The Pain of Falling
It hurts to fall. Sometimes, when the pain of falling is intense, we lose our faith. Part of what a chaplain does is to sit with those who have crashed and shattered. If we’re lucky, we can offer them the possibility of a way back home, to a new kind of wholeness. We invite them to see, in the distance, a glimmer of a path.
Recently, I was struck by the intensity of the fear and agony described by one woman with whom I visited. She had been doing fine, her life drifting along like a lazy river. Now and then, troubles bubbled into a whirlpool or spilled over the banks, but she quickly smoothed out the surface of the water, reinstating calm and control. Indeed, she had been doing well for so long, she saw her life as a victory of resilience. She’d risen above the tormented childhood she’d survived.
Then, without warning, she got sick. In Africa, she picked up a disease that left her with a chronic illness. Unable to manage the simplest tasks by herself, she became dependent on her family. She lost her buoyancy, her willpower, her independence, her determination. In the enforced stillness and isolation she experienced, memories roiled, disturbing the quiet of her days. Events she might have once shrugged away now swelled with sinister meaning. The pain of her past nearly throttled her. Life had brought her to her knees.
Tibetan pilgrims also fall to their knees. At least some of them do. It’s possible to walk the many miles to Mt. Kailash, or other holy site, but those who want to gain special favor with the gods or enter into a deep, inner transformation kowtow along the entire path of their pilgrimage. They take three steps, drop to their knees, and stretch along the ground, prostrate.
To do this without tearing up their hands or damaging their knees, they wear special clothing such as a leather apron and gloves with wooden palms. The journey takes months or years. To be successful, they need the support of a caravan that follows them with food, water, clothing, bedding. They take time to rest. At night, they sleep. Yet day after day, they step, bend, bow, and fall.
After work, on the day I met with the woman who had fallen ill, I was walking to my car when I noticed a bird settle onto a narrow branch at the top of a fir tree. For a long time, it sat there, scanning its territory. I was struck by how comfortable it seemed, so high up. The animal felt no fear.
Learning to Fly
That’s not surprising, of course. Heights mean nothing to a bird. If it falls, it simply flies. Watching the creature, I thought of the woman. Unlike birds, when we humans fall, we crash.
Yet perhaps we don’t need to crash every time. There are many ways to fly. The despairing woman, for instance, had started to find her way out of the darkness. In that finding, she was discovering a deeper, richer, more solid faith. Her soul was learning to soar.
Through their efforts, the pilgrims hope their souls will soar, as well. If they prostrate themselves enough, they might be reborn as humans rather than, say, cockroaches or moles. By sacrificing now, they hope to make their future better. 
In the Tibetan film, “Paths of the Soul,” a family decides to make this journey. Friends go with them. There are men, women, children, and an elderly uncle. Their caravan is a cart pulled by an old tractor, loaded with their food, water, bedding, and clothes. The uncle drives the tractor, prepares their meals. At night, they set up camp and sing prayers. One of the women is pregnant and gives birth at a medical center in a village along the road.
What a lucky boy, they say, to be born on a pilgrimage. After a period rest and riding, the mother straps the baby to her back and continues on.
Life offer no guarantees, and the trip is arduous. Over the months they are on their path, snow comes and goes. They slog through water. Their tractor breaks down, gets repaired, then is ruined when a truck crashes into it. Leaving the busted equipment at the side of the road, they take turns pulling the cart with their belongings.
Learning to Fly
Why do they bother? In the film, a mother tells her child that bowing brings us wisdom. Another of the pilgrims wants to atone for the wrongs he has done.
“I kill yaks,” he says, speaking of the slaughtering he does so his family and neighbors can have meat.  This helps the community survive, but it is a sin about which he feels so guilty, he must afterwards get drunk. Prostration brings merit that can make up for the wrongs we do.
Not that we need to earn love and acceptance, or even salvation. Yet there is something about sacrifice and submission that feeds our spirit and enriches our soul. What better than prostration to help us gain this wealth of spiritual wisdom? After all, as Erik Eckholm explains in his article about some of these pilgrims, “prostration is an ultimate symbol of submission.” By relinquishing pride in this way, we can find “an inner harmony.”  Like a bird who takes wing when swept from its perch, so we, when we fall into humility, can fly.
Called to Be Faithful
I learned about these pilgrims from a colleague. Initially, she talked about the Faithful Fools ministry in San Francisco, a street ministry that honors the dignity and worth of each person. As it says on their website, when we join with people like those who live on the street, we discover “our common humanity through which celebration, community, and healing occur.”  To truly join with them, though, we must be willing to be seen as fools, to humble ourselves in the eyes of polite society.
The pilgrims travel along roads, in villages, through towns. How foolish they must appear to those who do not understand what it means to submit, to give up ego, to surrender to a force of love and faith. So do these street ministers appear. After all, what does their work accomplish? There will always be the homeless among us.
Yet their work isn’t about solving problems and finding everyone a home. It’s about forging relationships, about encouraging hope. We do not always know the outcome of our efforts. We make mistakes and fail. Yet if we minister faithfully, we will find our wings. As Mother Teresa said, “God has not called me to be successful; he called me to be faithful.”
Submitting to the Divine
When my colleague then told us about these intrepid pilgrims who, in their faithfulness, fall and fall and fall again, I was struck by the connection between landing on our knees and learning to fly. As the pilgrims travel, their movement becomes a kind of prayer played out moment after moment. They use their bodies to sing to their gods. They submit to the divine.
Their way is excruciating. Inch by inch, their move forward. Yet if they are faithful, they will one day find themselves in the holy land. They will have arrived, their souls cleansed, their hearts purified. Vulnerable, looking absurd in their protective costumes, they nonetheless contain a dignity that goes beyond pride and includes truth. Though they fall, they also rise.
What does this mean for us who are unlikely to journey to Mt. Kailash? How many of us make prostrations to purify our souls? Yet when life brings us to our knees, we can learn. The woman I met with found that as she pieced her life back together, she became new. Her faith strengthened. Her soul blossomed.
Few of us choose the rigors of a pilgrimage. Certainly we don’t choose the buffeting that life brings us. Yet when we are swept off the branch to which we cling, perhaps we can find something that gives us wings. Perhaps we can surrender to the air, allow ourselves to be caught, held, even saved.
Salvation is a tricky concept. I’m not talking about the saving that comes from baptism or from some incantation. I’m talking about the saving that comes when we have lost everything, when we have fallen to earth, and when we have no idea how we will ever stand again. In those moments, something or someone pulls us up and gives us life again.
Of course, none of us live forever. In the film I mentioned, the uncle dies at the foot of the mountain. Yet the nephew who speaks his eulogy talks about how fortunate it is for him to die in this holy place. Even at the end of life, there is the possibility of flight. Our souls can be blessed.
To accept this blessing, though, we must humble ourselves, like the pilgrims who prostrate their way to salvation, like the street people and the fools who minister to them. We don’t need to earn blessings. Certainly we don’t need to earn love. Yet there is something immensely satisfying in making sacrifices, in following rituals, in submitting to something sacred. By learning to fall, we learn to fly.
In faith and fondness,
- Eckholm, Erik, “A Holy Quest in Tibet: Prostrate, and Miles to Go,” New York Times, November 15, 2001, https://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/15/world/a-holy-quest-in-tibet-prostrate-and-miles-to-go.html, accessed 8/1/19.
- “Paths of the Soul: A Journey into Humanity and Faith,” Zhang Yang, dir., Icarus Films, 2016, Hoopla Digital, 15:17-15:27.
- “Faithful Fools,” https://www.faithfulfools.org, accessed 8/2/19.
Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved