, but the effort has certainly changed me for the better.

I was humbled and somewhat daunted by the list circulating in January – pledges of projects to celebrate Sri Chinmoy’s 50th year since coming to the West, all to be complete before his birthday in August. Brave, arduous things they were, beyond my dreams. But I’ve come to see it’s not one’s current standard that matters most. Short of a great miracle, there’s not much can be done about that overnight anyway. Forward movement itself is a better yardstick – the sincerity and direction of each new step, the offering of whatever one has with both hands, however insignificant that may seem.

So I decided to circumambulate the city 50 times throughout those months, practising silent japa, offering goodwill to the people around me. It’s a small place, as I think I mentioned – each walk takes 50 minutes. Even so, my health kept me from the August deadline. Undeterred, instead I aimed to finish before the frosts would come and make the venture dangerous. So it is that I’m out at first light on the last November Sunday, to make my way clockwise around the city for the 50th time, on top of the boundary walls.

I was maybe 9 years old when I first walked the walls here, and felt I’d stepped into one of those Heath Robinson drawings in old storybooks where nothing looks quite real. That was the irony. Growing up in America, I’d only seen turrets and arrowslits at Disneyland, or on plastic toys from Mattel. Here the medieval bounds are raised on grassy ridges of earth, a platform of stone slabs a few feet wide to walk on, a shield of stone to one side, and a perilous drop on the other.

The only way up is through gatehouses called bars – entrances to the inner streets that would have been tolled and heavily guarded. I see them every day, and every day feel I’m on the set of some rousing adventure. It’s best not to wonder too closely about the history of such a place though. It never ceases to amaze me what people will do to one another, and life was all the more expendable in days gone by – its ending too often brutal and public.

Now there’s no toll and nothing to guard against. The only sentries are blackbirds accusing me of some ill-mannered interruption, or pigeons idling away the morning, lumbering off reluctantly when I step too near their reverie. Squirrels too, chubby and busy this time of year, croaking strange alarms to one another from the trees above when I approach a world they consider their own.

While I’m sorry not to have made this journey in summer, watching each season unfold brings a different satisfaction. In spring the green banks are peppered with daffodils, thousands of yellow light bulbs, miniature messengers of the sun. Wild geese shepherd their children patiently from one water to another on the streets below, barking orders, halting and confusing traffic. In summer the sycamores wave jazz hands in the breezes, the banks made gold again with buttercups.

One flagstone is a game board scored out for soldiers – some ancestor of chess or checkers – empty of players now. The corner lookouts are empty too, the warming rooms beneath them empty of fire, their turrets like a long-dead giant’s jaw, with gappy and decaying teeth. I’m too late to offer them my little farthing of goodwill, but I like to remember them, and to thank them for their labours. The masons too who cut these stones 800 years ago, and the Romans before them in the layers beneath.

I walk in solitude for long stretches, but aware of all this silent company I’m not really alone. Around me the city is stirring, and up here the first keen vanguard of backpackers arrives, marching on an early breakfast. I snatch halves of sentences in many languages as they pass. A few wisps of steam rise from the gutters of houses, the air fragrant with coal smoke and the damp rotting of leaves. The Minster begins its call to prayer, and I picture bell-ringers hauling ropes with all their attention, earnest church-goers in their Sunday best. I smile to these neighbours as yet unseen. Some days it’s too cold to know if I’m smiling, or if it just feels that way.

Soon the foot-traffic would turn 50 minutes to hours. More care is needed then to pass safely, more time to stand and wait outside of photographs. It’s cheering to be carried along by the buoyancy of visitors, but rather more challenging then as a meditation. In my state of evolution, the simple act of walking, chanting and offering goodwill is like rubbing the belly, patting the head and hopping on one foot. I have no more limbs for extra tasks, and no more inner bandwidth.

Between you and me, my concentration does break occasionally, but only in emergencies you understand. Sometimes there’s no choice but to fully wonder at the sun dazzling through an orange canopy of leaves, or to mark the vicious stare of a crow and muse on what his dark thoughts could be, or to study a curious mushroom growing out of bark. Some favourite passages I confess to taking at an amble – one tunnel of trees with an underwater quality of light, one aspect of the Minster, magnificent, imposing, enormous for a city its size.

On weekdays the schools and office blocks are lit up inside, little figures hurrying to the entrances under umbrellas or already pulled in close at their desks. I imagine myself in the shoes of those I see, on buses with steamed up windows, or pedalling by in a suit and bicycle clips, sculling on the river, walking a dog, digging up the road. What is goodwill really? To me it feels like a glance of the heart, an inner smile from one to another, a prayer for something positive but small, undemanding of God’s time – I don’t yet fully trust my appeals.

Passing once through a gatehouse I found a man asleep, his possessions rolled up in a bag, a carton of milk ready for the morning, whenever morning came to him. The same place another day a Hollywood actor was stretching for a run, trying to be invisible with his plain black clothes and lowered head. But quietly I knew him, and so did the woman passing from the other side. We raised our eyebrows to each other and carried on. I’ve never been homeless or famous, and could not sincerely put myself in either pair of shoes, but I know there would be something we hold in common, something we could talk about between us if we had the chance – something I could offer and something else I could receive.

Watching my shadow walk home beside me, I wonder what other shapes it made before this life, and what shapes are yet to come – which of God’s infinite guises. I suppose this pilgrimage has shown me anew that we’re each a significant part of this great spectacle. I have a right to no more than my part, and also no less.

My philosophy is the acceptance of life. We have to accept life — not run away from life or enter into the Himalayan caves. Here on earth we have to offer goodwill, inspiration and aspiration. We have to love and serve mankind. Then only this world of ours can be transformed.”

– Sri Chinmoy, Sri Chinmoy Answers, Part 23

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