Friday, September 14, 2007

living in the spiritual world

September 14th is a special day for pilgrims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the day when the discovery of the True Cross is celebrated. According to Jewish legend, the fact that this commemoration falls at the same time as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is not a coincidence but an attempt by the early Church to Christianize a Jewish holy day.

The most visible pilgrim in Israel today, however, is Madonna - the pop singer, that is. "Esther," the Hebrew name she has taken for herself, is attending a Kabbalah conference at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem along with her husband and kids, designer Donna Karan, Rosie O'Donnell and the Moore-Kutchers. She's been pushing Jewish mystical practices on her fans and friends since 1998, including selling copies of The 72 Names of God: Technology for the Soul by Kabbalah scholar Rabbi Yehuda Berg at her concerts.

Berg's Kabbalah Centre (which was quick off the mark to claim the treasured web address) has come under fire for commercializing Jewish esotericism. In mainstream Judaism only men are permitted to study these writings, and only after years of intellectual preparation. Berg fires back with the claim that the Kabbalah was written by Abraham and "predates Judaism," citing Isaac Newton and Plato as Kabbalah followers.

Living in the material world? Not this girl.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

walking to end breast cancer

This past Saturday and Sunday saw Toronto's fifth annual "Weekend to end breast cancer." My niece Emily was one of 5,521 participants who together raised $17.3 million dollars in what has been called the biggest single-event fund-raiser in Canadian history. How did they do it? By walking sixty kilometres! Thirty k's a day, a positively Caminoesque distance, and mostly on hard pavement, with Saturday night's lodging in a tent city and a rainy Galician-style start to Sunday morning. Way to go!

Meanwhile, over in Spain, the fifty members of
Dilo caminando were soaking their feet. Dilo caminando -- "say it by walking" -- is a group of women affected by breast or ovarian cancer who last year started walking the Camino de Santiago to raise awareness of cancer and dispel the taboos around the disease. The 2006 walkers, all from the province of Aragon, covered the route from Somport to Pamplona. This year's pilgrimage, which was joined by walkers from Navarra and Leon, began September 1st in Puente la Reina and wound up Friday the 7th in Leon, where hundreds turned out to welcome the women to the city. Next year's goal is Santiago de Compostela. Animo peregrinas!

(Toronto photo by

Friday, September 7, 2007

september 8th, Mary's birthday

I'm off to Canada's vast northlands (does a hundred miles northeast of Toronto qualify?) for a boy's weekend of beer and barbecues, so I'm posting my September 8th blog a day early. Tomorrow is the feast of the Nativity of Mary, one of only two saint's birthdays celebrated by the Catholic Church, along with that of John the Baptist (most other saints being remembered on the day of their death or martyrdom).

The Bible has no birth records for Mary, but this day was allotted to her in both Byzantium and Rome from at least the 7th century. It falls a neat nine months after December 8, the feast of her (immaculate) Conception, and at the point of transition from summer to autumn, the time of the harvest. It is an occasion for lively local pilgrimages in many parts of the world.

Fitting, then, that it was on September 8th, 2002, that the first image of Mary, accompanied by a strong scent of roses, appeared in the window of a greenhouse in the Metis community of Ile-a-la-Crosse, northern Saskatchewan (Canada's real northland). The image of a hooded, standing woman was followed by others, including a rosary, and soon crowds estimated at up to a thousand were making the pilgrimage to the greenhouse from all over the vicinity. The following months brought new images, in Fond-du-Lac, Black Lake and several other Dene and Metis communities, which drew new crowds of the prayerful, the sceptical, the curious.

There was some reporting of these incidents at the time, but soon, as usually happens with such things, public interest loped off elsewhere and there has been no news since - at least none that I've been able to scare up on the Internet. But I'll come back to this next week, to see if the images -- and the pilgrimages -- have persisted.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

listen up! new mp3s!

How many of you have felt, on coming home from the Camino that nobody really wants to hear about it? There you are, fresh from this great, burgeoning, life-altering adventure that you're exploding to talk about -- and no one's listening. You don't get so much as a 'How-was-your-pilgrimage?'

A big part of this, of course, is that the Camino can't be summed up in the sort of easy categories we use to talk about other trips. I mean, how were the accommodations on the Camino? How was the food? What did you see? The highlight of your Camino might have been the meal of potatoes and onions fried in olive oil that you whomped up with some pilgrims one night at the refuge; or the time you looked down at the path and saw your name written in stones by some friends who had gone ahead; or the day you tripped and busted a tooth and the first person you met in the next town was a dentist who fixed it for free; or the icy night when you looked up at the stars swirling in the black skies over El Burgo Ranero and tears began to stream down your face for no reason that you could tell.

All these things happened; some of them happened to me. They were things of the heart, of the moment, of feelings that can only be understood with a thorough knowledge of the circumstances and the context that gave them meaning. And who has time for context these days?

It's one reason why I write books. It lets me get the tales out of my system. It's a funny thing, but I know people who wouldn't listen to me tell stories for ten minutes, yet are happy to spend hours reading them. Still, that old hankering to tell, to just open up my mouth and let the stories out, never goes away. Which is why I enjoy reading from my books so much and why (ah! I sense he's coming to the point) I have recorded four passages from All the Good Pilgrims FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE.

Yes, once again I have ventured into the recording studio with Our Lady of the Soundboard, Helena W., and emerged with... Well, hopefully with something you'll enjoy. The shortest of the four tracks is under three minutes, the longest nearly twelve. There are plenty of rough spots and mistakes, and I have an awful time trying to locate a Dutch accent, but what do you expect from an amateur? Give 'em a listen. Hope you like 'em.

Monday, September 3, 2007

what's wrong with this picture?

I knew there was something wrong with this picture.

In the year 2000, while I was in Paris taking notes for my book Virgin Trails, I paid a visit to the impromptu pilgrimage that had sprung up in the Place d'Alma, above the tunnel where Princess Diana's fatal crash occurred. I thought I might sneak something into the book (Princess of the World vs Queen of Heaven?), but the whole business got lost in the editing process and my notes and photos from that day went into cold storage. Permanently, I thought.

Then several days ago, I decided to do a blog on the tenth anniversary of Diana's death and suddenly they were relevant. The notes were close to hand in my computer (lovely things, computers) but the photos were stashed in a shoe box..... somewhere. So I skimmed around the Net till I found this photo on a website about the Statue of Liberty (many thanks.)

But somehow the photo didn't jive with my notes. For instance, my notes speculate about the first pilgrim/mourner to come to this site "with a can of glue," and later mention civic workers "scraping photos" off the memorial. Yet the image from the Net clearly shows that the photos are not pasted to the statue, but hang primly from the little guard rail that encircles it.

"Guard rail?" I thought. "What guard rail...?"

Tonight I located my photos from 2000 and, eureka, they show that there have indeed been some changes to the "Princess Di memorial." The barrier is new and all of those lovely photos (and broadsheets proclaiming conspiracy theories) have been bundled away. Decorum rules. Here's a glimpse of what the place looked like in the days when pilgrim enthusiasm was unbridled.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

random acts of kindness day

One thing every pilgrim and traveller has experienced is the random act of kindness. The unostentatious, open-hearted gesture that comes out of the blue and leaves us speechless with gratitude. A stranger goes out of his way to set us on the right road. A farmer offers us a handful of chestnuts or a cluster of grapes. A bartender pours us a drink on the house. Another pilgrim takes our pack for a while, or invites us to share her meal, or goes fumbling in her bag to dig out creams and blister pads for our beat-up feet. We can all think of stories.

But the point of random acts of kindness is that they're random. They just happen. You can't institutionalize them. Or can you?

In New Zealand, they're giving it a shot. September 1st, 2007 marks NZ's second national
Random Acts of Kindness Day, a day when everyone is supposed to do something to "lift the kindness temperature" of the nation. This is not a national holiday, more of a private initiative (with sponsorship from World Vision and Starbucks, no less), but it looks like it's worth a try. I say we go international with it. Let's all get out there today and shock someone with a random act of kindness.

(NB: the video is from 2006, the first RAK Day. And there does seem to be an international RAK movement. Check out the website of the American Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, which identifies itself as "the US delegate to the World Kindness Movement, an organization that contain various nations." If you know more about the RAK movement, let the rest of us in on it.)